An ambitious plan to move San Francisco special education students into mainstream classrooms is getting mixed reviews from teachers and sparking a debate over class size as the school district and teachers union try to reach an agreement on a new labor contract.
The shift is part of an effort to improve special education by teaching students in the least restrictive environment possible, a model known as inclusion. Last fall, under the new plan, special education students in kindergarten and sixth and ninth grades were given a wider choice of schools they could attend and, in some cases, placed in general education classes.
Although teachers support the concept of inclusion, they worry that the district’s implementation has been haphazard.
“It’s great, provided that it meets the students’ needs, but there seems to be a push toward this whether or not it meets the students’ needs,” said Patty Golumb, a special education teacher at A.P. Giannini Middle School. “Some of the kids are five or six grade levels behind in reading, and they’re saying that they should be able to access mainstream classes.”
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Leaders of the teachers union argue that the district's contract proposals could actually undermine special education.
One proposal to raise the cap on the number of students allowed in special education classes would make it nearly impossible for teachers to give kids the individual attention they need, according to Linda Plack, vice president of the United Educators of San Francisco, the union that represents the district’s 6,000 teachers and other school staff.
Plack said the district's goals seem to be contradictory. It wants to allow more students in special education classes at the same time it is trying “to make general education classes larger and put as many kids as possible into general ed," she said.
Dr. Elizabeth Blanco, assistant superintendent of special education, said the district needs the flexibility to place students in whichever classes suit them best.
“It’s not about trying to overload teachers and give them more work,” Blanco said. “It’s a matter of giving our students more access to the least restrictive environment. Some of the current caps don’t allow us to do that.”
Class preparation time is another divisive issue. For years, special education teachers in secondary schools have been allowed two periods per day to prepare lessons, work with families and meet with colleagues. General education teachers are allotted one such period a day. The district now wants special education teachers to work with students during one of their two preparation periods.
“There’s nothing in the contract that delineates an extra preparation period,” said Tom Ruiz, the district’s chief negotiator for labor relations. “Every preparation period costs about $13,000 per year. Before we were kind of going above and beyond what the contract provided, but you have to look at the fiscal issues.”
But Plack said teachers need time to manage the additional paperwork and meetings associated with special-needs students.
“You can call it what you want,” she said, “a counseling period, conference period, coffee at Starbucks, but they did a lot of work during that period. I don’t see how they’re going to get it all done now.”
The teachers union and the district began meeting with a mediator last week, after contract negotiations broke down this spring. Both sides say they want a new labor agreement before school starts in August.
Two months ago, the California Department of Education found the district in violation of more than 100 special education regulations during the past year. The violations include failures to properly assess students’ disabilities, implement federally mandated services and employ qualified staff to work with special-needs students.
The report angered parents who have argued for years that the district has failed their children. Last month, at a meeting of the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, parents had the opportunity to speak directly to the district’s incoming superintendent, Richard Carranza.
He asked to hear their concerns but said he was also interested in “what’s working, what’s going well.”
Patrick McAllister – who pulled his son out of Alamo Elementary School in March, citing a sharp decrease in services for special education students – rose from his seat and said: “I get really upset, Mr. Carranza, for you coming here when the district is under investigation by the state and saying, ‘What’s going right?’ ”
Carranza tried to reassure the group. “How many superintendents have come to your meeting? This is my third time. I’m invested," he said.
McAllister and other parents at the meeting complained that teachers – even those with specialized credentials – are unqualified to work with students struggling with physical, developmental and emotional challenges.
“While there are dedicated special educators that have a tremendous, positive impact on their students, the overall lack of qualifications is a serious issue,” McAllister said. “Just ask the state.”
Teachers say they want more training, too.
“I couldn’t agree with them more,” Maggie Englesbe, a special education teacher at Sutro Elementary School, said of the parents’ concerns. “We get a lot of feedback about writing compliant Individualized Education Programs” – written agreements with parents outlining which services a student will receive – “but not a lot of professional development around teaching and learning.”
At the meeting, Carranza and Blanco promised that would change in the coming months. The district will have to provide more training for teachers in order to comply with state regulations.
“I think there has to be a basic cycle of training for anybody coming into an existing system,” Blanco said. “General education teachers should be trained as well as special education teachers on how to work with students who have challenging behaviors.”
The move toward inclusion began in 2010, when independent auditors hired by the district found that students with special needs were largely marginalized and viewed by administrators as an encroachment on school resources. Special education students were flailing in a web of isolated programs, “resulting in fragmented and disconnected services for these students,” according to the report.
The district lacked “a clear agenda for how it can provide equity and access to students with disabilities, improve expectations for their achievement and implement the accountability structures necessary to ensure results,” the auditors wrote.
They recommended the district abandon its traditional special education programs and instead provide services to students in mainstream settings. In September 2010, the district adopted those recommendations and began gradually moving toward inclusion. Carranza, then assistant superintendent, vowed to fully implement the plan.
He acknowledges the move will take years.
“We’re not looking at special education as a place where you go,” he said. “We’re looking at special education as a service that takes place in a general education classroom.”
Still, he said, “We’re changing the paradigm, and it’s going to be messy.”