SMMUSD HDQTRS — After months of poring over a pile of studies, audits, and strategic plans on the troubled special education department, parents and teachers presented recommendations to the school board Thursday that they believe will enhance services and create a new culture of equality and access, all while saving money.

But to save money, the school board will have to spend money.

The more than 40 recommendations from the 16-member Special Education Collaborative Working Group call for more spending upfront, but the group believes improving the Individual Education Plan [IEP] process to avoid costly mediation hearings and bringing more programs in house will cut down on expenses.

An IEP is the legal document that assures a student his or her legal right to a free, appropriate public education. The process of creating IEPs has been one of the most contentious issues in recent years as parents have alleged “secret deals” and being coerced by attorneys and district staff into signing confidentiality clauses in their child’s IEP, a practice that has since been banned by the Board of Education.

“The intent of our recommendations is to create cost-effective programs that we haven’t had that will ultimately be beneficial in saving the district money over time,” said Craig Hamilton, a member of the Working Group, the district’s Financial Oversight Committee and a parent of a child in special education.

“We have been spending more for less satisfaction,” Hamilton told the board. “I would encourage you … to look very carefully at the recommendations with the idea that the reason we made them is they are going to result in more cost-effective programs and a better level of special education. It’s not just about spending more money.”

A potentially expensive recommendation is the hiring of a full-time integration director to ensure that a culture of acceptance and integration is established and maintained throughout the district.

The director would be responsible for expanding the elementary school “buddy” program at each school site to foster relationships between special ed and general ed students; establish collaborative classrooms at all grade levels at all schools; develop an awareness campaign for all students to encourage sensitivity, understanding, compassion and friendship; and ensuring special ed students are able to participate in all school activities, including field trips, winter and summer camps and after-school programs.

The Working Group also recommended the district develop an IEP packet for parents, conduct mandatory training for special ed and general ed teachers, hire a special needs liaison and draft a special education procedural handbook for all staff members.

“General ed teachers are just as important to the IEP team as we are and the parents and the child,” said JoDee Moen, a special education teacher at Santa Monica High School and a member of the Working Group. “What they see with our kids in the classroom is vital to meeting the needs of the child. … It’s got to be a team effort.”

The Working Group, which was comprised of parents, teachers and administrators, met 10 times between the end of November of 2008 and the beginning of March. Meetings were held from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and subgroups of parents and educators met separately to draft, refine and formalize recommendations for seven goals.

A town hall forum was held in February, where the group gave the public an opportunity to make recommendations of their own and comment on the work completed by the group.

The seven goals identified are:

• Create a culture of inclusion.

• Recruit, retain and train excellent special education staff.

• Improve the IEP process.

• Ensure equitable access.

• Improve communication systems and Web sites.

• Strengthen the process of early identification, assessment and intervention.

• Continuously improve programs/instruction.

The Working Group did not have enough time nor resources to dive deeply into programs and instruction, recommending a task force be created to review curriculum and make recommendations.

Superintendent Tim Cuneo is charged with creating the task force and developing a plan to make the recommendations become reality. Cuneo and district staff have already started.

The recruitment of special ed staff is taking place on a regular basis, and the district is developing an IEP packet for parents to help them navigate through the process and be prepared to advocate on behalf of their child.

The district recently completed a communications audit and has improved its Web site. Cuneo is working with a consultant on a communications plan for staff and the community at large.

Members of the Working Group said they were pleased to see the district moving forward on some of the recommendations, easing fears that the report, like others before it, would be shelved. There have been three reports on special education and one independent evaluation since 2001.

Cuneo said the recommendations would not fall by the wayside.

“I’m not letting it drop,” Cuneo said. “This is too important. … We are going to deal with it and report back to the board on a regular basis on the progress we are making.”

Cuneo admitted that the upcoming budget will have an impact on what can be accomplished and at what time. While the Working Group gave deadlines for recommendations to be completed, the reality is that some deadlines will be missed.

“At a time when we are forced to reduce staff in the district, it will be more difficult, but that is not going to be an excuse for not getting things done,” Cuneo said.

The superintendent told the school board and the Working Group that he will be focusing primarily on three recommendations which he feels will have the most impact. Those recommendations are creating a culture of inclusion and integration, improving the IEP process and improving programs/instruction.

Creating a culture of inclusion is especially important, Cuneo said, because it will have an impact on every area that needs change. It will benefit all students, not just those in special ed.

“Without that, we can’t do a lot of things,” Cuneo said.

There is a feeling amongst parents that the culture is changing. The district recently hired a new special education director, and a moratorium on settlement agreements has been in effect.

Debra Shepherd, a special ed parent and member of the Working Group, told the board Thursday night that after five years of struggling with the district over her daughter’s IEP plan, she finally reached an agreement shortly before the board meeting. She said the IEP meeting lasted seven hours, but at the end, she was satisfied.

“She is going to high school, and she is going to go to college, and her name is Dawn Smith and this is not the last time you are going to hear her name because she is going to be a success story because today the village spoke for Dawn, and we spoke for success,” Shepherd said.

Some special ed parents who participated in the Working Group said they felt, for the first time, that they had a voice and that the district was listening.

“I really do think things have changed significantly, Harris said. “I feel very positive. … We just have to keep the momentum going and I think this is an amazing model to use going forward.”

That said, there are still some concerns about the superintendent’s recommendation to the board to not hire an integration specialist or include settlement agreements in a student’s IEP, two recommendations the Working Group said were crucial.

Settlement agreements played a major role in creating a culture of fear and mistrust, parents said. Hamilton said the district, in a letter to the county, said it would begin including settlements in IEPs and was concerned that the district was backpedaling.

“There seems to be some inconsistency there,” Hamilton said.

After considerable debate, the Working Group felt it was imperative to include the settlements.

“This is our number one concern about the IEP process,” Harris said. “There has been significant change in the IEP process, which has been improved dramatically, but we felt as a group … it is just not right to have settlement agreements out there with services separate from the IEP. It sends the wrong message.”

School board member Ben Allen said the board was not prepared to make endorsements of certain recommendations Thursday, as it was the first time the body had an opportunity to review the report in a public forum.

However, “the board is pretty open to what was presented … and I think that I wouldn’t be surprised if [inclusion of settlement agreements are] taken up by the district,” Allen added.

School board members thanked community members for their efforts and pledged to evaluate the recommendations and make progress, especially when it comes to bringing more services in-house instead of contracting out with private providers.

“In the end if we can’t institutionalize the work, it’s really not worth the effort,” said school board member Oscar de la Torre.

The Working Group will reconvene within four months to discuss the district’s progress.

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