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While his fifth grade classmates at Marvin Elementary played Jeopardy to learn about nephrons and neurons, 11-year-old Ben Cary moaned and rested his forehead on the table. His assistant, Michael Brown, coaxed him to play a parallel game, matching labels to body parts.

“What are you working for?” Brown reminded Ben, a boy with autism who doesn’t speak but can employ technology so nimbly he once used a Sesame Street recording to show his parents he wanted noodles.

Ben pointed to a laminated card reading “listen to music” — his reward for schoolwork — and sat back up to match labels to feet and fingers as his classmates were quizzed about glands.

More children like Ben are spending time in ordinary classes in San Diego Unified as the school district strives to make sure that children with disabilities are included as much as possible. They’re also returning to neighborhood schools that once turned them away.

Like many parents, the Carys are happy to see Ben included. But the switch hasn’t always been so smooth, for them or for others.

Marvin was one of several schools that started including children more often two years ago. Parents pushed for the shift after a critical report showed that disabled children were too often segregated unnecessarily, sent on buses to separate schools or programs and educated in separate classrooms. Their test scores were stagnant.

Since the change, some schools have seen quantum leaps. Principal Susan Devicariis says Sessions Elementary, for instance, saw stunning growth in disabled students’ scores.

But shifting special education hasn’t been straightforward or consistent in a massive school system that is also juggling budget cuts and searching for a new leader.

Many principals and teachers argue they need more staff to guide children with disabilities through classes. E. Jay Derwae, the principal of Marvin, said it sometimes takes four months to convince the school district to provide an aide to help handle behavioral problems or guide a child through adjusted lessons in an ordinary class.

“It’s been worth the tears,” Derwae said. “I truly believe in inclusion. But our biggest challenge is personnel. The district thinks you can just make it work.”

Susan Martinez, who oversees special education, cautions that there will be natural growing pains as the system undergoes a massive shift. It’s a shift that has to happen to meet kids’ needs, she said — and to comply with the law.

“A lot of people don’t do this,” she said, “because it’s not easy.”

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The tug-of-war over staffing is just one debate.

The systemic change that San Diego Unified is seeking in special education has also collided with decentralization, the philosophy of allowing schools to chart their own paths. Parent watchdogs say that while some schools are flourishing as they include more children with disabilities, others schools have refused to take part or aren’t doing it well.

“It’s so dependent on who the principal is and who the teacher is,” said Moira Allbritton, who sits on a school district committee on special education. “It’s so decentralized that no one person at the school district can enforce the recommendations. So they become just that – recommendations.”

That, in turn, has led parents to avoid bringing children with special needs to neighborhood schools that they see as resisting the switch, exacerbating the problem. William Cary plans to take Ben to a middle school outside their area after he graduates from Marvin to avoid another school with a bad rap.

“I’m not going to let my son be a guinea pig,” he said.

Many key architects of the plan have left the school district. And though special education training has been offered to principals and teachers, some say they still feel uneasy figuring out problems or haven’t gotten the help they want.

“It’s not like the special education office has abandoned us,” said Juan Romo, principal of Golden Hill Elementary. “They hear us — but they say we need to put our heads together at our sites.”

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The push for inclusion has been gradual: Over the past three school years, the percentage of children with disabilities who spend less than a fifth of their school day in a mainstream classroom has dropped from 25 percent to 19 percent. The drops are more dramatic for autistic children (62 percent to 44 percent) and students with mental retardation (77 percent to 54 percent).

While there are still separate classes for some children with severe disabilities, the school district philosophy — and the law — is to put children in the least segregated setting that meets their needs.

“We don’t just stick kids somewhere,” Martinez said. “It needs to be a thoughtful decision.”

When schools grouped students with disabilities together, they were segregated, but they also enjoyed economies of scale. Now each school is supposed to handle the needs of all children with different, sometimes severe disabilities.

Making it work is especially tough at small schools. Teachers and parents at Wegeforth Elementary are agitating to keep a special educator who may be reassigned to another school because the school is projected to have fewer children with special needs. School district officials say the schools are staffed with special educators based on a formula, though they will bend to consider extra or unusual needs.

If Wegeforth loses its special education teacher it would have only one special educator and two aides to handle children in six different grades. Teachers argue that’s too little help because the educators have to split their time between different classrooms and fill out paperwork to identify new special needs students.

“My child doesn’t misbehave on schedule,” said Donna Grant, whose son has autism. “What are the teachers supposed to do — just teach around a child who’s having a serious behavior problem?”

Special education leaders don’t want teachers to rely too much on assistants, saying they should first try to adjust their teaching to accommodate children with disabilities instead of simply assigning another person to take care of their needs.

“We don’t want to create too much dependence on an adult,” said Joe Fulcher, interim chief student services officer. “We have to be careful about how we support them.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Dagny Salas

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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