Category Archives: Special education

And we have a budget!

Just getting home after a long meeting, but a substantive one: the Board had a lengthy budget discussion and passed the 2013-14 district budget unanimously.  The district will receive $360.58 million in unrestricted general fund revenues and spend $378.424 million, drawing down the beginning balance of $34.102 million to  about $700,000 after the required $15.566 million reserve.

There are a lot of big questions the Board has about the current direction of the district, including:

  • The special education budget is bigger than ever, representing about 25 percent of the general fund when special ed transportation costs are included — Commissioners are increasingly worried that the annual growth in special education spending is unsustainable and asked for more clarity on how the district expects its current investments to pay off in reduced future costs and better academic outcomes. The CAC for Special Education has posted some great analysis and data on its web site;  committee members spoke at the Board meeting and expressed concern that the district’s plan to invest in professional development and coaching for teachers — while needed — might divert too much money away from the classroom. My personal feeling is that while accelerating expenditures are alarming, it’s not time to change course: we have been identified as significantly disproportionate in how we identify students of color for special education, and are now required to spend 15 percent of our Federal special education allocation on interventions in general education. General education teachers desperately need more tools to help students who are struggling achieve, so that special education is not the district’s only safety net for students who aren’t achieving at grade level. Coaching and professional development are the best ways to provide general education teachers with the tools they need. We’ve reduced our spending on out-of-district private school placements for students with disabilities, by almost $5 million since I got on the Board.  But our choice-based student assignment system increases our special education transportation costs, and one of my goals over the next year or two is to look at ways to maintain equitable treatment of students with disabilities in our system while decreasing our exposure on transportation.  Overall, though, I think the request for more clarity in the district’s expectations and strategies for the next few years would be a good thing and I support the need for vigilance in gauging the return on our increasing investments in educating our students with disabilities.
  • One of the Superintendent’s centerpiece initiatives — Multi-Tier Systems of Support, or MTSS–is still confusing for board members and members of the public. Essentially, the initiative seeks to place resources where they are most needed, so that schools that need more supports get more supports even as all schools get a base “package” that includes ample counselors, nurses, librarians and other support staff.  Fully-realizing this vision will take more money than we currently have, but there have been significant investments in the current budget in social workers, counselors and nurses for many schools.  Elementary area teams will now consist of an Assistant Superintendent, and Executive Director, a Family and Community Engagement Specialist, two teachers on special assignment who can provide instructional support to principals and schools, as well as clerical support and a small discretionary budget. The expectation that goes along with this is that area teams will be more effective and proactive at problem-solving so that complaints are less likely to languish and fester. Some Board members worry, however, that this represents a big expansion in central administration, and that it represents a dismantling of site-based autonomy and decision-making.
  • Board members also expressed concerns about the perception that there is a lot of “new money” represented by the passage of Prop. 30 and the state’s rapidly improving economic outlook, and asked where this “new money” could be seen in the budget. The answer to that question is complex, because you first must accept the Superintendent’s argument that we are climbing out of a deep hole represented by the cuts of the last five years (see cartoon below). It helps if you remember the general fund revenues vs. expenditures I cited at the top of this post: even with the “new money” from Prop. 30 and additional taxes, we still expect to spend about $18 million more than we take in in revenues in 2013-14. That $18 million deficit represents people, programs and instructional days that otherwise would have had to be cut in the coming year. The “new money,” is simply helping us climb out of the hole rather than sink deeper:  gasping fish 2
  • The 7-period day for high school: Tonight Commissioner Haney introduced a resolution urging the district to expand A-G qualified course offerings at high schools; the Superintendent introduced a proposal that would lessen the credit requirements for students attending continuation or county high schools. Both resolutions will be discussed in August when the Board reconvenes after its July recess. Most of us agree that our students will have a much easier time meeting the more stringent A-G graduation requirements in place for the Class of 2014 and beyond if we are able to offer a 7-period day, but it’s expensive and Board members wanted to know how the Superintendent proposes to get there.  Similarly, common planning time for teachers is a widely-endorsed way to improve student outcomes, and Vice President Fewer introduced a resolution last summer asking the Superintendent to implement common planning time at all schools by the end of this year. However, the Board has not voted on this resolution as yet because transportation and other logistical issues make it daunting to fund and implement.  Board members also asked how to make common planning time a reality in coming years, given our belief that it is a best practice in improving achievement.

