Stacey Smith is an Oakland school district parent and volunteer who has served on the District GATE Advisory Committee, the school board’s Special Committee on School Based Management, and the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. I invited her to contribute periodically to The Education Report, and she wanted me to emphasize that any topic she writes about — including the below piece — is just what she finds worth sharing and does not reflect the view of any group. — Katy
Students with disabilities are currently among the lowest achieving students in the Oakland Unified School District. Between 2005 and 2010, the achievement gap between the general population and students with disabilities — who make up over 10 percent of the student population — has persisted or widened in English, math and science.
Less than half of the district’s special education students graduate even with an exemption from the California High School Exit Exam, which students with disabilities are not required to pass if they meet other diploma requirements.
The low graduation rate is even more sobering when you consider the dropout rate for students with disabilities. In 2009-10 Oakland reported a whopping 53.3 percent of students “exited” special education because they dropped out during or after ninth grade. Between 2006 and 2010 the majority of those special education students dropping out were African-American or Latino. It’s harder to track students with disabilities who are not in special education because of the limited reporting requirements.
OUSD’s new strategic plan highlights the disparities in student performance but I’ve heard many parents and guardians express concern that they do not see specifics about how the district plans to change outcomes. One parent I spoke to, who asked not to be identified, explained how frustrating it can be when high standards for achievement are not a main focus:
“I was disappointed with the expectations of the resource teacher and the general education teacher and the poor coordination between the two. I didn’t even realize what my son could achieve until two years later when he had a better teacher supporting him. And he was lucky — a lot of kids don’t have that chance. I think that’s what leads to kids getting into trouble and dropping out. This isn’t an uncommon experience.”
A new initiative by the U.S. Department of Education aimed at closing the nationwide achievement gap for students with disabilities may push the district and others to aggressively tackle student performance levels sooner rather than later.
Instead of just focusing on compliance, the Department of Education announced in May it will develop a new review process that considers critical indicators for students with disabilities, such as increased academic performance and graduation rates, to be measures of success. According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “We have to expect the very best from our students — and tell the truth about student performance — so that we can give all students the supports and services they need. The best way to do that is by focusing on results.”
In a move to improve outcomes, there is also a push at the federal level for greater responsibility for special education throughout the Department of Education, and not just within the walls of the Federal Office of Special Education. A similar push for broader accountability by the entire district for the success of students with disabilities is also underway here in Oakland.
One proposed federal step would push for all teachers to be prepared and trained to work with students with disabilities — not just special education teachers. Another is to ensure access to differentiated instruction for all students with disabilities. Yet another would strengthen planning for student transitioning from secondary schools to college or career.
Do you think these strategies could improve achievement and graduation levels for students with disabilities in Oakland? Is OUSD successfully using any of these strategies now? What do you think should be done to improve outcomes for these students?