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If my wife wanted to teach a general education class in California, she wouldn’t be allowed.
Why not? Because she has a special education credential (from San Diego State University). She’s specifically qualified to teach students with disabilities like autism, cerebral palsy, emotional disturbance or Asperger’s syndrome.
That makes sense, right? She’s been trained to do a certain job. She spent two years doing a credential program specifically designed to give her the skills needed to meet the challenge of teaching kids with special needs.
But in the last few years at San Diego Unified School District, general education teachers have essentially had to become special educators almost overnight. As separate special education classes have been phased out, thousands of kids with disabilities have been moved to general education classes in their neighborhood schools.
So, you might expect that the teachers who will be teaching those children will have had to get trained up on how to do that, right?
There’s been no mandate at San Diego Unified School District that general education teachers or school principals get training in special education before receiving an influx of students with special needs into their classrooms.
The district says it has provided oodles of training for general education teachers who want to learn how to connect with a child with severe autism, say, or a child with emotional disturbance. That training has ranged from one-day sessions to week-long intense training.
But teachers don’t have to take that training. It’s optional.
So, that means thousands of kids with learning disabilities, autism, Asperger’s syndrome and other disabilities have trooped off to general education classes to be taught by teachers whose last training on special education might have been 20 years earlier during their university credentials.
General education teachers have suddenly been faced with students with emotional disturbance, who scream or run around classrooms. They have been asked to teach children with severe autism, who may be extremely hard to reach without specialized intervention techniques and methods. The range of scenarios runs the gamut from the benign to the potentially hazardous.
When I met with Joe Fulcher, who oversees special education for San Diego Unified as the district’s chief student services officer, I pressed him pretty hard on this. Why wasn’t training mandated?
“That’s something that was out of my hands, unfortunately,” Fulcher told me.
“I would certainly like to see more gen-ed and special-ed teachers take more advantage of the training,” he added.
Fulcher said any decision on mandating extra training for teachers would have to be made in conjunction with the district’s bargaining units.
On Monday, I called Bill Freeman, president of the teachers union, and asked him if he’d be against mandating special education training for general education teachers in light of the new paradigm of inclusion at San Diego Unified.
Freeman told me that teachers have too much on their plate already, what with teaching more than 40 students in some cases, grading and other responsibilities. He said it wouldn’t be fair to press more upon them. Plus, he said, providing brief training sessions for general education teachers isn’t going to solve the problem.
“They’re not going to make a special education teacher out of general education teacher in one class,” Freeman said. “We don’t want our teachers to go to one day of class and think that they will be able to deal with students with disabilities.”
The real problem, Freeman said, is that students with disabilities who are sometimes dangerous shouldn’t be placed in general education classrooms with teachers who aren’t prepared to deal with them. He said two teachers have recently been injured by students with disabilities.
But doesn’t that make the argument for insisting that general education teachers are properly trained all the more convincing? I tried to follow up with Freeman on Tuesday but couldn’t reach him.
Without any mandate for training, E. Jay Derwae, principal at Marvin Elementary School in Allied Gardens, said the responsibility has been placed on principals and individual teachers to make sure they got up to speed prior to the inclusion of children with special needs in their general education classrooms.
That too often hasn’t happen, Derwae said. Teachers and principals who were stuck in their ways preferred to pretend that they didn’t need to change and kids have suffered the consequences.
“There was a lot of fear from general ed teachers. Not that they didn’t want these kids in the classroom, they just didn’t know what to do when they got them in there,” Derwae said.
Tori Altona, a teacher’s aide who has worked with several general education teachers in the last couple of years, said that’s exactly what she’s seen.
Some of the teachers just didn’t get it, Altona said. Because they hadn’t taken the district up on the offer of training, they were unprepared for their new students. For example, one teacher she worked with was told that he needed to give extra time for homework to a child with autism.
“He just said ‘I don’t give extra time to anybody,’” Altona said. “It’s been really frustrating. A lot of general ed teachers have just refused to change.”
But there are also teachers at the district who have taken the new paradigm in stride.
Yesterday, I talked with Josette Gerry, who taught fourth grade last year at Hawthorne Elementary. She had a sudden influx of students last year when separate all-day special education classes at the school she was teaching at then were phased out.
Gerry found ways to work with her new students, like teaming up with the school’s other grade level teacher to break down their classes into smaller groups of kids with like abilities. That ensured all the kids were learning at their own pace, Gerry said.
As for training, Gerry said she knew it was out there, but that most of her learning was done on the job. That meant working with the special education specialists who remained at the school to act as “consultants” for the general education teachers.
Gerry said she was fortunate that she only had students with mild disabilities in her class. She was able to adapt as best she could to her situation without much help from the district.
But that’s far from ideal, she said.
“I know there’s a better way to do this so that kids aren’t left feeling so … lost,” she said.
Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can reach him at email@example.com or 619.550.5670.
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