That’s it for now: I’m going fishing for the month of July (metaphorically, not literally.  As my husband likes to say, fishing is boring until you catch a fish–then it’s disgusting. And sorry for all the fishing references).  I’ll start blogging again in August. Happy summer vacation everyone!


News roundup – Oct. 2-9, 2011

Some very interesting education-related news this week:

There were also some great blog posts/news articles about how the late Steve Jobs created technology that has really benefited children with disabilities, particularly the iPad.  This one, by Tim Carmody in Wired, is the best. 

Finally, hot off the presses, Governor Brown came through and signed SB 946 (Steinberg), which introduces a limited mandate for health insurers to pay for autism treatment — at least until the Federal health care bill is fully implemented in 2014. This is great for families who have been struggling to pay for autism treatment, or fighting with their insurance companies because autism treatment should already have been covered by California health insurance policies under AB 88, the state’s mental health parity law. It’s a big step forward and should provide the state budget with some relief, because schools and regional centers will no longer be the payers of last resort for autism treatment.

Autism awareness receives increased media attention in April

Autism Awareness Month kicked off Saturday, April 2, with World Autism Awareness Day. You’re going to be reading a lot about autism this month — for the first time it seems like media is really paying attention to autism and planning expanded coverage to coincide with the awareness campaign (popularized and sponsored by Autism Speaks).

I’ll be tweeting links as I find them (follow me @rpnorton).  In the meantime, here are a few to start you off:

  • Living With Autism – Parade Magazine, April 3, 2011:  Two decades ago, parents, schools and clinicians began to notice that they were seeing many more young children diagnosed with autism and related disorders. Those children are now about to “age out” of the educational system, and face an uncertain future — there is a dearth of housing, employment and recreational programs to serve them and help them live independent and productive lives. Scary but worthwhile reading for parents of younger children.
  • Best Places to Live for People With Autism – Fox News, April 1, 2011:  OK, yeah, Fox News, but the story is based on an (unscientific)  poll Autism Speaks did on cities with the best services and living environments for kids and adults on the spectrum. Interesting – L.A. made the list in California; generally California was ranked low for its services, a fact that will come as a surprise to no one who has attempted to navigate our Regional Centers and school districts.
  • Pressing Employers for Autism Coverage, Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2011:  Posted prior to Autism Awareness Month, this account is nonetheless an interesting update on what is happening in the fight to make health insurers cover more autism treatment. I’m intensely interested in this issue as 1)getting insurers to pay their fair share of autism treatment would lift some of the burden from school districts (currently behavioral treatment and even medically-based therapies like speech and occupational therapy are often ruled “educational” by insurers, thereby leaving the educational system as the payer of last resort for autism); and 2)I have recently started doing some consulting work for a company that advocates on behalf of providers and individuals for insurers to help pay for treatment. My personal view is that the cost of autism treatment should be equally shared between the special education system and the medical system, but we’re not there yet.

A bright spot

Sometimes, things happen to reinforce my faith that good things are happening in this school district, despite all the angry e-mails I get. Today, I had the absolute pleasure of attending the unveiling of a mural at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, created by two students from the Community Access Transition (CAT) class at the school. (Students in CAT classes are over the age of 18 but, due to their individual needs, still eligible for special education until the age of 22).  The CAT teacher at SOTA, Heidi Hubrich, noticed that two of her students had particular drawing abilities, and arranged for them to work with artists at an amazing local program, Creativity Explored.

Every Wednesday for almost a year, Steven Liu and Joel Kong worked with artist Larry Morace on drawing. Mr. Morace quickly noticed that Steven was especially talented at landscapes; Joel was especially talented at portraits. Both young men are extremely loyal to their hometown of San Francisco, and blossomed as artists when they began to visit locations around the city to find subjects to draw. Out of Steven and Joel’s work with Mr. Morace, a mural honoring San Francisco subjects was born.

