Special Ed: Federal Mandates and New Approaches
SCUSD’s special education enrollment has grown 58 percent since 2006, with 2,608 students currently receiving services, following a general trend in California.
At its Jan. 9 meeting, the Santa Clara Unified board held an extended study session on special education, with a presentation by SCUSD special ed co-directors Pat Smith and Cathy Welpley, charting where the district’s special ed programs are today and the new programs being implemented.
In California, the first law mandating inclusive education for children with disabilities was the 1975 Education for All Act. Today, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) governs special ed.
IDEA’s cornerstone is providing a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all children regardless of the nature and severity of their disabilities. Closely related is the mandate to actively find, and provide services to, all children who need them, and conduct non-discriminatory assessments that aren’t based on a single test, evaluation or subject area.
Another IDEA fundamental is a least restrictive environment (LRE) policy that keeps disabled students in mainstream classrooms as much as is appropriate, and restricts them to separate classes the minimum amount possible. IDEA is implemented through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that actively includes parents in plans for their children.
The IEP includes students’ current academic and developmental levels, measurable goals in these areas, evaluation procedures, services to be provided, accommodations to be provided – as well as reasons for placing children outside a mainstream classrooms – plans for the start and end of services, and transition plans. The aim is ensuring that everyone – parents, teachers, specialists, school administrators – shares a common understanding of the needs, goals, and interventions.
Getting a Handle on Special Ed Referrals
So what are the reasons for SCUSD’s special ed enrollment, and, more importantly, what can, or should, be done about it?
Rising numbers can be attributed to a number of factors, said Smith and Welply. One is earlier identification of special ed needs in children from infancy to age five. Others are the dramatic increases in students on the autism spectrum and with health-related impairments, as well as an expansion of categories for special education.
“It seems like we have ever-increasing ways of identifying students…but for those kids who are mild-to-moderate…once you’re in special ed, what’s the way out?” asked Trustee Jim Canova. “What’s the mechanism that shows students still need to be in the program?”
“Every three years the children are assessed to see if they still qualify,” said Welpley. “But, it’s kind of a one-way door. Parents are often very reticent to dismiss their student from special ed – mostly because of the accommodations [that they’re eligible for] for college. There’s a real fear of letting go of the IEP.”
Earlier, Focused Interventions to Address Learning Problems Early On
One approach the district is taking is increased interventions prior to referrals for special education, Smith and Welpley reported. A revamped Student Success Team (SST) program brings together parents teachers, and other district professionals in a closely monitored 18-week effort to address individual student difficulties. “If a student isn’t making the progress that you would hope, then they’re referred for special education,” explained Smith.
SCUSD is also changing the criteria for and IEP referral to a demonstrated lack of progress over a period of time, rather than a deficit at one point in time. “If you look at the records, there are many students who have consultative services for a year [without an IEP] and the students [subsequently] are doing just fine,” said Smith.
The district is also developing comprehensive training for staff, teachers, and parents, as well as new procedures for moving students from general ed classrooms to special ed classrooms, and for assigning one-on-one para-educators.
The current trend in special ed, said Smith and Welply, is away from special classrooms and toward shared resources such as learning centers and co-teaching that can support students at their home schools in general ed classes. An extensive staff of district resource specialists (RSA teachers) supports special ed, each working with about 30 students.
For children who can’t be in mainstream classrooms, SCUSD currently has nine pre-school classes, and about 40 K-12 special ed classes that serve needs including autism, emotional disturbances, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and mental retardation.
“This is a particular area of interest to me,” said Trustee Ina Bendis, “because 100 percent of my blood relatives, and direct descendants who are old enough to be diagnosed with a disability, have one.
Bendis’ questions, however, focused on two areas of special ed costs: busing and length of time children spend on an IEP. With regard to assessments, she asked, “For cost-effectiveness, we should be reassessing much more often, maybe every year…Are we permitted to reassess more often? And if we’re not, why aren’t we?”
“If the team feels the child has grown so much, they need a new assessment,” answered Welply. “But we’re mandated for that third year.”
“Have we done, or are we doing, any type of business pro forma in terms of weighing the cost of assessing more frequently against the cost savings that might be generated by assessing more frequently,” continued Bendis. “Because it seems to me, in terms of the business case, that kind of data study would be interesting.”
Trustee Michele Ryan pointed out that IEPs have goals, and students are evaluated on their progress towards those goals. “If they’re far away from those goals, there’s no point in re-assessing.”
Parents’ Class on Explaining Autism, Stanford Jan. 25
Stanford is offering a half-day class for parents of autistic children, “How to Explain Your Child’s Diagnosis/Differences to Your Child, Siblings and Others” on Saturday, Jan. 25 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The class gives parents and caregivers information about autism, Asperger’s disorder, PDD-NOS, other conditions, as well as on when to talk to children and others about these conditions.
The conference is at Stanford Child Psychiatry center, 401 Quarry Rd, Stanford, Calif. and costs $30. For information and online registration, visit childpsychiatry.stanford.edu, or call Maura Chatwell at (650) 721-6327.
Parliamentary Procedure Dept.
The Jan. 9 meeting featured two spats over procedure between Bendis and Trustee Christopher Stampolis. During the special ed study session, Stampolis asked the Board President, Christine Koltermann to limit trustee speaking time, as the subject had been under discussion for over an hour, but not all board members had had a chance to comment or ask questions.
In response, Bendis asked, “I would appreciate it if in the future the chair would make it clear, what limitations [apply], for the time a board member has the floor.” The matter was resolved that other trustees got to ask their questions, and Bendis got a second turn.
The second dust-up was during a discussion of what email communications regarding agenda items might constitute a “serial meeting,” when Bendis asked for a point of information.
“This is something I had discussed with the Santa Clara District Attorney’s office—” she began, when Stampolis interrupted her, asking, “Are you requesting information?” “I was giving a piece,” she replied. “That’s not a point of information,” he said. “Then I won’t give you the information I know,” she retorted.