Friday, January 23, 2009

Top Things You Need to Know to Navigate the Special Education System

Presented by members of The SFUSD Community Advisory Committee for
Special Education (CAC) and Support for Families of Children With

John O'Connell High School
2355 Folsom Street, (@20th Street) in San Francisco.
Parking is available in the schoolyard --
Enter from Harrison Street (between 19th and 20th Streets).

Saturday, February 14, 2008 -- 8:30 am -12:30 pm


are larger group
trainings that provide an opportunity for parents & professionals to
network, share concerns, ideas, and learn about valuable information &

In response to the changing needs of families, SFCD recently began
offering monthly half-day Saturday workshops. These extended workshops
give participants an opportunity to receive more in-depth information
on a range of topics.

In addition to providing childcare and interpretation services, food
is provided to all those who pre-register.

RSVP required. Call 415-920-5040 to sign up, for more information, and
to reserve childcare or interpretation services.


  1. OK, I have to comment here since no one else has. It doesn't seem like parents with special need kids read this blog, but I felt I had to give my two cents.

    So, here goes: Four years of trying to navigate special ed in SF has taught me the following top things you need to know (and with apologies all I know relates to special needs kids who are mainstreamed, not kids in the day programs):

    1) Be careful what you insist on. I spent a year and a half fighting to get my kid extra services and then found he had been put in "inclusion" which severely limited my ability to transfer him and my options for middle school for him. And, once labeled, try and get out of it -- impossible! Often you can get some or nearly all of the same services without agreeing to designate your kid inclusion -- much of the same services can be gotten under RSS designations without messing up your freedom to transfer/get into the middle school of your choice.

    2) Training for special ed paras is woefully inadequate in SFUSD. Some are well-meaning, but even they don't really help.

    3) When looking at schools, put aside your biases and get a school that is going to work for your kid. And, when picking, remember this rule: 9 times out of 10 a special needs kid is going to do better in a highly structured environment. Those "child-driven" projects may look all fun and exciting to you, the adult, as are those teachers who offer kids lots of options and alternatives during the day. But your special needs kid is going to get lost in that environment. For nearly all of them, a highly regimented program where expectations are made crystal clear and everything is carefully circumscribed is the best place for him. (And I don't mean structured in a mean way, just in the sense that rules are clearly set out, schedules are clearly followed and expectations are made clear.) So put aside your personal biases and try to look at the school through your kids' eyes.

    4) Your kid's teacher is everything -- and I mean everything! Yes, teachers are important for your average kid, but, for special needs kids who are mainstreamed, it is vital. The teacher with attitude; the elitist; the one with all iron fist and no velvet glove -- forget about it! One year with a teacher like that and you and your kid will be in big trouble! You need to do everything on earth to get your principal to give you some say in picking your kid's teacher for next year. They will tell you that they don't do that; they will complain. Beg, plead, cajole, offer sweets, whatever. Just make sure you get your kid the warmer, gentler, always positive teacher over the elitist, the task-master, etc. The principal has to attend the IEP -- this is where you get the commitment from her!

    5) Corollary to number 4 (the teacher is everything!): fight pullouts. Pullouts are a colossal waste of time. They make the speech therapist in the school happy; they make the OT person meet her quota; but the truth is that they disrupt your kids' day, they waste time and they really end up doing nothing for him/her. Don't let them pull him/her out! Instead, the paras should be in the class helping your kid. Yes, they aren't much help (that's number 2), but for goodness sakes at least your kid is in that class with that great teacher.

    6) Once in school, watch your kid for the ultimate test: does he/she have friends and is he/she generally happy? The PTA may seem disorganized; the physical plant a mess; the principal may be worthless; but if your kid is doing well socially and is generally happy (ok, maybe not at homework time), then DON'T CHANGE A THING! If not, then you've got serious work to do: you've got to find something better. Laurel, Sterne, and Armstrong are private options, but expensive; if you screwed up number one, then you may be in big trouble at this point. Word is that the grass is truly greener in Marin public schools -- if you can afford it, consider moving.

    I could go on for a long time, but I hope this helps someone.

  2. I would comment that not everything that works for your kid is right for another kid.

    I think you meant RSP instead of RSS.

