I’ve been contacted a few times over the last week or so by representatives of the San Diego Unified School District and other parties who think I’ve been a little unclear, and possibly unfair, in my exploration into the district’s paradigm shift in special education.

They’ve argued that I should have explained better how and why the district phased out separate special education classes and transitioned thousands of children with special needs into general education classrooms in their neighborhood schools.

So, let me share what I’ve learned about why the district changed course and how it restructured its provision of special education.

Why the Change?

The philosophy driving this shift was explained to me by Joe Fulcher, who oversees special education for San Diego Unified as the district’s chief student services officer.

Fulcher said previously special education at the district was thought of as a place — a location where students with disabilities went to receive specialized instruction. The district wanted to move away from that model. It wanted parents to think of special education as a service that’s provided to students in their neighborhood schools.

That shift was coupled with an overarching philosophical change at the district that Fulcher said is sweeping across special education as a whole. Leaders at the district, and many parents, believe that including children with special needs in general education classrooms is both a legal and a moral imperative, a civil rights issue.

Children with disabilities should no more be segregated than children of color, Fulcher said. Children who previously were separated from their peers deserve to be learning alongside their nondisabled peers, he said.

A big catalyst for the district’s change in approach was a 2007 report by Harvard professor Thomas Hehir, which concluded that San Diego Unified was too often segregating children with disabilities into separate special education classes. Hehir identified that segregation as “a major complaint of parents,” in the district, and recommended that the district address the issue.

The Role of Special Education Teachers Changes

Last week, I reported that San Diego Unified transitioned thousands of children with special needs into general education classrooms without mandating that general education teachers underwent training in special education.

Moira Allbritton, chairwoman of the district’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, thought my post was lacking context, since it didn’t explain what special education resources are available to help those general education teachers.

So let me lay that out.

As students have transitioned to general education classes, special education specialists have, in effect, followed those kids to their neighborhood schools.

The idea is that each school now has special education teachers who act like consultants for the general education teachers and who also teach children for some of the day in separate special education classes. That’s known as “pull-out” teaching.

So, there is support for general education teachers, and there are still plenty of special education teachers at San Diego Unified. But, rather than having certain schools with lots of separate special education classes and lots of special education teachers clustered in the same place, the students and teachers are now spread out around the district.

Now that I’ve laid out the reasoning for the change, and how it was brought about, let me also relay some feedback from teachers at the district about how the new approach is working out.

How Things Are Going

Last week, Allbritton urged me to call special education teacher Andrea Wanner to get the scoop on how the district’s new policy is working out. Coincidentally, I know Wanner. She’s a friend of my wife’s, and my wife actually did her student teaching under her at Bay Park Elementary School.

Wanner said she’s seriously worried about the way the school district implemented its paradigm shift.

She’s concerned that general education teachers aren’t trained properly to teach kids with disabilities, and said there’s not enough support for children with disabilities who have been placed in general education classes.

She said she thinks the district has lost something in the shift: There are no longer calm, quiet home-bases for students with disabilities like autism who need the extra structure and support that a designated classroom for special education offers, she said.

Wanner used to work at a school where she thought the teachers and principal had developed a wonderful, inclusive model for students with special needs: Bay Park Elementary.

For more than a decade prior to the shift, Bay Park had a high proportion of special education students and a high concentration of separate special education classes. Like other selected schools, it had developed into a hub for special education, and students were bused to its classes from around the city.

Prior to the policy shift, Bay Park had several separate classes in which students with special needs were grouped for much of their day.

Those classrooms were especially equipped for students who needed stability and calm, and those kids could consider the classrooms as their base at the school, Wanner said.

But the school had also developed a forward-thinking approach to inclusion, Wanner said. Children with special needs were included for certain subjects with their nondisabled peers throughout the school day. The teachers could watch the children, assess them, and determine how much or how little inclusion was working for each particular child.

Now, Wanner said the new model for special education at most schools creates the opposite system.

Like most of the district’s credentialed special education teachers, Wanner works in the consultancy role created by the new model. She collaborates with general education teachers by helping them guide their instruction and plan their classes, but the only teaching she does is when she pulls out children for specialized instruction.

She said that means students who desperately need a quiet, calm environment that was once offered by a separate special education classroom no longer have that. She described the classroom where she teaches students now as “more like a therapy room than really a classroom,” with a stream of children filing through throughout the day, none of whom stays for more than an hour or so.

“One little six year-old girl told me ‘I wish I could stay in here all day, I can think in here,’” Wanner said.

“The key word is that this needs to be individualized. To do that properly, the district needs to hire more special education teachers and more aides,” she said.

Wanner’s not the only teacher I spoke to who said that.

Kimberly Carpenter, a special education science teacher at Bell Middle School in Bay Terraces used to spend her whole day teaching separate special education science classes for kids who were struggling. Now she spends most of her day co-teaching with a general education teacher. That limits her availability to work with smaller groups of kids who need specialized instruction.

Carpenter said she still teaches some children in smaller, separate settings, but reeled off a list of teachers she thinks her school needs to add: Another special education science specialist, at least one more special education history teacher and so on.

The move towards inclusion is admirable, Carpenter said, and San Diego Unified should never go back to its old model district-wide. But at the same time the district can’t expect teachers like her to co-teach classes and still have enough time to time teach all the smaller groups that are necessary to give all the kids the attention they need.

The only way to do that is to hire more special education teachers, she said.

But Wanner and Carpenter, like a few other teachers I’ve spoken to, also stressed that they have seen inclusion work brilliantly for some children.

Some kids who might otherwise never have been placed in a general education classroom are flourishing as a result of being able to learn next to nondisabled students, both teachers said.

Another one of my wife’s friends said the same thing. Catherine Bohling, who’s in her sixth year at San Diego Unified, said she was initially skeptical of the shift towards inclusion. But she’s seen the model work wonders with children who used to be segregated in separate special education classes.

“They rose to the occasion,” Bohling said. “Children are resilient, and if you give them a challenge to meet, then with the right support, they will succeed.”

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

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