Friday, December 5, 2008

SFUSD's special education assignment process

An opinion piece in Beyon Chron: The Voice of the Rest, makes the case that SFUSD needs to rethink it's special education assignment process.

Katy Franklin, mother of a 3rd grade student at Creative Arts Charter School and a board member of SFUSD’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, offers up specific ways the assignment policy should be changed to achieve greater equity for students requiring special needs:

Identify Student Needs First:
The Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEIA), requires that Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) containing the child's educational needs must be written before placement decisions are made. Once the IEP is completed, the IEP team then chooses the placement. Unfortunately, IEPs tend to be written to fit into the district’s pre-existing programs, instead of to fit the individual student, and what results from that procedural error is a lot of unnecessary conflict and litigation.
Stop Combining Grade Levels: SFUSD’s practice of combining grade levels in its special education day classes is a major concern of teachers and parents. Mixing Kindergarten students with students through second grade, and third grade students with students through fifth grade is problematic. Safety issues and concerns arise because the children are vastly different in size.
Academically, the differences necessary in the curriculum for each student creates a nightmarish hodgepodge teachers must contend with when attempting classroom lesson planning. It is time for the district administration and the teacher’s union (UESF) to discuss possible changes to how these classrooms are currently configured.
Support Individualized Placement Decisions: Placements of children in special education are supposed to be individualized. There is nothing individualized about putting down a list of seven schools and having a computer run a random lottery to decide where your child goes to school. SFUSD special education administrators take the stance that “programs” are decided in IEP meetings, and that the “placements” made by the Educational Placement Office are not “decisions”, they are “assignments”. Such parsing of words only serves to upset parents, and is definitely not in keeping with the new SFUSD objective to “Create a culture of service and support.”

Parents of children with disabilities would like nothing better than for their children not to need special treatment, but having extra needs also means needing extra assistance, understanding, and accommodations in the schools. Too many complicated factors are at play to rely on special education decisions being made by lottery:
Facility Issues: Schools that are listed as meeting ADA requirements often are not fully accessible in terms of practical day-to-day use of the facilities
• Children should not have to wait for chairs and desks to be moved every time they need to move across a room.
• Children on playgrounds should not have to navigate across entire school grounds to find an accessible restroom.
• Not all ramps are safe for children in walkers or wheelchairs to use.
• Not all schools have Disability Transfer Zones for dropping-off or picking-up children.
• Emergency evacuation chairs at some schools are made for adults and are too big to be safely used to evacuate children.
• Not all schools have nurses; some children in special education require the presence of a nurse on campus.

Location Issues: The preferred location of the school is not always the one closest to home; sometimes it could be the school closest to where the parent or caregiver works.
• Parents of children in special education programs get calls from schools much more often than other parents, and have to contend with many more situations that require their presence at the school sites.

Provide Program Information on School Tours: People giving school tours rarely, if ever, mention anything about their school’s special education programs or accessibility issues, and are also unable to answer specific questions when asked. This is not surprising, there is no reason parent volunteers giving school tours should know all those details, but it does make searching for a school extremely complicated.

Ensure that Parents Can See Special Education Classrooms: Parents are routinely told that they may not view a specific special education classroom, because of supposed “privacy issues”, but how many parents would agree to place a child in a class they were not even allowed to look at?

To read the entire article click here.

What do you think of Franklin's proposed changes? Do you agree or disagree?


  1. When I was a volunteer helping with tours at my kids' elementary alma mater, Lakeshore, we made up a FAQ after learning from experience what the Frequently Asked Questions actually were, and handed it out to all touring parents. (It had been evident that since parents can't know everything, a lot of parent volunteers -- quite possibly including me -- were routinely giving out at least some inaccurate information -- we had to do careful research to pull the FAQ together.)

    That gave us an avenue for providing some basic information on special education at Lakeshore; it also included the contact info for SFUSD's special ed ombudsperson, Carol Kocivar (355-7710).

  2. I agreed with a lot in this article -- it really spoke to the realities that a lot of families whose kid has a special need face.

    I had one minor question about the practicalities of abolishing the current K-2 and 3-5 Special Day Classes structure for non-inclusion kids. In an ideal world each grade would be self-contained, but then this would seem to lead to having special ed schools (such as the old Sunshine School in the Mission.) I thought the point of having special day classes in a regular school was to keep expectations high, and to keep kids who might not be able to function in a regular classroom at least part of a general ed school. I guess the district would have to pick some larger elementary and convert some regular ed classes to special day classes grade by grade? Or, in worst case scenario, have kids go to a different school every year -- this seems like a cure that would be worse than the disease, particularly for families with siblings.

