A few months into her tenure as superintendent, West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) Superintendent Toni Beal began to notice certain things about the district’s special education program that gave her pause.
“We have a high number of special education students in non-public schools, when you compare us to districts around us,” Beal said. “Plus I was attending IEP (individualized education plan) meetings and noticed some procedural things that didn’t seem correct. I was the director of special education in the Ross Valley District for almost five years and I have a lot of experience about what makes a good IEP and I thought, ‘Hmm, we could do a little better here.’”
To get a better handle on the situation, Beal contacted Adam Stein, executive director of the Sonoma County SELPA, the local agency in charge of overseeing special education.
“We talked about having the SELPA come in and do an audit of our programs to see what was really going on,” Beal said.
The SELPA staff spent one day interviewing teachers and staff members at Analy, El Molino and Laguna high schools and three days reviewing the district’s IEPs.
Stein delivered results of this review at the board meeting on Jan. 23.
“I’m always gratified when someone wants to really look into the dark corners and shine some light on things,” Stein said.
He started with the good news: “The positive things include Toni’s obvious interest, knowledge base and background in special education, which will really help with this.”
Other positives included “some agreement on what the program needs across all schools,” Stein said, “as well as a sense that the staff had maintained good strong relationships with families, which is really important. And, in general, staff felt that students with disabilities were broadly accepted on all campuses, which was a really positive thing.”
A list of concerns
At the meeting Stein did not enumerate the list of concerns in the report, but it’s a long one. The following is a partial list of concerns from the draft report:
- Training of special education teachers has become lax, and teachers are not up to date on legal responsibilities. There are poor or no notes in some IEPs and little procedural consistency.
- Site administrators have no real special education training and do not use Special Education Information System (SEIS).
- Case managers do not see all of their students at some schools.
- Caseloads seem to be low.
- There are too many students in non-public schools and SCOE programs. TLC Child and Family Services asks the district to do a lot of initial assessments.
- There is a need for more inclusive practices, like co-teaching.
- There is no real process for alignment with feeder districts.
- There does not appear to be an exiting process when students are capable of achieving without special education assistance.
- High school teachers spend an enormous time on instruction, case management, collaboration and prep. Special ed. teachers spend much more time on tasks than their gen ed. colleagues. Special ed. teachers are using their prep period to hold IEPs.
- High school classes are not designed well to serve students in special ed. There are not enough options for success.
- High school students with IEPs are not well supported in college prep classes as teachers do not differentiate for them. Teachers do not have/use lists of accommodations.
How to solve these problems?
According to Stein, the report’s primary recommendation for solving these problems is the hiring of an administrator to manage the district’s special education program. It’s being overseen by the district’s psychologist.
“We heard from both teachers and administrators that there wasn’t enough oversight and that a number of challenges that people were facing were partly attributed to the lack of really deep ability to oversee the program,” Stein said.
“The best case scenario would be to hire an administrator to do that work for you,” Stein said, “to make sure that training happens for staff and that it is coordinated and targeted, as well as to create a meaningful and supportive environment for your special education staff, which will mean a more meaningful and supportive environment for students.”
Stein went on to address the report’s next recommendation.
“The next piece is to develop a multi-year professional development program for the special ed. staff, as well as for your general ed. staff in terms of understanding special education because they’re very linked,” Stein said. “Every general education teacher has pupils with IEPs in their classrooms and for them to improve their abilities to serve these students requires professional development.”
The report also suggested that the district ask the SELPA to do a root cause analysis to see why students with disabilities were lagging so far behind in their peers in terms of graduation rates.
Where do we go from here?
How do policy recommendations from the SELPA get turned into action in the classroom?
“I will be meeting with our special education departments and with the teachers to review the report, and we’ll do our planning based on that,” Beal said.