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.
I know it’s late, but I was just at the check-out counter reading magazine covers still touting magical resolutions that would change us for the better in 2013. I was musing about what I would list for OUSD to tackle in 2013 that would benefit students with disabilities. My partial list, in no order:
1. Identify and publicly celebrate those achieving positive results for these students. There are a lot of success stories out there – programs and individual educators and administrators who are helping students to reach their full potential. It continues to surprise me how infrequently OUSD highlights these achievements and we only hear about the same few examples. C’mon, OUSD – brag a bit!
2. Stop withholding resources from special education by limiting funds and cutting supports. In 2012 it was the budget cuts, avoidable staffing shortages and impossible caseloads for front-line resource specialists. In 2013 there’s more. OUSD wants to increase the ratio of students per aide in high-need classes. This comes while academic support remains critical and multiple sites recently experienced behavioral emergencies where staff shortages seem to have played a major factor. OUSD also wants to reclassify resource specialists, in part to eliminate caseload caps entirely, and use special education staff to support under-performing general education students. I spoke to an administrator from the California Department of Education about this re-classification practice last year. She told me some districts are using this strategy to improving educational outcomes for general education students, not special education students. And it’s optional, not required by the state. Hard to justify this move, when special education students are such a large and significantly under-performing population and we’ve seen no evidence this will help them. At the same time, OUSD continues to ignore funding streams, like Title 1, that can be used to benefit these students. We’ve had years of resource scarcity and we’ve seen the results. Put the resources in place for these kids to be successful!
3. Provide release time for general and special education teachers to collaborate on curriculum development and lesson plans that can be replicated. Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge and experience out there and formally give teachers time to research and develop the types of tools that can be used to increase academic achievement while supporting students’ needs in all settings. Let them observe other teachers who are successful. Teachers I know who have done this type of work have found it invigorating, and it benefits all students.
4. Hire an independent auditor to do a full review of OUSD’s budgeting, policies, programs, and support for special education and students with disabilities. It’s long past time for an independent audit by a reputable firm or firms experienced in these matters that is chosen by both the district and the community. We should all be disturbed by reports by parents and principals that the district continues to implement written and unwritten policies that block access to supports and services for struggling students, the ongoing problem the district has with implementation of IEPs (Individualized Education Plans), staffing shortages, compliance violations, litigation costs, and above all the abysmal achievement rate. The lack of transparency on everything from staff contact information to program information to budget decision-making suggests at best a lack of organization and worst case scenario, well, let’s not go there.. Getting even basic public information from OUSD is like pulling teeth, although teeth eventually will come out. What information does dribble out can take months or years of repeated requests and, as we saw with last spring’s budget and program fiasco, may be changed daily to justify decisions rather than reflect reality. Independent auditing firm, federal oversight agency, whatever. It’s time.
5. Implement annual mental health screening for all students in all grades. According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), “mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.” NAMI reports that “10 percent of children and adolescents in the United States suffer from serious emotional and mental disorders that cause significant functional impairment in their day-to-day lives at home, in school and with peers.” Early treatment offers the best results and 70-90 percent of folks will see recovery and/or significant improvement with treatment. Annual screening just complements OUSD’s “whole child” approach.
6. More rigorous Board monitoring and follow-through. I have only the greatest respect for board members who take on impossible jobs. But over years I’ve watched the board ask staff for follow-up items for future meetings and then it’s like a black hole opens up and nothing happens. I’d like to see the board keep a running list of requests to staff at each meeting with follow-up dates attached. (And finally take on that study session on special education that it was going to do last October with the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. Even better, expand it to include all students with disabilities.)
7. Adopt curriculum that explicitly teaches social development and inclusion and eliminates stereotypes and exclusion. The Newtown coverage played into a common stereotype that social issues primarily affect those who are mentally ill or on the autism-spectrum. But according to Michelle Garcia Winner, a national expert in social learning and social communication, many individuals who experience social learning challenges are not diagnosed with any disorder. She notes that social rejection can itself lead to mental illness, another reason to take this issue seriously. OUSD has started to take this issue on, but not at the level it needs to be addressed – all grades, inside and outside of the classroom. Imagine what it would be like if all students learned to help a struggling peer socially in the same way they might help with a math problem!
8. Set aggressive achievement goals for students with disabilities; create the environment to make it happen. The world is populated with adults who achieve at the highest levels, with all kinds of disabilities. OUSD made a promise to help students achieve to their highest potential, to aim for college and career readiness, and to expect success. There is no asterisk saying “exclusions apply”. It will take a lot more resources and effort, but we can provide the education these students need to go on to achieve their full potential. Their real potential, not our projected and sometimes biased assumptions about potential. Let this be the year we set aggressive and measurable goals for success, as a district, starting right now this month. And let this be the year we make the commitment – from the top down and at every site and with everyone at the table. Together, we can do this.
What do you think? If you could add more, what would you add? What are the right steps to make some of these ideas a reality in 2013?