    Anyway, I totally get the need for this, but just wondering how it would play out in real life.

  3. In an ideal world where money was not an issue, all of these changes could be implemented.

    When we are looking at a deficit, do we take more out of the budget for the general ed population for more classrooms bathrooms etc?

    There is a cost benefit to everything.. sounds mean and cold but it does need to be considered.

    But the current situation may not be very effective cost wise either so changes may be cost neutral.

  4. "To make social justice a reality, schools in SFUSD must stop banning children with disabilities from any general education classroom. Inclusion is a service, not a program, and Inclusion must start to be available at every school. This is not merely a special education issue; it is a civil rights issue."

    Logistically, financially, and for lots of other reasons, I do not see how you can have inclusion programs at every school. It would not be financially feasible to have a counselor/teacher/aide for one or two students who happened to be at a school when a same such teacher/aide could handle a class of ten say.

    Language immersion programs or bilingual programs are not available at every school, so I wouldn't know why you would have say, Autism programs available at every school, for example.

  5. "Language immersion programs or bilingual programs are not available at every school, so I wouldn't know why you would have say, Autism programs available at every school, for example."

    It's a civil rights issue.

    We should be able to apply to any school you are able to apply to for your child.

    When I was looking for a Kindergarten for my kid, I felt like how Linda Brown's Mom must have felt (Brown vs. Board of Education)... being told numerous times ... YOUR CHILD CANNOT GO HERE ... we have plenty of OTHER schools for YOUR child.

    If you somehow think that is in any way OK, well, I disagree ENTIRELY.

    ALL SFUSD schools already have full time RSPs (Resource Specialist Special Education teachers) at them, they would not have to hire one whole teacher if only one child wanted to be included at that school. All schools already have a few times a week, speech therapists, Occupational Therapists and physical therapists who come to the school. The COST of inclusion would be the same, and perhaps even LOWER, if the district changed the way it did things.

    So I am not talking about each school having an"autism program", inclusion includes children general education classes and exposes them to the same curriculum that your children are exposed to. Some modifications and accommodations are always necessary, but inclusion is not a PROGRAM it is a SERVICE.
    SFUSD incorrectly treats inclusion as a "program".

    Immersion is a PROGRAM.

    Like it or not
    as our mayor would say :)

    ----> I.D.E.A. is a federal law and it clearly states that our children have to the right to go to school at the school they would go to if they did not have a disability label.

  6. December 5, 2008 2:47 PM:

    I don't know how exactly they'd change the mixed grade level structure they have now ...

    it would probably mean LESS choices of schools for parents, but if you asked those parents if they'd rather have their children in a special day class (SDC) with children all of the same age, or if they'd rather have their Kindergartner with big 2nd graders, some of whom have severe behavior problems, I bet they'd say they'd rather have the Kindergarten age only SDC and less choice of school sites.

    I understand your concern about kids having to go to a different school every year, but because these classes are self-contained, maybe what is needed are special education schools K-5 6-8 9-12 that are in proximity to general education schools so some mainstreaming can be done ... not many schools do much mainstreaming, but if the parents put their children in segregated classes anyway -- maybe mainstreaming is not all that important to them?

    There are no easy solutions ...

    I'm an "inclusion" Mom so I look at things differently. The district would have to meet with parents of kids in SDCs and get their opinions. Some parents want their children kept out of general education classes, for varying reasons.

  7. December 5, 2008 3:13 PM wrote:

    "When we are looking at a deficit, do we take more out of the budget for the general ed population for more classrooms bathrooms etc?"

    ADA upgrades are being made to all schools, to comply with Federal Law.

    Yes, in an ideal world all these access issues would be all in place. Most parents are reasonable and understand that not all schools are ADA ready yet. Just don't assign their kids there, is what they are saying.

    All parents want is to be able to make placement decisions in their children's IEP meetings, BECAUSE not all schools are really accessible, or have accessible bathrooms near the playground, or have drop-off areas. SFUSD assigns kids to schools that do not work out logistically, but they block access to parents to take enough time to view the schools adequately to see if it will work.

    For instance, they say they have an elevator but that elevator is actually in another class, and all the kids in the class have to move their tables and chairs everytime a kid (or parent) in a wheelchair gets in or out of the elevator. Not good.

