More thoughts on the special ed audit

It’s been an intense 24 hours — last night’s meeting ran very late and I have scarcely had a chance to sit and reflect since then. Tonight was a community meeting on the audit report, and tomorrow night Assistant Superintendent Dodge and I will be discussing the report again at a meeting of the CAC for Special Education.

I really appreciate all of the feedback I’ve gotten both on the blog and off — it barely scratches the surface but I am still grateful for all of the thoughts and experiences people have shared with me. I can tell from the blog traffic that lots of people are downloading and reading this report, and I would like to encourage the feedback to keep on coming! You can always email me off the blog  — rachel “at” rachelnorton.com — if you don’t want your comments to be published or shared with others (I might ask to share information with district administration but will never do so without permission).

Anyway, my first impression is that there isn’t much in the report that I didn’t already know or suspect, but it still feels as if everything I and other parents have been saying for years and years has been validated by the findings.  As Elementary Rat has pointed out, the recommendations in the report aren’t all that detailed, and certainly don’t constitute a map for reform. That’s OK — I think the next step is to engage the community as broadly as possible and get feedback on parents’, staff’s and advocates’ experiences with our special education services. The road map has to come after the district has listened, intently, to what constituents (consumers?) have to say.

At tonight’s meeting, audit report co-author David Riley said several times that in the judgement of the auditors, SFUSD “has the resources — human AND financial” to meet the challenge posed by the recommendations in the report. I found that striking, because the report is a pretty damning indictment of how we are currently providing services to students — it faults our student outcomes, data-keeping, budgeting,  focus on “programs” as opposed to services, and the disproportionality of our enrollment (there are far too many African-American students in special education than you would predict based on African-American enrollment in SFUSD as a whole).  Their thinking is that two areas — the $14-plus million we spend on non-public school tuition for students with IEPs and the $17-plus million we spend on special education transportation — are ripe for re-allocation if we can reform our special education offerings.

I would really like to think the auditors are right, since both of those totals are nothing short of obscene, but Federal law doesn’t just allow you to “cut back” on special education transportation; nor will parents whose children are currently placed out of district simply give in if we stop paying their tuition — we have to earn back their trust and offer them appropriate in-district programs in order to recoup the NPS tuition funds we’re currently spending.  (I should say, however, that I have recently heard from several parents whose children are currently being transported, at taxpayers’ expense, astoundingly long distances from SF. I heard loud and clear that these parents would much rather their children be educated in-district if appropriate programs were created.  So there IS hope.)

I will close with a few of the more striking (in my opinion) passages from the report (in the comments, add your favorite quote!):

On the use of the “E” word:

One disturbing phenomenon noted by all of the Core Team members was the fequent use of the term “encroachment” when many school district administrators discussed special education programs and services and their costs in terms of the impact on the district’s budget. The use of this term suggests a view of special education and the students it serves as existing apart from the general education program and as a drain on resources that could (or should) be used for other students.  (Page 8  )

On the district’s focus on “programs” rather than “services”:

(T)he district’s orientation to the education of students with disabilities is grounded in an out-dated model that is focused on programs rather than services. Much professional activity, energy and resources are focused on the placement and movement of programs and students in and out of schools rather than being focused on establishing best practices for proactively supporting students with disabilities and improving instructional outcomes. (Page 8 )

On segregating special education students in more restrictive environments:

When little energy is spent on the structure of how schools service the growing population of students who meet eligibility through federal nondiscrimination regulations (i.e., English language learners, students with disabilities), they may often — although unintentionally — perpetuate a more segregated system, denying students of color instruction from content experts and stadard-based curriculum along with their nondisabled peers. (Page 9)

On disproportionality in SFUSD:

African-Americans are seven times more likely to be identified with emotional disturbance than other groups.  (Page 10)

On the disconnect between the special education department and the workings of the rest of the district:

Many schools lack a consistent sense of accountability and ownership for special education services, and for many students with disabilities, particularly those in special day classes (SDCs). . . Indeed, school-level staff frequently spoke of students who “did not fit” or who “were not working out” in the programs to which they were assigned and that these students belonged “somewhere else” (i.e., in a program that the school does not have).  (Pages 12, 22)

On the problems created by a program-model as opposed to a service-oriented model in special education:

Special education services in SFUSD are predominantly arranged programmatically by classroom type (e.g., special day class) and disability category. . . This default model has led to:

–The creation of a separate set of student assignment practices that do not offer many students with disabilities and their parents the same school choice opportunities . . .

–Grade configurations for some special education programs require students to change schools because a program is not offered at all grade levels at particular schools. . .

Program models lead to isolated and inferior learning opportunities for students and a lack of access to resources for students within the general educational setting.   (Pages 21-22)

 On the continuing challenges with student assignment:

It is likely . . . that the process will remain inequitable for students with disabilities and their families as long as the special education program delivery model remains segregated through classrooms and pullout programs. (Page 14)

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