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. What she writes about does not reflect the view of any group.
The 2012-13 school year did not begin well for Oakland’s 5,000-plus special education students.
Last June, after a united protest by teachers, families and community members, the school board directed Superintendent Tony Smith and staff to hold off on special education budget cuts and program changes. The original proposal sent teachers and special day classes to different schools while cutting key staff. It also increased resource specialist caseloads and special day class size. The board said no change should happen until a full community engagement process had occurred.
It seems one or more top administrators are ignoring the board’s directive.
At the September 12 board meeting many resource specialists and special day class teachers spoke out against caseloads and class sizes that had increased to the point where instruction and support were close to impossible. (Families have also been raising concerns about this problem.) Board Director Alice Spearman reported principals in her district were complaining that resource specialists were on site the first day of school and then “disappeared.” Three weeks into the school year principals “don’t know whether they’re getting any assistance for these children.”
Director Spearman and JoAnna Lougin, the head of Oakland’s administrators’ union, also cited principal complaints that special education/special day class students were showing up at schools but were not on the attendance roles and weren’t being counted. Both warned of the serious safety issues this creates for students, schools and families. Trish Gorham, the head of Oakland’s teacher’s union also spoke out against staffing and caseload changes and noted the union would be filing one or more grievances.
What does this mean and who is most affected? Last year, 79 percent of special education students were African-American or Hispanic/Latino, a proportion not far from the 72 percent these groups represent district-wide. (That translates into 16 percent of the population of African-American students and 10 percent of the Hispanic/Latino population.)
By definition, special education students can’t make progress toward the educational standards other students are expected to meet without the support of specially designed instruction and/or services targeted to their unique needs. Modifying the regular instructional program doesn’t work. A student in a regular classroom who needs support from an absent resource specialist can’t get the instruction they need from a general education teacher.
It must be serious when principals, teachers, families, board members and unions are all expressing concern about special education in Oakland. How has your year started, and have you or your student been affected by any of these issues?