  8. Frankly IMO it's also a civil rights issue that gifted kids typically do not have appropriate accommodations (i.e. self-contained classrooms or pull-outs) in ES or guaranteed enrollment in MSs offering an honors curriculum in the SFUSD. However, because GATE parents haven't been as pushy as SpEd ones, their kids get far fewer resources.

  9. Katy, thanks for the good ideas and clarifications. Not easy solutions, with trade-offs in several cases, but I take your point that having some ability to make these tradeoffs at the IEP stage rather than through the lottery would be helpful to SPED parents.

    Regarding so-called gifted kids, my kids are both GATE-IDed, whatever you may think of that process, as are many of their friends, and I am unaware of ANY families that wanted a middle school with honors who did not get one. In fact, last year most got their first choice school. And once in that school, they got honors--unless they chose another strand such as an immersion program, which brings its own challenges. The middle school lottery is a lot less stressful from the K lottery, for many reasons, some structural (there seem to be more favorable slots available) and some perceptual (I would say that most of us were more relaxed about the whole thing the 2nd time around).

    High school lottery is a bit more amped up up, maybe somewhere in between due to competition at Lowell, fewer schools yet considered okay (though that is shifting), and the perceived stakes of high school in terms of college admits.

    Btw, I assume everyone saw that Lowell made slot #39 in the US News & World Report's rankings of the nation's top 100 high schools. FWIW, since the rankings are a bit bogus, but still....congrats, Lowell.

  10. December 6, 2008 10:39 AM :

    Many kids in special education are also identified as G.A.T.E., twice identified makes it twice as problematic to get the right sort of adaptations to the curriculum ...

    My son (who has autism) has always been several grades above his grade level and scored advanced on his first STAR test last year (without any modifications or accommodations to help him during the test) so I guess I'll go through the process of getting him GATE -ided ... is it worth it? Does SFUSd even do anything for GATE kids? I'm hearing that they don't really. One of the benefits (sic) of having to have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for your kid means they also have to address whatever GATE issues the kids may have that need accommodating for. Luckily my son is in a project-based charter school and not bored witless in school anymore.

    GATE students (who are not disabled) are not covered by the IDEA, so there is no legal mandate that I know of to target resources to them ... it isn't the parents being pushy that gets the resources, it is Federal Law that those resources be there for kids with disabilities. Of course parents of children in special education have to fight for those resources, but they have the law to back up their requests.

    GATE kids should have their own sort of "special education" too, but mostly I think that all education should be "special" and that all kids should have IEPs.

  11. Katy - thank you for clarifying... it does seem to be a complicated issue but at the same time, it seems some modifications can be made that would not result in a great cost or other type of burden to the District.
    It may be about time to have some thinking out of the box.

    One danger that I see that has become so terribly apparent, the slope we are sliding on, but not many seem to realize is that our gov't has caused us to categorize, label every just about thing and one, and so now every group feels their civil rights are violated (I'm not saying that Sp Ed or Disabled students rights are not). But I mean, GATE parents feel their children are slighted, and maybe they are. But its not just GATE, and Sp Ed. We are slicing and dicing ethnicities/race into ever finer strands...

    It bothers me that the Feds just came up with yet some more race/ethnic categories. I'm not sure for what means but the result is now we have X American (Asian American, African American, Latino, Hispanic, non white Caucasian, white Caucausian, Asian Pacific Islander, etc etc etc...) and when resources start getting scarce, will we all be fighting over each other like the shoppers that ran over the security guard at Walmart? Or will we come together as the country did during the Depression (of which we seem seriously close to falling into right now)? I do wonder. Each group feels their rights are not being respected, look at poor Obama. The Hispanics are mad because he only nominated one Hispanic to his Cabinet and dang it, he better get the numbers right because the Hispanic Caucus "delivered" the vote. Well, I don't see too many Asian Americans in his Cabinet. Or Pacific Islanders. Wow, gov't by numbers, just like Lebanon. Great.

    Ok, I'm done, sorry Katy (your points are well taken and I hope some headway can be made).

