CITYWIDE — When it comes to improving special education in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, an ad hoc committee of parents and students have more than one idea.

Just several months after the 16-member Working Group was assembled to review a pile of studies, audits and strategic plans that have been conducted for the troubled special education department, a set of proposed recommendations was presented to the community during a town hall meeting on Monday.

“My hope is we become the model for others and we can then share our success of the ways in which we approached some very, very difficult times,” Superintendent Tim Cuneo said.

The list covered six different areas in which the committee felt improvement was needed, including communications and new media, recruitment and retainment of staff, integration of special education students, negotiation sessions for Individualized Education Plans, early intervention, and program development.

Many of the recommendations addressed the underlying problem of the culture and attitude toward parents and students with special needs, suggesting changes that include expanding the elementary school buddy program to include special education children and hiring a liaison to act as a go-between for IEP meetings.

The nature of the meetings has been one of the more contentious issues in recent years as parents have alleged “secret deals” and being coerced into signing confidentiality clauses in their children’s IEP, a practice that has since been banned by the Board of Education.

The committee suggests that the IEP process can be improved by holding training sessions for parents before the school year and mandating that the person running the meetings have consistent teaching contact with the student in questions and is familiar with the case.

The recommendations also speak to ways in which teacher can be involved in early intervention, requiring training for all general education teachers and CREST — a City Hall-sponsored afterschool program — staff members on how to identify students with special needs.

The issue of inclusion is also reflected in the set of recommendations, which suggest ensuring children with special education are able to participate in all activities, including field trips. One parent at the meeting said that her child was excluded from a recent trip to an amusement park because the school administrator had determined it would not be appropriate for students with special needs.

The recommendations also touch on ways in which the district could recruit the best educators available, including reaching out to local community colleges and universities to attract qualified students from the teaching field and instituting an exit interview to acquire feedback on the reason for leaving.

While many parents spoke positively of the committee’s efforts to date, the concern remained that the recommendations would be shelved. Administrators have assured that the report won’t just collect dust.

“There’s a big commitment in the group to say ‘we don’t want this to die,’” said Laura Peck, a consultant with the Claros Group who is facilitating the group’s meetings.

The Working Group has met six times since its formation last fall. It is expected to reconvene on Thursday to digest all of the information and input received at the town hall meeting before sitting down with the superintendent to go over the recommendations, which will be presented to the Board of Education before the end of March, Peck said.

John Joseph, the parent of a kindergarten student with autism, said that while the workshop was positive, he still had concerns about whether any of the recommendations would be instituted.

A parent in the district for just a few years, Joseph spoke of a difficult experience with the district, going to court at least once over a dispute with his son’s IEP and signing one of the “secret deals.”

“I hope what is going on now isn’t just going to be empty words, that they will change the culture,” he said.

melodyh@smdp.com

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