    Some parents like pull-outs for speech and OT.

    Some special needs kids do better in project based environments.

  3. Do you have any advice on kids with speech delays?
    I have a young child that IS NOT kinder ready and will be getting private help. But, I'm wondering, is putting a child in an inclusion program be ok once in kinder? Or just stick it out with private language therapy?
    What is an inclusion program like for speech therapy in public schools? I'm just trying to get a better sense before my child is enrolled in a school.

    Thanks for any input!

  4. To February 24th -- I'm the person with the top things you need to know. You can get speech therapy in elementary schools without having your kid designated inclusion. I'd shy away from trying to get your kid into inclusion off the bat unless you are feeling that your kid is really going to need lots of help. "Lots of help" would mean more than just things like speech delays -- things like ADD, pervasive delays. Inclusion gets your kid more regular paraprofessional help than RSP services get him/her-- like 45 minutes of coming in and helping your kid a day rather than one or two times a week. But it also gets your kid kind of locked into a particular designation with all the restrictions I note above. If you turn out not to like the paras in your school and you want to transfer, it may be quite difficult/impossible. One other suggestion: Speech therapists tend to like to do pull-outs; I'd encourage you to try to get the therapist to come into the class and work with your kid's teacher and your kid cooperatively rather than doing pull-outs. One final point: I see you are getting speech help privately -- Remember you can get it from SFUSD without going to elementary -- my kid had speech therapy for years while he was in preschool and I really loved the speech therapist.

  5. 3:57--

    Thanks for the info. I have thought about going through SFUSD for speech therapy but didn't know of anyone who went through the process there. Do they take "not so severe cases"?
    My child wouldn't need inclusion at all, just a mild case of speech delay, but non the less, needs help with speech.
    I would like my child to improve her speech as much as possible before she enters kinder (fall 2010). But what I want, and what my child can do are two different things! If need be, I will continue speech therapy in public school. I just want to get best informed from SFUSD and parents who are in the process before my child enters kinder.

    Do you know of certain schools that you know that have good paraprofessionals? Or do you like your school- if so, which is it? If you don't mind me asking

    I can't thank you enough for the great tip on trying to avoid pull outs. Thanks again for your wonderful info.

  6. To February 26th -- sorry for taking long to respond. On which elementaries are better for kids with special needs, I've torn my hair out trying to find out which schools have better para professionals and special needs people. When I was looking, I made it a point to visit with the "resource specialist" at each school. I totally connected with the specialist at the school my son started. And . . . he stayed one year and then he up and transferred to another elementary. I've queried on other threads on this website and pretty much everyone else has the same story: it is hard, if not impossible, to gain information on which elementaries are going to have better special ed people. And, even if you do manage to spot a school with good special ed folks, they can (and do) leave. I think it is generally true that the elementaries with better PTAs are generally going to attract over time special ed folks who are better trained. But that is a really general statement -- and I'm really not sure it holds up. The two families with special need kids I know who got their kids into one of the tier one elementaries pulled out within a couple of years. In fact, I don't really know if a parent with a special ed child should be listening to the "chatter" of the parents of non-special ed kids AT ALL. My special ed kid has attended a tier two elementary for four years now, and, while we have had some really rough patches, I think we are in pretty good shape to get him through fifth grade now. Would we have done better at a tier one? I used to think so, but now I'm starting to wonder whether we may have a dodged a bullet by not getting into a Rooftop or a Clarendon or even a Miraloma. I hate to bring up ethnic issues, but white children tend to be quite outwardly judgmental of people and can be quite dismissive of special needs kids. And that kind of ostracism can be absolutely destructive. Other ethnic groups -- particularly Chinese -- tend not to engage in such behavior (or if they do they tend not to be open about it). For example, my kid's school is heavily Chinese. We are not Chinese, but I have to say that my kid is really doing well socially in his class. He has friends, he has playdates, and he never reports kids being rude to him. And that's kind of astounding for a kid who has fairly significant focus issues and learning disabilities. Maybe if my kid had been at Clarendon, he'd be coming home every day crying because of ostracism? That's why, in my list above, I really wanted to push special ed parents to think outside the box -- don't rely on parents of kids with no delays; don't run with the pack; think hard about how your kid is going to do in a particular environment.