  12. First off, I want to applaud the folks behind the SF K Files for putting the issue of special ed front and center. Folks commenting here may find that issues regarding special ed have been discussed in the past, but I'm really glad that the article by Katy is here. My kids have IEPs, one is inclusion and the other RSS, not special day. I am amazed about the problems with special day. Talk about thinking the grass was greener on the other side! I had always heard that special day programs were "pretty good" -- at least in comparison with inclusion and RSS. I'm now beginning to see that none of the special ed programs at SFUSD are good. My own gripes with inclusion and RSS come with the feeling that the special ed paraprofessionals at my kids' school, while well-meaning and nice, don't seem terribly well trained. They don't show up ti help your kid when they claim they are going to show up; they push for "pull-outs" that are often more disruptive than they are worth; they give distracting gifts to a kid with ADD; they use tried-and-true methods without thinking through whether they work with the particular kid; and they generally work in reactive mode solely -- so long as the kid is not disruptive. By contrast, co-workers of mine who have kids in Marin public schools speak of paraprofessionals who are proactive, emailing the parents constantly with updates and the like. Moreover, special ed issues become particularly heightened in trying to transfer or to get into middle school. Inclusion is only offered at particular elementaries and middle schools -- if there's no opening in one of those programs, you are stuck. (RSS kids are part of the general lottery system.) I've found it virtually impossible to transfer my inclusion kid despite repeated attempts. (I'm actually now trying to get my kid out of inclusion, primarily because of how it has become a "trap" for us.) Which brings us to GATE. My understanding is that the GATE factors are expansive enough to include special ed kids, but that some elementaries don't let in special ed kids (like my kids' elementary). GATE doesn't matter much in elementary, but it apparently does matter a great deal in middle schools. GATE-idenfication is an important factor in whether you can get your kid into the honors classes. And in the middle schools that have classes with less motivated kids, it is very important to get your kid into an honors program since that's where the kids who are motivated are -- even if your kid is a special ed kid. In other words, if your kid is special ed, you don't want him or her hanging out with the troublemakers. Anyway, I've exhausted myself here, but I'm really interested in what other folks experiences in inclusion, RSS and special day are.

  13. There should be more transparency in the process when it comes to school placement for parents of kids with IEPs. It is NOT a straight lottery for spots, and is it right that some parents are rewarded for their strong advocacy and parents who don't know how to advocate are given less popular schools? Hmm.

    I agree that inclusion SHOULD be offered at all schools, but it is not just a civil rights issue, it is a budgeting issue. It costs less to have an itinerant speech or occupational therapist come to a school once or twice a week than it would to have an inclusion team there, so you can't really compare. Giving the job of inclusion teacher to the school's RSP accepts that she hasn't been as trained in certain aspects or special education. Being a good inclusion teacher is a different challenge than being a good RSP. To have inclusion at all schools would be great, but very costly. For kids in SDCs it would probably be better to have less grade combining, but then you would be looking at five or six special education classes at each school, with less choices of schools with SDCs. In special ed, as in other aspects of education, it is hard to ignore the bottom line.

    I say focus changes in special ed on making things more equitable for students in special ed. Why do some preschool kids with autism get a private home program and others not? Why do kids who are hard of hearing get such amazing early intervention service while those with severe language impairment often not even qualify for a five day a week program in preschool? Why do kids whose parents agree their child no longer needs services tend to be kids whose parents are less educated, and those who receive more services tend to be wealthier, more educated, and English-speaking??

  14. I hear you that it "costs" less to have itinerant speech and occupational therapists, but at a huge loss to whom -- the kids! My kid received occupational therapy from one of those itinerant people -- and the accountability just wasn't there. She would not show up for set periods with my kid; I wouldn't find out until my kid's teacher said something to me; by the time I got hold of her to challenge her more time would pass by. There needs to be accountability and moving specialists around it a classic way to have no accountability. Also, there needs to be better training. It is very obvious to me that the many of the paras are, while well-meaning, woefully ill-prepared, particularly to handle ADD kids.

  15. Translate please: what is an RSS and RSP?

  16. I can't remember the designations either, but they matter, as I've found to my horror. To translate, RSS is a designation for kids who need the most minimal level of special ed -- so, for example, a kid with an IEP can get speech therapy or something relatively not serious like that. All schools handle RSS kids, and thus being RSS does not affect anything like ability to be admitted or to transfer. An RSS kid is managed by a Resource Specialist or RSP. Inclusion encompasses kids who are getting more extensive services. So, for example, a kid with ADD who needs a paraprofessional in class to help for periods of the day (as well as speech therapy and occupational therapy) might be an inclusion student. Only some schools have inclusion programs. Inclusion students can only transfer to other schools that have inclusion openings; inclusion students "compete" against each other to be admitted to schools with inclusion programs. What I believe the commenter above was criticizing about inclusion is that RSPs are handling inclusion students when they really are not properly trained to handle kids with more significant special needs. (I would tend to agree with him/her.) "Special Day" are for kids with more serious special needs issues -- those classes are separate from general ed classes entirely and are only at some schools. An even smaller percentage of schools are special day; special day kids compete for open slots at middle schools, etc. The article that set this line of comments off was mostly talking about Special Day class arrangements. Hope this helps!

