SMMUSD HDQTRS — Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District staff and parents celebrated the healing of wounds and strides taken in educating students with special needs at the Board of Education meeting Wednesday night.
In an emotional presentation, several parents addressed the board and special education team, describing the adversarial relationship they’d once had with staff, and how the culture had changed for the better.
“The last time I spoke to the board was when I had been abused by the administration and special education staff,” said Christy Hobart, co-chair of the PTA special education committee. “Now, there’s a true culture of collaboration.”
That phrase, “culture of collaboration,” became a common thread amongst parents who spoke, many saying they no longer felt the need to approach meetings armed with attorneys and education advocates to get a fair deal with the district.
Problems with the special education system emerged in 2007, when a group of parents went to the City Council with concerns about how the district approached their children’s education.
Parents of special education students found themselves at odds with the district in negotiations for students’ individualized education plans, which are created every year for special education programs and detail what services children will receive to help them succeed.
The district required parents to sign confidentiality clauses that barred them from speaking about the services children received, creating a culture of fear and mistrust both between parents and between parents and the district.
City Council members refused to remit approximately $500,000 until the district proved that it had reformed its methods, including putting a stop to the use of confidentiality clauses and requiring an independent review of the special education department.
Then-Superintendent Dianne Talarico left before the end of the 2007-08 school year, and current Superintendent Tim Cuneo signed on with a mandate to fix the broken system.
Since, the special education department, under the direction of Dr. Sara Woolverton, has become a place where parents and students feel welcome again, said Theresa Harris, co-vice chair of the PTA’s special education committee.
“There’s always some give and take, but the end result is working together as a team,” Harris wrote in an e-mail Thursday. “This collaborative approach is what Dr. Woolverton is all about.”
Although relief and positivity dominated the discussion, the department still has room for improvement, acknowledged Chief Academic Officer Sally Chou.
In an effort to increase accountability and responsiveness, the district began giving surveys to parents at the end of IEP meetings. The Board of Education sees those survey results — lacking names and schools the children in question attend — as part of a reporting process.
The practice of handing out the IEP surveys is spotty, Chou said.
“They are expected to distribute these surveys at the end of the IEP. Sometimes it doesn’t end well, and we have to know that does happen,” Chou said Thursday. “Sometimes parents leave abruptly, and they don’t get the survey.”
At the meeting, board member Oscar de la Torre questioned the practice, and asked that a greater effort be given to ensure that all parents get included in the survey process.
“If teachers are not giving them to everyone, how do you know that you have a legitimate sample?” he asked.
Chou, who jokingly referred to herself as the “receptacle of forms,” receives between 300 and 600 surveys every reporting period.
The special education staff took the opportunity to present techniques and programs being used in SMMUSD classrooms, including technology-driven tools that help severely disabled students communicate with the world.
The district is trying different programs to assist with reading, math and social skills that use assistive technology like computers and interactive whiteboards.
“Many of the strategies are the same that we use in general education, but modified and adjusted to a child at their level,” Cuneo said on Thursday. “The other thing that’s being done is that we’re piloting programs and collecting information that informs us on the next steps that we will take to continue with that strategy or jettison it.”
The programs, including the Read 180 and Math Whizz programs, are research-based and vetted by educators. They allow students to take tests which seem like games, and then give them lessons at their own level, Woolverton said.
Other technologies help children that can’t speak communicate with the outside world.
Woolverton showed a video of a pictoral slideshow created with an iPod by a SMMUSD student named Gabe, showing a day in his life.
The pictures were accompanied by text, which was read aloud by the device.
“He drives the story, and the teachers type for him,” Woolverton said.
The iPod allowed Gabe to describe his life to his parents for the first time, Woolverton said.
New curriculum and programs help special education students move forward with learning, but some advocates still hope to see comprehensive reading and math programs instituted in the schools.
Tricia Crane, a long-time special education advocate, expressed cautious happiness that parents and teachers seemed pleased with the results of the computerized programs available in some schools.
“If I were on the board, I would have asked what the data is to show that students are benefiting,” she said. “Students with disabilities need to receive comprehensive programs in reading and math and we want to be sure we aren’t using supplemental computer based programs because they are easier or more fun.”