The mural is  a lovely and inspiring artistic achievement in and of itself, but in the true spirit of SOTA (and its patron, Ruth Asawa), other student artists noticed the work and responded in kind. Two juniors in the Media Arts program created a five-minute documentary (which I am seeking to show at the March 22 Board meeting) about Steven and Joel and their mural. A student in the Creative Writing program wrote a poem about it. And today, artists and supporters from Creativity Explored, SOTA students and faculty, Steven, Joel and Heidi’s family members and many others gathered at SOTA to view the completed mural for the first time, celebrate the universal appeal and accessibility of the arts, and honor artists of all abilities.  Today’s event felt like a peek into a future we know can be in all of our schools – where students are respected, accepted and celebrated for what they CAN do rather than sorted based on what they CAN’T. It was lovely.

The next time you are visiting SOTA, check out the mural right next to the door to room 208, Ms. Hubrich’s CAT class,  and pause for a moment to think about whether the “dis-abilities” of the artists really matters.

For kids, it’s a day off. For the district, it’s a beginning.

Friday, March 4. It’s a day I’ve been hearing about and looking forward to for a while. Today, students are not at school because it’s a district-wide professional development (training) day. And at every school, every member of the staff will receive a half-day of training on how to include students with disabilities.

It’s past time, and today is just a start. But I think it’s also appropriate to pause and reflect on how far we have come in two short years. When I joined the Board in January 2009, the idea that we would devote any time in a precious professional development day (let alone HALF of that day) to improving our special education practices as a district was kind of unthinkable. But here we are.

As part of today’s training, staff at every school will watch a five-minute video that underscores the district’s commitment to improving special education services and expanding our capacity to be inclusive of students with disabilities.  It’s meant to both set the vision for the future, and highlight some bright spots in the district where we are already doing the work of inclusion thoughtfully and successfully. OK, yes, videos are not action — they are not hard evidence that things will really change.  But this video does represent a promise, from the Superintendent himself, expressed more directly and publicly than I have heard it before.  I’m told the video will be posted on the district web site, and I’ll post a link when that happens.

The appalling failure to include Eliza Schaaf

Today I learned the appalling story of Eliza Schaaf, a 20-year-old woman with Down Syndrome who enrolled in an “Introduction to Ceramics” course at Southern Oregon University as a non-credit student (the university calls this “non-admitted status”) this Fall.

According to her mother, Deb, “Eliza has always been included with her typically developing peers throughout her educational career and through that has developed a very strong work ethic and sense of appropriateness in class. She thrives on watching and learning from others.”  But despite every apparent effort by her mother to prepare the university and assist in a smooth transition for Eliza,  administrators abruptly asked Eliza to withdraw from the course with just two sessions remaining.  Today, the southern Oregon newspaper Mail-Tribune reported that Laura O’Bryan, the University’s dean of students, upheld the decision in a letter to Eliza and her family:

In the letter, O’Bryan stated that Schaaf’s enrollment at SOU was a “novel situation” for the university.

“The non-admitted policy was not designed or intended to provide an avenue for participation to individuals who are not otherwise qualified for admission to SOU,” O’Bryan wrote.

I hereby wish to invoke the power of the Internets to show Southern Oregon University how wrong-headed they are by failing to see the benefits (let alone the moral imperative) of including a person with a disability. Stories abound of students with Down Syndrome, like Eliza, who are now attending college — Katie Apostolides of Massachusetts is one example (she’s been profiled in The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report); former prom king Zach Wincent of Illinois is another.  Last year, our own CSU-East Bay announced plans to create a college program for students with autism.

It’s happening, Dean Laura O’Bryan of Southern Oregon University — 35 years after the signing of IDEA, students who have experienced inclusive environments throughout their K-12 educations are now knocking on the doors of colleges like yours. Eventually, they’re going to gain access. Wouldn’t it be better if you figured out a way to welcome them?

