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Special Ed Lagging Despite Reforms, Parents Say

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

September 14 -- Parents criticized the School District’s progress in special education at a School Board meeting last week, saying that the research and reorganization done over the summer had failed to make a difference in the beleaguered program.

Parents who testified at last Thursday’s meeting worried that progress had largely not reached classrooms in the district, which was found to be far out of compliance with government standards.

The criticism, echoed by some board members, came after district officials detailed progress made on a "strategic plan" parents wrote last year to bring the district's special education program into compliance with state and federal regulations.

"We have nothing really going at the beginning of the semester and I think you guys [the board] have really got to get a handle on this," said David Kramer, vice chair of the Special Education District Advisory Committee.

Kramer urged the board to take responsibility for special education reform.

"You have to be more on top of your staff," Kramer said. "The administration here, for so many years, has just not been there, and there's no one on anybody's tail. It just keeps going on and on and on."

Kramer also said he continued to have problems communicating with special education staff.

"If you wish to control parent anger then there should be a (district policy) that makes it mandatory for staff to phone your customers -- us -- back within 48 hours," he said.

The two glaring deficiencies in the district's special education have been complete lack of an autism program and absence of a standardized math curriculum, according to a report Atlas distributed in January.

The district spent more than $1 million dollars in the 2002-03 school year to send students with autism and other disabilities to private schools because the district could not adequately educate them, the report found.

Hyman Katz, parent of a student with autism who attends Lincoln Middle School, said the situation at Lincoln remains bleak even though Special Education Director Cindy Atlas said the school will be the first to test a "pilot" autism program.

"We really have nothing for the autism spectrum (now)," said Katz, who is on the district's Special Education Steering Committee.

He said he had visited a specialized autism school in San Francisco over the summer and was excited about the possibilities for educating students with autism, but had been disappointed when the school year began.

"The contrast was so stark," he said, referring to the difference between the special school and the reality at Lincoln.

Atlas noted that an autism program was in the works. The district had sent surveys to parents of Lincoln students with autism last spring and special education teachers were meeting with the parents to create individual learning plans for each child to be used as "road maps" this year, she said.

Board Member Mike Jordan asked Atlas if anything could be done short-term "to get two feet on the ground" for students with autism.

Atlas responded that the individualized learning plans would serve as guides to begin meeting the needs of each student this year.

Atlas also outlined reforms the district had begun in math and other areas, including hiring a consultant who had written a curriculum for teaching algebra to special education students. She said the curriculum would be distributed to teachers this fall and the district would also be piloting a program called "Making Math Real."

In addition, Atlas said, the special education department had been reorganized to operate more smoothly and had begun "professional development" training with teachers to instruct them on how to fulfill the strategic plan's goals of “inclusion and prevention.”

Atlas said the teachers reported that the professional development training was "exactly what they needed."

The board responded immediately to complaints that staff was slow to get back to parents, asking that a system be devised to oversee staff's rate and speed returning phone calls.

The board also decided to hear updates on special education four times a year, which Board Chair Jose Escarce said was enough for the board to fulfill its duties of "monitoring" staff's progress. Kramer countered that four meetings were not enough,

In the hopes of bringing more and more students back into the public system as reforms are made, a staff member has been placed in charge of overseeing the students who are sent to private schools because the district has been unable to meet their needs, Atlas said.

Two students returned this year, she said.
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