Parents and teachers are raising concerns that they are being kept in the dark until the last minute about what they consider to be a disruptive overhaul of the Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) special education programs for students with disabilities.
The district is moving services and transferring students to new schools and announced it has sent March 15 warning letters that it may reassign top administrators and mid-level supervisors of the special education department.
The changes have been in the works for about two years for the 5,500 OUSD students with mild, moderate and severe disabilities – nearly 15 percent of the district’s student body.
Parents in the Dark
Parents are worried the changes are already being implemented, but they and the teachers do not know specifically how the district will change the education of their children next year.
They have spoken to school board members, who also say they also do not know what changes are in store.
Kristen Zimmerman, a parent of a fifth grader in special education, said she did not fully realize that big changes were underway until she contacted an administrator to ask about middle school placements for her child.
“I was told they don’t have any idea about what programs there will be next year, and so I cannot look at the programs,” she said.
Without publishing many details, the district is promoting a goal of “inclusion” of many special education students in general education classes and plans to move programs at specific schools, dispersing them to school sites around the city.
Under the superintendent’s work plan, which was discussed at this week’s school board meeting, an Inclusion Task Force was supposed to kick off in January 2015, hosting a “listening campaign and engagements.”
Silvia Matta, another special education parent, said she is upset the changes seem to involve the removal from the program of qualified and experienced special education administrators.
“My son is 15 now, and he has been in the program since he was 3,” she said. “I feel for the first time they have very solid, grounded people. They are really there for kids. They are very responsive to the parents.”
But with the changes that are under way, she asked: “What’s going to happen to the department, and who is going to take over?”
The district plan calls for the creation of 10 new inclusion schools, which will begin functioning in the fall. Specific “class size, staffing, funding, materials, etc.” for the new sites are being developed between March and August of this year.
A number of parents have received letters in the last week saying their children will be moved to one of the new schools in the fall.
Some details were published in the last few days as the administration planned to discuss some of the changes but are not calling for a vote on them at this week’s school board meeting.
“Dramatic changes are happening without any communication with families, staff or the community,” said Inga Wagar, a voting member of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC), who has attended nearly every meeting of the committee.
“There is little to no information available, with merely conceptual presentations made about ‘inclusion’ and a complete absence of plans to be vetted with the affected members of the community and the CAC,” Wagar said.
Under the special education law, the CAC is supposed to be kept informed and involved in changes that impact special ed services.
“Some families have been told through a letter that their children will be moved to new schools next year, others have not,” said Wagar.
She said the district is talking about putting many students with disabilities in general education classes.
This inclusion may be good in some cases, but has to be done based on each student’s needs, as documented in their legally mandated Individualized Education Program (IEP).
In addition, there need to be appropriate resources, including adequate numbers of qualified support staff, as well as in-depth training for general education teachers so that they can effectively support students with special needs, she said.
“How many kids receiving special education will be in each classroom and what will support look like? How is the staff going to be serving the students? What are the resources?” she asked.
District Supports “Inclusion” of Special Ed Students
In a statement to the school community released last August, Supt. Antwan Wilson said that including special education students in regular education classes is an equity issue.
These programs should be viewed through an “equity lens,” he said.
“Special education students are general education students first, and … legally and morally they should be educated in the least restrictive environment. This means they should be educated with appropriate support, in general education classrooms so they can grow academically and socially with their peers.”
“An Inclusion Policy is the next step in our effort to better serve the needs of all of our students,” he said.
According to Devin Dillon, OUSD Chief Academic Officer, the changes have been developed with the participation of national experts.
“OUSD commissioned the Council of Great City Schools to conduct a review of Special Education services in Oakland,” she said. This report has not been released to the public.
“The review included an analysis of multiple sources of data and interviews with multiple stakeholder groups over the course of several days. While the full review will take a few months for the council to produce and make public, they shared some initial structural recommendations for changes to the way OUSD delivers special education services.”
She said, “The special education program will be aligned differently next year, restructured, but there will be no fewer positions than there currently are. Job duties and assignments may change, even titles, but not the number of positions.”
Members of the CAC also said the head of special education is retiring, but more than 200 people have signed a petition saying they believe she has been forced out.
Members of the CAC were told that other top administrators “had received pink slips” and the positions of program specialists were being eliminated.
However, administrator Dillon said that is not the case.
“Special Education staff received March 15 letters,” she said. “These are not ‘layoff letters’ but instead notice of possible reassignment to other positions.”
“The positions may not be the exact same in terms of title and scope of responsibilities, but each leader who was issued the March 15 letter is being considered for new positions for which they qualify,” Dillon said.
In addition, she said, program specialists will be retained within the district.
“OUSD is in the process of meeting with employees now to determine how each individual program specialist will continue to be of service to students, families and schools,” she said. “We greatly value this role and their level of expertise and would like to retain our program specialists.”
Dillon explained how the district views the changes it is making.
“We are planning a phased approach to bring schools in OUSD in line with a more inclusive approach to instruction,” she said.
“We are adding 10 new schools to the 17 schools in Oakland who have inclusive practices for students with special needs. The schools (are) engaged in an “Inclusion Task Force” over the last two months and for the first time had training on how to support inclusive practices,” said Dillon.
“This is not a model of support for every child with an IEP,” she said.
Dillon said the programs are being moved to make them more convenient for families.
“(The district wants) to ensure quality programs closest to a student’s home… (to) avoid having long bus rides to and from school.”
She emphasized the district’s commitment to working closely with families.
“Each family and school site has been consulted, and support is available for families who are being offered a new placement for next year. In all cases, the needs of the student and family are considered first.”
In addition, she said, “We are creating a plan to add more resource teachers to our schools in order to accommodate student needs who have IEPs and spend the majority of their day in general education settings now.”
She said the district has a contract with the teachers’ union that requires “no more than two students with IEPs placed in an inclusion classroom at one time.”
The union and OUSD “are working together to determine compliance with this clause,” she said.
The district and parent leaders seem to have widely divergent views on whether teachers and parents have been kept informed or allowed to have input before decisions have been made.
“The CAC has been informed and engaged through their regular monthly meetings,” Dillon said. “An online survey was posted to provide wider input to community and stakeholders, including teachers, to give input on the qualities the next leader (of special education) should have. These forms of engagement … have taken place recently and throughout the year.”
“Students are not valued,” says special ed teacher
A special education teacher at Edna Brewer Middle School, Ishmael Armendariz, questions why students and families are being notified by letter that they are being moved.
“Our parents just learned about this last week – by mail,” said Armendariz, a member of the teachers’ union executive board.
“They don’t change general education students just randomly. That really bothers me. It shows how our students are not valued in this district. It’s very disrespectful to the parents and the kids. They’re just expendable.”
Armendariz also challenges whether the district will produce greater equity by breaking up excellent programs that work and spreading them to schools that do not have resources and are unprepared to receive the students.
At present, students from around the city are bussed to schools that provide services that are required by their learning programs (IEPs).
“Is it equitable that the district is looking at a map and demographics of special education to spread things equally across the district? Or is it equitable to have teachers who provide services and a place where the kids are welcomed?” asked Armendariz.
“It is not equitable to move students to school sites where the teachers know nothing about students with special needs and have no experience welcoming them and loving them, where they do not have crayons or paper for printers and in general are not well resourced,” he said.