Election advice for autism advocates

This is really important information for anyone (like me) who has fought for health insurance companies to provide broader coverage for autism treatment. This note is written by three moms who have done more than anyone I know to further this cause — they are leaders and if we ever get full insurance coverage for speech therapy, occupational therapy, floor time and behavioral therapy for autism in California, we will owe this victory to them!  (Even if you aren’t involved in autism advocacy you should care about this — better treatment from insurance companies will save our schools from becoming the payers of last resort for autism treatment, and that benefits every student!)  In short, if Karen, Kristin and Feda say to vote Dave Jones for California Insurance Commissioner — do it!

 Dear Autism Advocate — The issue of medical insurance coverage for autism spectrum disorders by private health plans is of vital importance to many individuals and families throughout California.  Although most attention and pending litigation has focused primarily on the Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC), the California Department of Insurance (CDI) is responsible for enforcing many of the insurance-related laws of the state. The CDI, which is the largest consumer protection agency in the state, is directed by the Insurance Commissioner.  The Commissioner oversees more than 1,200 positions, a $200 million budget and regulates almost one-tenth of the California economy.  Therefore, the position of Insurance Commissioner is of vital importance in the ongoing battle to ensure that private health plans provide appropriate medical coverage for individuals with ASD. On November 2 2010, Californians will be electing either Dave Jones or Mike Villines to this office.  Recently several parent-advocates discussed the issue of autism medical coverage with Assembly Member Dave Jones.  They summarized their meeting as follows:

“We met with Dave Jones this week. He was very intelligent and demonstrated that he was a quick learner.  He was sympathetic and interested in the insurance issues facing the autism community.  He was open to the idea of supporting an autism specific insurance mandate and wanted more information. He wants to make insurance run more smoothly for our population. He is committed to making lives better for our kids with autism and making insurance work for them.  We were impressed that he has not accepted any money from the insurance companies.  His opponent (Mike Villines) in contrast, has.   If you are interested in more information, you can visit his website at

Please forward widely to other interested individuals and groups. 

Respectfully submitted by Dr. Karen Fessel, Kristin Jacobson, and Feda Almaliti

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” — 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.

Continue reading

Finally, the special ed audit report

Tonight’s Committee of the Whole meeting will feature the long-awaited results of the district’s special education audit. For those of you at home, the meeting isn’t being televised but the report is here (PDF). I’ll post a summary of the meeting later tonight or tomorrow morning.

Three opportunities to hear about the special education audit!

Readers of this blog know that in late February, SFUSD commissioned a third party audit to do a comprehensive review of the district’s Special Education services. The auditors–the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative–have conducted site visits, reviewed district data, and interviewed many teachers, parents, administrators and community advocates, then compiled their findings into a report. That report is due to be released to the public on September 21 at a Committee of the Whole meeting of the Board. In addition, the district will sponsor two additional meetings for interested members of the public to learn more about the auditors’ findings and the district’s plans for reform. Please spread the word about these opportunities to learn more:

  • Board of Education Committee of the Whole Meeting  — The auditors will present findings in person to the Board of Education on Tuesday, September 21 at 6pm in the Board Meeting Room at 555 Franklin Street; Interpretation provided.
  • Community Presentation from the Auditors  The auditors, Deputy Superintendent Richard Carranza and Assistant Superintendent of Special Education Services Cecelia Dodge will  answer questions from the public about the report on Wednesday, September 22 at 6pm  at Horace Mann Middle School, 3351 23rd St.  Parking on site. Interpretation provided.  Childcare is available if reserved by Sept. 20 — contact richardsona “at” For special accommodations, please contact Carol Kocivar at kocivarc “at”
  • Community Advisory Committee for Special Education Board of Education Commissioner Rachel Norton (that’s me!) and Assistant Superintendent of Special Education Services Cecelia Dodge will discuss the report with members of the CAC.   Thursday, September 23 at 7pm   Support for Families / 1663 Mission St, 7th floor. Call 282-7494 at least one week in advance to reserve childcare.