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In June 2008, Andrew Smith received a letter notifying him that his son’s education was about to undergo a sudden, drastic change. His 7-year-old son Nathan, who has autism, would be starting the following school year in a general education classroom.

Nathan had spent his whole academic life learning with a small group of children with disabilities in full-day special education classes in the San Diego Unified School District. Now, he was one of thousands of kids destined for a transition into general education classes.

That deeply worried his father.

Andrew Smith knows special education.

The youngest of nine children, he’s fostered an interest in the subject since his late teens. Growing up, four of his siblings suffered from a rare bone disease called hereditary multiple exostoses, which causes an extra bone to form on every joint of the body.

“There was always someone in a cast. They were always in and out of surgery, and that’s what got me interested in disability,” Smith said.

Now 46, he’s the director of special education for the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District. He knows the challenges involved in moving children with special needs into classrooms already bursting with nondisabled kids. And in 2008 he wanted none of it for his son.

“He has a very difficult time with transitions and changes,” Smith said. “I grew up in San Diego. I attended city schools, I did my student teaching there and I taught there. I know how they do things.”

Smith was worried that the district wanted to make too many changes, too quickly.

He said shifting a district’s special education priorities, if done right, needs to be done slowly and carefully — gradually phasing in changes until everyone responsible is on board, and all the educators have all the resources they need. He didn’t trust San Diego Unified to do that.

So, Smith yanked Nathan from the district that summer and set him up in La Mesa, where Nathan still attends school today. This year, for the first time, Nathan’s not in an all-day special education class. His dad says he’s flourishing, but only because his transition to general education wasn’t rushed.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Ten-year-old Nathan Smith works with behavior specialist Joseph Prindle at Maryland Avenue Elementary School.

In the three years Nathan’s been in La Mesa, San Diego Unified has been undergoing a sea change in the way it teaches special education.

In the wake of a 2007 report that concluded the district was far too often segregating students with disabilities, San Diego Unified redoubled its efforts to transition almost all of its special needs students to general education classes for most, if not all, of their school day.

That follows a national trend, driven by a philosophy called “inclusion,” the concept that children with special needs should be included, whenever possible, in general education classrooms where they can learn, play and laugh with their nondisabled peers.

It’s an uncontroversial philosophy. In two weeks of interviewing sources for this project, not one person has expressed to me the view that inclusion is a bad idea. The debate surrounds the implementation of this ideal.

Inclusion is great, when done right. That’s what I’ve been told again and again. But doing it right takes motivation, planning and money.

Bonnie Kraemer, a professor of special education at San Diego State University told me San Diego Unified is leading the way for the county by phasing out full-day special education classes and instead sending students with disabilities to their neighborhood schools.

But the district has also faced challenges as it has made this paradigm change.

Principals, teachers, advocates and parents told me that for years the culture at San Diego Unified was one of “us and them.” Special education teachers were often considered somewhat separate from the rest of a school staff, more answerable to their superiors within the special education department than to school principals.

And several people at the district told me that general education teachers and some principals initially abhorred the shift towards inclusion, concerned it would backfire, saddling already over-stressed general education teachers with duties they weren’t prepared or trained for.

So, what ended up happening?

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to figure out how successful San Diego Unified has been in making this radical transition.

My original goal was to write one story that would authoritatively answer that question. But I’m going to try something different, and I’m going to need your help.

I’d like to invite you to come and investigate this subject with me. Let’s work together. Help me as I search for conclusions about the successes and failures of San Diego Unified’s transition to inclusion.

Over the next week or two — however long it takes — I’m going to drill into various facets of the district’s shift towards full inclusion.

And I want this investigation to be driven by you: The passionate educators and parents, the experts and whoever else is invested in this issue.

Let’s find out if Andrew Smith was right: Was San Diego Unified destined to fail? Has it tried to do too much, too quickly?

I’ve already done some of the groundwork. I’ve come up with some ideas to pursue. Tell me who to talk to, what questions to ask, what data to request. Or just come along with me on the journey to see what I find.

Here are my initial ideas:

• I want to know how much planning the district did when it decided to phase out the special day-long classes. How did the district prepare for a large influx of children with disabilities into general education classrooms? Were teachers trained and prepared? And what did the district do to ensure that it had captured the hearts and minds of staff for this model?

• I want to hear from teachers and parents to get some idea of how kids with disabilities have fared in these transitions, and I want to see data from the district on how many complaints have been made about special education. (I requested this data two weeks ago, and have been promised it, but haven’t received anything yet.)

• And I want to know how the district’s special education structure has changed. What do special education teachers think about the new paradigm? Have they seen children under their care progress? Have they been given the support they need?

Call me at 619.550.5670. Email me. Send me messages on Twitter or Facebook. Write comments on this blog. Send it out to your friends, your colleagues and let’s get a conversation started.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to add that I have a personal interest in this story. My wife of seven years, Christin, is a special educator. She did her student training and taught at San Diego Unified, before moving on to Encinitas Union and, more recently, to Poway Unified.

She has her own opinions about inclusion and San Diego Unified. And, of course, she’s shared them with me. Like most of the teachers I’ve spoken to, she supports the inclusion model, but stresses the importance of effective implementation.

San Diego, what do you think?

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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