SMMUSD HDQTRS — Public school officials are looking into standardizing guidelines as they continue to mainstream special education students into general classrooms.

The goal is to give special ed students a more well-rounded school experience, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District officials said.

Members of the Board of Education will consider adopting the new policy at their meeting this week.

There are about 1,350 total special ed students in the district on any given day, according to Sara Woolverton, director of special education at SMMUSD. The school district spent a little more than $20 million on special ed for fiscal year 2012-13.

The district has been mainstreaming students for decades and it’s dictated by their individual educational plans, or IEPS, Superintendent Sandra Lyon said. An IEP outlines what services a special ed student receives from the district, including tutoring and speech therapy.

(Editor’s note: This story first appeared last week, but has been updated to reflect corrections made, most notably that the district has been placing special ed students in regular classes for quite some time.)

The guidelines are intended to help administrators better balance teacher class loads when mainstreaming students, Lyon said.

The reasoning is class sizes have increased, Lyon said, and the district is making sure as it places students into general ed classrooms that class size is considered by the principal. She said in the past, principals may have done mainstreaming, but they may not have done it consistently.

“This is just creating a standardization and expectation across the district,” Lyon said.

The guidelines provide clarification on how students are assigned to and counted on class rosters, balancing classes designed to meet the needs of all students including those with IEPs as well as training for general education teachers and more, according to a report to the school board.

When counting class size, district officials will look at the time that a special education student is in a general education class. For a kindergartner to be counted, they would have to be at their desk for 60 minutes under the proposed guidelines. Students in grades one through five would have to be at their desk for 90 minutes to be counted. Those students would have to be taught core academics like language arts, math and science.

There are two classifications for students who are in special education: those who are either in special education classrooms for less than 50 percent of the day or more than 50 percent, Lyon said. Under the proposed guidelines, those who are in special ed more than 50 percent of the time would most likely remain with a special education teacher.

The greatest thing those inside the district can do is help create balanced classrooms, Steve Richardson, principal at John Adams Middle School, said.

“When I talk to our teachers at the school, I explain teachers are positioned to provide very valuable input on how we make classes and they’re positioned in a way to look at balancing kids for high and low, in terms of their learning trajectory,” Richardson said.

When special ed students are in the classroom, it does bring additional duties to the teacher. School officials need to support teachers and make accommodations and modifications to the curriculum.

“It’d be nice to look and say ‘that’s a balanced class,’ but this is where administrators’ perspective really adds value,” Richardson said. “We are excited there are regulations around this. It’s going to add value to the student experience, teacher experience and family experience.”

Under the proposal, principals would be charged with determining the best placement for students with IEPs and that classes would be “balanced” by the third week of the school year.

Mainstreaming students has been a “work in progress,” said Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Debra Moore Washington. In 2011, there was an ad hoc committee formed on what the assignment of students should look like and earlier this year guidelines were developed and discussed by principals at several meetings.

The policy would make sure students, regardless of what their disability status is, are taken care of, school board member Ben Allen said.

Wendy Parise, department chair of Early Childhood Education at Santa Monica College and a professor in the department, applauded the district for doing everything it can to include students with special needs and their families and be an active part of the community. She said research has shown it’s a positive thing for children with disabilities to be educated alongside their age appropriate peers. There have been inclusive practices for mainstreaming special ed kids for quite some time, Parise, who used to be a special ed teacher in SMMUSD, said.

“I would say it really needs to be done on a case by case basis by child. In order to make inclusive practice work properly, there needs to be appropriate amount of support for all students,” Parise said. “The … district has strived to include students with disabilities on regular campuses for years.”

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