San Diego Unified's Big Special Ed Shift
It was the biggest change in the way San Diego Unified educates its students with special needs in a decade, and we wanted to know how the district had coped with the transition.
In 2008, after a report concluded that children with disabilities were too often being segregated into separate classrooms, the district began a concentrated effort to include far more children with special needs in general education classrooms in their neighborhood schools.
The shift required a complex reorganization of where kids with special needs would go to school. Rather than being grouped at relatively few sites that focused on special education, thousands of students with disabilities instead began flooding into their local schools.
Here are the conclusions we came to:
• Interviews with more than two dozen teachers, principals, experts and parents revealed a haphazard rollout of the new special education model that was plagued by a lack of vision and leadership.
• On the issue of training, specifically, there was confusion. Despite advocates pushing for mandatory training for teachers, nobody at the district ever tried to make that happen.
• There's also disagreement about how principals were trained for the big change. The top official at the district's Special Education Division says she was blocked from approaching principals to tell them about training. But that claim is refuted by her former boss, who no longer works in San Diego.
• What's clear is that individual schools were essentially left to work out how to make the move on their own, with little help from the district.
• Though many schools say they have now ironed out most of the kinks in making the transition, that's taken time and has placed undue stress on teachers while impacting the education of kids with special needs and the children they now share classrooms with.
• Some principals said three years later they're still struggling to implement the new model, as each year they must learn to teach children with disabilities they have not encountered at the school before.
Why Training Was Never Mandated
Back in October, we described how many general education teachers at the district were suddenly faced with teaching children with special needs, despite having no training on how to do so.What we didn't tell you was why the district never made that training compulsory for the thousands of teachers making the transition.
Here's why: Nobody at the district ever tried to make training mandatory, despite being urged to do so by some advocates of the change.
Arguably the district's biggest challenge in implementing the new approach was convincing skeptical teachers and principals that it was the right thing to do. An effective way to do that was to get those teachers into training sessions, to show them the benefits of inclusion, said Marvin Elementary School Principal E. Jay Derwae.
"Of course training should have been mandatory. You have to make sure everybody buys into the new paradigm shift, and you've got to be able to hold teachers' hands through the changes."
Many Principals Weren't Trained Either
While the decision that more inclusion was needed came down from the higher echelons of the district, the foot soldiers in the effort to make the change a reality were individual school principals. Like teachers, many principals at the district needed crucial training to help them assimilate their new found students with special needs into their schools. And there were practical considerations too, like how to set up "sensory rooms" where children with certain disabilities could cool down after getting upset.
Special education training was never mandated for principals either. And there's more.
Susan Martinez, executive director of the district's Special Education Division, said she was told principals were too busy to hear about additional training. She said she was told not to attend meetings with principals, and was barred from putting information about training on the district's website.
"Because of the way the system was, we were not allowed access to principals. So, the word was out there that we didn't want to work with principals," Martinez said. "We would say 'We can do training, we want to do training, but we're not allowed to.'"
Asked who barred her from approaching principals, Martinez named Grenita Lathan, who used to serve as a deputy superintendent and is now superintendent of a school district in Peoria, Ill.
Lathan said Martinez's claim is untrue. She said she'll be contacting the district. Source