It was the biggest change in the way San Diego Unified educates its students with special needs in a decade, and we wanted to know how the district had coped with the transition.

In 2008, after a report concluded that children with disabilities were too often being segregated into separate classrooms, the district began a concentrated effort to include far more children with special needs in general education classrooms in their neighborhood schools.

The shift required a complex reorganization of where kids with special needs would go to school. Rather than being grouped at relatively few sites that focused on special education, thousands of students with disabilities instead began flooding into their local schools.

Some parents thought the district was rushing it, making too many changes too quickly.

Take Andrew Smith.

Like most educators, the director of special education for the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District believes in the concept of including students with special needs. But as an expert in the field, who went to school and trained at San Diego Unified, Smith didn’t think the district could pull off the big change.

“I know how they do things,” he said.

Smith was so concerned about the change that he pulled his son out of the district. After hearing several stories from concerned parents and teachers, we wanted to know how the transition was going three years in.

Given the complexity of the story, we decided to tell it differently. Rather than laying out everything we learned in one big bundle, we decided instead to open up the subject for discussion with our readers while we reported out the issue. Then we told the story in pieces, engaging the community in a discussion along the way.

First, we told Smith’s story. Then, we learned how teachers in San Diego Unified had to learn to become special education teachers essentially overnight. We talked to parents about what they knew and built our reporting around the feedback we received.

The project got interrupted by the breaking news of the district’s possible insolvency. But after we had caught up on that crisis, we finally got a chance to finish the project.

Here are the conclusions we came to:

• Interviews with more than two dozen teachers, principals, experts and parents revealed a haphazard rollout of the new special education model that was plagued by a lack of vision and leadership.

• On the issue of training, specifically, there was confusion. Despite advocates pushing for mandatory training for teachers, nobody at the district ever tried to make that happen.

• There’s also disagreement about how principals were trained for the big change. The top official at the district’s Special Education Division says she was blocked from approaching principals to tell them about training. But that claim is refuted by her former boss, who no longer works in San Diego.

• What’s clear is that individual schools were essentially left to work out how to make the move on their own, with little help from the district.

• Though many schools say they have now ironed out most of the kinks in making the transition, that’s taken time and has placed undue stress on teachers while impacting the education of kids with special needs and the children they now share classrooms with.

• Some principals said three years later they’re still struggling to implement the new model, as each year they must learn to teach children with disabilities they have not encountered at the school before.

To Stephanie Mahan, principal of Carver Elementary School in Oak Park, the rollout was indicative of a larger problem.

“It’s like so many things we do in this district,” she said. “There’s an idea that’s dropped, but before we process it, or put systems in place, we start moving.”

Why Training Was Never Mandated

Back in October, we described how many general education teachers at the district were suddenly faced with teaching children with special needs, despite having no training on how to do so.

What we didn’t tell you was why the district never made that training compulsory for the thousands of teachers making the transition.

Here’s why: Nobody at the district ever tried to make training mandatory, despite being urged to do so by some advocates of the change.

“I said that again and again — that we needed to make the training mandatory — but nobody seemed to be listening,” said Christy Scadden, a parent and activist who was a member of a working group tasked with planning the change.

One last point on this: Arguably the district’s biggest challenge in implementing the new approach was convincing skeptical teachers and principals that it was the right thing to do.

An effective way to do that was to get those teachers into training sessions, to show them the benefits of inclusion, said Marvin Elementary School Principal E. Jay Derwae.

“Of course training should have been mandatory,” Derwae said. “You have to make sure everybody buys into the new paradigm shift, and you’ve got to be able to hold teachers’ hands through the changes.”

Many Principals Weren’t Trained Either

While the decision that more inclusion was needed came down from the higher echelons of the district, the foot soldiers in the effort to make the change a reality were individual school principals.

Suddenly, in September 2008, principals like Eileen Moreno at Fay Elementary found themselves faced with a host of new challenges: How to connect with a child with severe autism. How to cope with new medical emergencies they previously hadn’t had to deal with.

“It felt like it was ‘Jump in with both feet and just do it,’” Moreno said. “I don’t think most of us have felt the kind of support that’s necessary.”

Like teachers, many principals at the district needed crucial training to help them assimilate their newfound students with special needs into their schools.

And there were practical considerations too, like how to set up “sensory rooms” where children with certain disabilities could cool down after getting upset.

Special education training was never mandated for principals either. And there’s more.

Susan Martinez, executive director of the district’s Special Education Division, said she was told principals were too busy to hear about additional training. She said she was told not to attend meetings with principals, and was barred from putting information about training on the district’s website.

“Because of the way the system was, we were not allowed access to principals. So, the word was out there that we didn’t want to work with principals,” Martinez said. “We would say ‘We can do training, we want to do training, but we’re not allowed to.’”

Asked who barred her from approaching principals, Martinez named Grenita Lathan, who used to serve as a deputy superintendent and is now superintendent of a school district in Peoria, Ill.

Lathan said Martinez’s claim is untrue. She said she’ll be contacting the district.

Battling Through

We spoke with several school principals throughout this project and, unsurprisingly, heard a mixed bag of reactions to the new special education approach.

On the whole, principals said they have overcome any skepticism they may have had about inclusion. They’ve seen many of their students with special needs flourish under the new model. And all of the principals said they’re now over any “teething problems” they had when the model was first introduced.

But the same principals also said they’ve overcome those problems largely on their own, without much help from the district. More training would have helped, they said, and it would also have been helpful to have been told about it.

“I’ve discovered a lot of that training by accident,” Moreno said. “That’s certainly not the way this should have happened with such a huge transition. I would have expected an army of special ed experts being available to us.”

A Swinging Pendulum

One last thing.

Throughout our reporting, principals, teachers and parents also expressed worry that the district has swung too far in the direction of inclusion.

Martinez said that the district never planned to completely phase out separate special education classrooms. But, again and again throughout this project, special education teachers and principals told us that the financial reality at the district has made providing such separate classrooms impossible, and that they’ve all but disappeared.

We haven’t yet been able to fully vet that claim, which is an important one since some students desperately need to learn in a quiet, small, specialized setting. We’d be interested in hearing from parents who believe their son or daughter is being denied that learning environment.

And we’re by no means finished looking into special education.

Look for a story soon on how spiraling special education spending continues to drive charter schools away from San Diego Unified.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at focused on education. You can reach him at 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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