Bethany Meyer, left, is a Resource teacher at Piedmont Elementary, and Cintya Molina, right, is a parent of a special needs child at Grass Valley Elementary (and works at United for Success).
This week I held a community forum called Building a Shared Agenda for Special Education Families and Teachers, with the goal of bringing families and teachers together to discuss the common challenges they face in their work to support the success of OUSD students. It was a great opportunity for parents to hear the challenges that OUSD SPED teachers face, and for teachers to hear about the challenges that SPED families face. I wanted to share some of what I heard with constituents, because it was very powerful.
And if you weren't able to attend, don't worry, because I think we will do more sessions in the future.
Cintya Molina, left, was one of our speakers. She has been a very active parent in OUSD's Community Advisory Committee.
Cintya Molina shared her experience as a SPED parent, and discussed the difficulty of having brand new and inexperienced teachers for her son's first two years of school, and how that led him to fall behind. She discussed how her son is often isolated from other students at the schools he attends, because the integration of SPED programs with everything else at the school is very shallow. Sometimes this leads to a successful program falling apart when an exemplary teacher leaves, because their practices do not become institutionalized at the school.
She also discussed how critical the mix of students is in Special Education classes, and shared that her son basically 'missed' his third year of school because three violent children were placed in the class midyear, and their needs were so great that other students didn't get sufficient attention.
Cintya feels strongly that all Oakland schools need to offer services for Special Education students, and to offer the breadth of support from mild to severe disabilities. She believes that this is the only way to offer real inclusion, and that the way we do special education currently means that students get less both inside and outside the classroom, because many of the schools that are doing the best work with students (trips, enrichment etc) in Oakland do not offer special education services.
She also discussed that school redesign work in Oakland has typically excluded engagement with the special education community, and so the needs of those families are not usually considered when schools are being redesigned. My ears perked up when I heard that because I am closely observing the redesign work happening now at Oakland's Intensive Support Schools. I want to make sure that we do not replicate the mistakes of the past.
Bethany Meyer shared her experiences as a new teacher in SPED. As a first-year resource teacher, Bethany was not provided teaching materials or coaching or professional development that was specific to her work. She improvised her curriculum and materials, partly from materials that were laying around the two schools she was assigned to.
Being assigned to two schools meant having to develop two seats of materials, one for each school. None of the teachers in the room on Tuesday, including Bethany, knew how to access the $200/year that is available to them to purchase materials for their classes, so she purchased all of her materials out of her own resources.
What was hardest Bethany's first year was the lack of time available for planning instruction. She spent 500 hours just on IEPs her first year, and was often pressed to find the time to get students the instruction they need. It has been an ongoing struggle to find the time necessary to collaborate with general education teachers, even though it is critical for general education teachers to learn about strategies to support students when they are not with the resource teacher (which is most of the time).
Most of the training that SPED teachers get is focused on legal compliance, which is obviously important, but so is learning how to support general education teachers who have the students most of the time. Bethany also talked about how SPED teachers and students are often invisible in the school community, and they are often excluded from PTA funding, for example. She believes this is partly because SPED students are often brought to school via busing rather than by their parents. This means that they do not get to know the other parents, which in turn means that they are often not involved in PTA or the SSCs, and that they get left out of important discussions about funding priorities, etc.
Wearing her parent hat, Bethany also shared that no one really trains SPED parents on their rights, or what they can do to better support and advocate for their students. Parents need support and need to know that IEPs are drafts and can and should be changed as student needs and capabilities change.
There were many other parents and teachers in the room who shared their concerns. There was a lot of alarm about the restructuring happening in PEC (Programs for Exceptional Children), especially about the consolidation of programs that have been successful and the changing roles of SPED paraprofessionals. Several teachers remarked that we need more differentiation between programs and staff, not less, but there is restructuring underway that many teachers believe will not improve PEC's offerings, and that will also increase the high rate of teacher turnover among SPED teachers and paraprofessionals.
Teachers and families also voiced concern about the growing size of special day classes, and the lack of teacher orientation that is specific to the needs of SPED teachers. They also pointed out that SPED teachers are highly sought after, and that other districts offer bonus pay to SPED teachers, and that this contributes to the high rate of churn among PEC teachers. They argued for a stop to the restructuring until all existing PEC vacancies are filled.
What I heard most clearly at the meeting was that SPED families and teachers both experience isolation and a lack of support, and I will be thinking about how to reduce this going forward, and how to have deeper integration of SPED families into school communities.
I also heard that our teachers and staff, despite the many positive changes in PEC, still aren't feeling the kind of support that I would like them to experience, and that we still have a ways to go. I think that having an orientation specific to new PEC teachers is critical and will be recommending that as a first step to the staff in PEC.