Joseph on the strange trip of middle school enrollment

I’ve been following “Joseph,” a parent of a 5th grader he calls “Ben” who qualifies for special education; Joseph has been writing about his experiences with middle school enrollment on the SFKFiles blog (Full disclosure:  I have no idea of Joseph’s true identity — it’s possible that he’s someone I know and equally possible that he’s someone I don’t know). Tonight Joseph has posted his wrapup on the enrollment process, which is timely because applications for the first round of the 2011-12 enrollment were due today.

“What a long, strange trip it’s been,” Joseph writes, and I sympathize. I was looking this year for my 5th grader, who does not qualify for an IEP (my 6th grader does, but currently attends an specialized school that focuses on learning differences, because, well, because).  My 5th grader is actually the type of child who will pretty much thrive in any school she attends, so we  made our choices based on what is convenient for our family (my preference) and where her friends are going (her preference).  We applied to three public middle schools (no charters, no privates), and now we will wait, like everyone else.

Anyway, this post is about Joseph’s experience. He writes:

If I could offer some lessons from our experience, it would be the following:

1) SFUSD must do a better job of providing information to special ed parents about the process. If two reasonably educated parents can still screw things up this bad, then something’s wrong with both the transparency of the process and the actual process itself.

2) Parental choice really matters in special ed. I know the District wants to move to assignment processes that take away parental choice, but special ed kids are so different that parents must have some ability to pick their school. And while I think it is laudable that the District wants to offer all special ed services everywhere, here’s a third thing we learned:

3) Not every school does special ed well. There are schools where principals are committed to special education, and there are schools where they are not. At some schools, the special ed professionals are fully involved; at other schools teachers barely tolerate them. Special ed families need to look for schools where special ed kids are going to be valued and supported. And it is tough to find out that information — I’m hoping that one of the lasting values of this blog and other sites is to offer an open forum for special ed families to comment about the pros and cons of different schools’ special ed services.

He’s right, and I regret that his family had some last minute regrets and scrambling in trying to decide whether they should switch Ben’s designation back to Inclusion (they had previously moved him out of Inclusion and into RSP — a less restrictive program, but in Ben’s case, one that Joseph says retained the same services). Because the district rightly decided to make Inclusion seats available at every school for students applying in K,6, and 9th grades, Ben might have a slightly better chance as an Inclusion student at certain schools than he does as an RSP student. The lack of good communication on this and the uncertainty inherent in any parent’s assessment of a good environment for their child with special needs made this process especially stressful for Joseph’s family, and I apologize for that on behalf of the school district.

I think his comments on choice are particularly interesting, because choice policies and special education laws are a particularly difficult intersection to navigate. Generally, special education laws state that placement — SFUSD has in the past interpreted placement to mean “program,” but usually placement is held to mean a particular school or classroom — is determined by the IEP team.  In a choice system,  you can’t guarantee a specific child a specific classroom or school, because by their very nature, choice systems introduce uncertainty.  You also, under Federal law, cannot treat students in special education differently from students in general education. This means that you cannot offer general education students a choice of classrooms and then turn around and offer special education a specific classroom. And how do you balance availability and fairness if you offer special education students a choice while also guaranteeing them their top choices?  And yet, Joseph is absolutely right that all schools are not equal,  and a school that might serve one child well might be disastrous for another. From that perspective, preserving choice is essential.

Anyway, though we haven’t solved the choice vs. certainty conundrum, I believe things are getting better; I’m trusting that next year’s enrollment will be less uncertain and less stressful for all families than this year’s was.  Nevertheless, I am going to be watching the data very, very closely from this year’s results, so that I can begin to evaluate whether the outcomes of the new assignment process were as advertised.


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