Wednesday, March 19, 2008 | San Diego Unified is pushing to integrate schools in an effort to ensure that disabled children can attend their neighborhood schools. The shift will pull kids with special needs, sometimes shunted into separate classrooms far from home, back into nearby schools as the school district decentralizes its services for disabled students.

It’s a change that parents have long advocated, and that a special education expert recently recommended to San Diego Unified. The new plan is meant to integrate disabled students back into their home communities, one element of a broader effort to include students with special needs in ordinary settings. Inclusion is believed to help disabled students succeed, and is pressed by some parents as an issue of basic equity: the right to attend a local school. It doesn’t hurt that the new plan would cut down on costly busing.

Keeping Special Ed Close to Home

  • The Issue: San Diego Unified is abolishing the different categories of special education classes in a controversial first step toward educating disabled kids in their neighborhood schools.
  • What It Means: Under the new plan, neighborhood schools and their principals will bear more responsibility for special education students — a growing group of students with complex and sometimes expensive needs — at a time when budgets are dropping and specially-trained staff are disappearing.
  • The Bigger Picture: After an outside expert critiqued the system for excessively segregating students with special needs, San Diego Unified is revamping special education, aiming to include disabled kids as much as possible in ordinary classrooms and schools close to home.

Yet parents are alarmed by the district’s first announced step toward decentralization: stripping away the distinct labels for non-mainstream classrooms, a move that would wipe away the popular terms parents have used to identify the specific ways different disabled children are taught. The shift coincides with budget proposals that would drastically reduce special education staff, the very people needed to ease that transition at the schools that begin receiving the newly integrated students, parents say.

“We don’t know what the plan is. Therein lies the problem,” said Karen Blevins, mother of an autistic ninth-grader at Patrick Henry High School. Her son has flourished in specialized classes that she isn’t convinced will survive. “We know what it’s not — and that’s what scares us.”

Today, special education students who don’t attend ordinary classes are split between four programs, which use different teaching methods and are tailored to different disabilities. Elementary schools, which tend to be small, usually host only a few of the programs, if any, at their sites. That means that many disabled students can’t attend their neighborhood school.

Instead, specific schools that offer the programs act as magnets, drawing disabled kids from a larger region. Emotionally disturbed kids board buses to a handful of schools, where specially-trained teachers coach them; most mentally retarded kids head to another school, equipped with another specialist.

Those categories will vanish in name this fall, disappearing from the individual education plans that schools write for disabled students. And over the next two years, San Diego Unified plans to dissolve those categorized classes, which split kids among schools based on disability. Instead, disabled kids will attend their neighborhood schools, where a cadre of special education teachers will tailor the classes offered on-site to the kids. Students won’t plan their lives around the programs, rather, the program will be planned around them, said Roxie Jackson, executive director of special education in San Diego Unified schools.

“We’re trying to get rid of these labels,” she said.

But advocates for disabled children and their families are wary of the change, especially with budget cuts on the horizon. While parents want neighborhood schools and principals to take responsibility for educating the disabled, instead of shooing them aside to separate programs run by a separate special education bureaucracy, they fret that neighborhood schools aren’t ready to handle their needs. Transforming special education will take serious investment in staff and training, they say; investment that is unlikely as schools ponder major budget cuts.

San Diego Unified has proposed to pare back special education costs by more than $13 million, trimming from a roughly $238 million budget that is routinely overspent. Schools are poised to dismiss the people who advocates say understand special education best. Eighteen special education administrators, who have effectively acted as alternate principals for disabled students at larger schools, may be eliminated entirely next year. Two hundred of 1,500 classroom aides who tend to disabled students could be cut.

“You’d never hear me say that inclusion (in neighborhood schools) is a bad thing,” said Mary Ellen Stives, executive director of Area Board XIII of the State Council on Developmental Disabilities, a regional advocacy group. “But this is, ‘You will go here, and you will sink or swim.’”

Grouping special education students more generally, instead of splitting them up by disability, is also unnerving for many parents, who fear it could undercut their progress. One mother, Pansy Hilliard, is loath to blur the lines between different disabilities. She believes her daughter Darneasha Swanagain regressed between third and sixth grade, when San Diego Unified placed her in classes with mentally retarded students.

“I had to reprogram her” after she left that class, Hilliard said. Darneasha is still listed as mentally retarded by the school district — a label that Hilliard disputes, attributing her daughter’s unclear speech and difficulty writing to cerebral palsy. “She picked up tics — thumb-sucking, chewing on her clothes like someone in her class. I told her, ‘You don’t have to act that way no more.’”

Months later, when Darneasha knelt on an office chair and sent it spinning, Hilliard was elated. “I was in heaven! She did a normal bad behavior!”

Today, Darneasha learns in both special education and mainstream classes at Morse High School, splitting her time roughly 60/40 between the two programs. At Morse, Hilliard said she’s finally making progress — learning to count and identify coins, to recount facts about Malcolm X and to type her name. One teacher even tailored a lesson about S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” for Darneasha, providing a simplified, laminated version of the classic young adult novel about the rivalry between two 1950s gangs.

To Hilliard, the district’s new plan looks like a step back. “They’re mixing the kids up again,” she said. “I don’t want to get back on that roller coaster.”

As decentralization unrolls, San Diego Unified won’t group students with dramatically different needs together, Jackson said. While the old categories won’t apply, schools could choose to divide students between the mildly and severely disabled, or whatever makes sense at the school site, she said. The shift could mean that students who are re-diagnosed and recommended for a different teaching style don’t need to be shuttled to other schools, where a specific program is available. Instead, the teachers will adjust their methods.

But with little information available on how exactly students’ individual needs would be met, parents remain worried that by jettisoning the old distinctions, San Diego Unified is jettisoning options. Stives, the advocate, said mixing kids could be dangerous — for example, seating an emotionally disturbed child with an autistic kid who bites, she said. Blevins called it “warehousing.”

“It sounds like we’re going back to a one-room schoolhouse — throwing a bunch of different diagnoses into the non-mainstream class,” said Blevins, the parent of an autistic teen. “It’s like the 1950s, when anyone who was a little bit different was thrown in the corner and babysat all day.”

The new plan also relies heavily on school principals, who will bear more responsibility for how kids with special needs are taught, and how each school uses its special educators, in lieu of more rigid programs. Thomas Hehir, an expert consulted by San Diego Unified to assess its special education programs, decried principals’ failure to handle the needs of disabled children at their schools. Too often, he said, San Diego principals view special needs children as someone else’s problem.

“Separate is not equal in special education,” Hehir told the San Diego Unified school board in January. Not all of the changes can be done at once, he said, but there’s a need for a real cultural shift.

Jackson said the shift wouldn’t require significant retraining for school principals, soon to be tasked with assessing disabled students’ needs and placements. But not all principals are comfortable tackling the complex and controversial world of special education, a field that has exploded as autism has cropped up more and more frequently in children. At Lincoln High School, principal Mel Collins opted to keep his special education administrator despite next year’s planned cut. He’ll pay for the employee out of discretionary funding.

“It would be a devastating loss,” Collins said. “I come with some knowledge, but as a principal, you don’t know everything. He has the expertise in the law, in providing the right services for kids. … I’d pay a salary and then some to keep him on our campus.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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