SMMUSD HDQTRS — It’s been a long time coming, but parents with children in special education said they are seeing some progress in reforming the once troubled department.

Those improvements in a program that was once described as fostering a culture of secrecy and intimidation will be highlighted during the Board of Education meeting tonight when district staff will go over the changes in the department since the critical report by Lou Barber & Associates in the spring of 2008 and discuss ongoing efforts to restore trust and build a collaborative relationship with parents. 

Released during the final few months of former Superintendent Dianne Talarico’s administration with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, the report described concerns by parents about the contentious negotiations with district officials over their children’s individualized education plans, specifically the former practice of imposing a moratorium on confidentiality clauses. The report listed 27 recommendations for the district to create a culture of inclusion and better manage its finances related to special education spending. 

Included in a report to the Board of Education is an extensive list that details activities since spring 2009 and whether they fall in line with recommendations made in the independent audit or by the Special Education Collaborative Working Group, which earlier this year reviewed old studies and strategic plans and compiled a list of 40 suggestions to improve the department. 

That checklist shows that a number of steps have been taken toward implementing those recommendations, holding educational forums with parents, training the management team on special education policies and regulations, and monitoring the IEP process through feedback forms. 

“It’s not so much what we have done, but what more can we do to make it better,” Chief Academic Officer Sally Chou said.

The next forum will be held on Oct. 24 at John Adams Middle School, focusing on creating unity through collaboration and featuring keynote speaker Doug Fisher, a researcher and professor in the field of reading and the brain. 

The event will be hosted by the district and Santa Monica-Malibu PTA Council’s Special Education Committee, which formed last year in response to the issues in the troubled department. 

The PTA last year formed a Parent Resource Network that designated a volunteer special education point person at six different schools, offering advice and assistance to parents. Another five schools were added this school year. 

There are two parent volunteers at each school. 

“We’re there mostly to listen and I think that means the world to people to know they are not in this alone,” said Christy Hobart, the chair of the Special Education Committee and parent resource volunteer at Franklin Elementary School. 

The PTA is also planning on hosting a series of parent education nights on different topics concerning special education. 

Hobart, who has a child in special education, called the changes in the program “day and night” from last year. 

“It was truly awful and now I have to say that I think we’re all working together,” she said. 

The district is in the process of adding more changes, including creating a tracking system that will better monitor contract expenditures for special education services that aren’t offered in-house. 

“They are just putting all the contracts into a spreadsheet so when invoices come in we can check them against the contracts and make sure that when new students are added, we have enough money in contracts to support (them),” Chou said. 

The district is also creating Instructional Leadership Teams consisting of general and special education teachers at each site. The teams will be responsible for professional development activities at their respective schools. 

The district recently received a $300,000 grant from the RGK Foundation to launch the leadership team program. 

Chou said that there have also been strides in integrating general and special education students. 

“We have students that are in general education classrooms and they participate in general education student activities,” she said. “There is some team teaching between special education and general education teachers.”

Theresa Harris, the chair of the Special Education District Advisory Committee, said she sees an acknowledgment in the district administration to past problems and a willingness to make improvements. 

“You can see it with the work that’s been done with the PTA in particular — the forums in the fall and the spring, the backing of the Parent Resource Network,” Harris said. 

She noted that parents are also reporting improvements in the IEP process. 

“They feel they are being respected and listened to in ways that have not been the case previously,” she said.