San Diego Unified board members discuss special education at a 2017 board meeting. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Parents and teachers across San Diego Unified School District are protesting proposed cuts and changes to the special education department that they say will hurt children and push more work onto the plates of special education case managers.

District officials are planning to reduce the number of “separate setting” classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds. These classrooms usually serve around a dozen students, with one teacher and two classroom aids. At least half of the students require special services, but others in the classroom are “model students” who don’t require special services. Many 4-year-olds in these separate setting classrooms will now be rolled into transitional kindergarten classes with 24 or more students and two teachers.

The second proposed change would eliminate an administrative department that deals with more than 300 special education students who attend non-public schools. (In rare cases, San Diego Unified will pay for special education students to attend a private school, if parents can prove that San Diego Unified is not meeting the student’s needs.) Individual teachers at school sites would instead become responsible for managing the non-public school students’ cases.

Officials in the local teacher’s union are fighting the elimination of the department, because they believe school sites are already at capacity in dealing with special education needs, according to bargaining update documents obtained by Voice of San Diego.

“I would prefer to be making changes in a time of feast and not famine,” said Moira Allbritton, who is the parent of four special education students and chair of a district advisory committee on special education. “When you make changes, there are often unexpected challenges that come up. And it takes a lot of work time to massage the challenges.”

The district currently finds itself in the middle of a budget shortfall and will need to trim tens of millions in spending over the coming months. The district approved across-the-board 3.7 percent raises last year, which led to a new structural budget deficit. Now the district is poised to vote on eliminating more than 100 positions at Tuesday night’s board meeting.

Tom Forgeron has a daughter with autism, who attended a small separate setting classroom when she was 4 years old at Dingeman Elementary. That year in the intimate setting brought about significant milestones that would have never happened in a bigger class, Forgeron said.

When his daughter first enrolled, she spoke few words and would hardly enter the classroom for three weeks. By the time the year finished, she was speaking and interacting with other students and adults well.

If Forgeron’s daughter had gone straight into a regular classroom with 24 students, “she would definitely not be as verbal now, not as socially engaging. She would be having much more problems with the social aspect than she has now,” he said.

His daughter’s teacher agrees.

“She benefited from a smaller program with peer models. If she had been in a [bigger] class, it would have been very different. My prediction is that she would not have progressed to where she is now,” said Joe Marsella, who teaches at Dingeman.

Board trustee Richard Barrera said he understands Forgeron’s concern. But he said the district wants to integrate as many special education students into regular classrooms as possible. On the whole, more special education students tend to progress faster when they are blended into regular classrooms, he said.

Marsella said he has been led to understand that the number of separate setting classrooms like his will be reduced from around 40 to just 16 districtwide. Barrera also acknowledged that the number of separate setting classrooms would be reduced, as more 4-year-olds are rolled into general education settings.

District spokeswoman Maureen Magee, however, contended they were wrong. She said there will be no reduction of separate setting classrooms, but some will be moved to other schools. For instance, there will be no separate setting classroom next year at Dingeman, where Marsella teaches.

Separate setting classrooms often have roughly 12 students and one teacher, who is credentialed in special education in an early childhood classroom, as well as two non-credentialed “paraeducators.” Transitional kindergarten classrooms, where some special education students will end up starting next year, will have roughly 24 students and two adults, who are both credentialed teachers.

Another district proposal would push 4-year-olds with moderate to severe disabilities into classrooms with older students. Instead of being served in a separate setting, they would enter classrooms with kindergarten through fifth grade students who also have moderate to severe disabilities.

As for the proposal to eliminate San Diego Unified’s non-public school department, Allbritton, the chair of the special education committee, thinks it could end very poorly.

“The proposal is that the student’s neighborhood school site is going magically undertake the case management of the non-public school student. I have serious concerns as parent, who has had who two children in the non-public school program,” she said.

Union leaders agree. “The [San Diego Education Association] team shared our concerns [with district administrators] of having yet another piece of work be shuffled off to the school sites. Our work plates are full, there is no more space for this sort of work,” leaders wrote in a bargaining update to rank-and-file union members.

Barrera said it’s entirely possible the proposal around non-public school students would change during bargaining.

“It’s in flux,” he said.

The district’s special education advisory committee will meet Thursday night. Allbritton said she expects many parents to come air their frustrations.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Moira Allbritton.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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