  17. "RSPs are handling inclusion students when they really are not properly trained to handle kids with more significant special needs."

    Well, lots of the inclusion support teachers (ISTs) are not really trained to handle kids with more significant needs either, they just have a lower caseload; it is supposed to be 10 kids max but SFUSD is piling on kids to their caseloads, about 14 kids. RSPs have a caseload of 26, I think.

    Point is, they can call something a program and act like it is specialized, but the services are supposed to follow the kid, not vice-versa.

  18. I wanted to ask a general question to folks out there whose kids may be in special ed. Are there differences between the SF public elementaries in the quality of the special ed teachers that are there? And I mean this question to go beyond just the issue of which elementary provides Special Day, Inclusion or just RSS. That is, I'm wondering whether the tier 1 schools -- the Clarie Lillienthals, the Rooftops, the Clarendons, the Alvarados -- generally have better special ed than the rest of the public schools. Does anyone care to comment? PS -- I'm asking this as someone whose kids are special ed students who go to a very much second tier public elementary. And I've just been appalled at the lack of training, the failure to be proactive among the special ed paras in my kids' school. So I'm wondering if, just looking at special ed, whether the grass is truly greener in the better publics?

  19. Short answer is "no". In fact, I think the top tier schools have weaker special education classes and teachers because their priorities are not to include those kids and make them a big part of the school culture, they hide them away and don't talk about them.

    Another huge problem is turnover ... you can also hunt for a school and pick that school because you are impressed with the experience and personality of the special education teacher, only to get there in August and find out the teacher you liked isn't with that school anymore. That happened to me, and it was very disappointing, as was the fairly worthless teacher we were saddled with in his place.

  20. December 17th -- Thanks for the comment. I truly appreciate it. I kind of feel like I'm finding my way around in the world of SF special ed with a blindfold on! The only consistently positive stories I hear about special ed are from friends whose kids are in public schools in Marin. Anyone else care to comment about SF public special ed?

  21. Please share: what do your friends say about SpEd in Marin?

  22. Sorry for the delay -- I have three friends with special ed kids in the Marin public schools. One in elementary, one in middle and one in high school. One of these friends moved to Marin specifically because of how good the special ed folks are there. And what I hear is universal praise -- the special ed folks are extremely well-trained and, most importantly, extremely pro-active. And they are particularly good for middle and high school. Communication is quick and effective -- and they are always responsive. They are generally proactive in getting the kids tested by psychologists, and try creative and unique approaches. Sorry to say that this is precisely opposite my experience in my kid's SF elementary school. I put in the comment above just to see if perhaps there were SF elementaries (and even middle or high schools) that had better regarded special ed services. I really feel like I'm flying in the dark. And unlike my friends, I can't move to Marin. I can't afford Laurel or Stern private schools that focus on special ed (my other half is getting laid off next week), and so I'm really trying to make the SF public schools work for my kid. I'm just having a really hard time at their school and I'm feeling like transferring is just going to knock my kid from one problem situation that we at least know to another one that we don't know.

  23. 9:58 Just want to extend my sympathies for your difficult situation. I have also heard good things about special ed in Marin from two friends who have kids in San Anselmo schools. Completely different from my own negative experience in SF.

  24. Can anyone give me an idea of which SFUSD schools to avoid or to list?

    I have my kid going into K next year, so I am preparing my lottery forms now. He has an IEP for Speech already, and also has some ADHD-like behaviors as well as being oppositional with authority at times. No formal dx on the latter, as the pediatrician doesn't like to dx in the ADHD field until a child is at least 6.

    He is a generous and loving kid, but he can be set off by the wrong approach quickly as snapping your fingers. Any school that has a bossy or non-supportive K teacher we need to avoid like the plague.

  25. And thank you all for your honesty. I would hate to pack it up and leave the City for Marin

  26. Does anyone know anything about the Special Day class at Rooftop Elementary?