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Special Education Report Raises Hope for Reforms

By Matthew Artz
Tuesday January 27, 2004

Like many parents of Berkeley special education children, Maya MacArdle has had to scratch and claw to make sure her son Anthony received the education she thinks he deserves. 

Now, thanks to a special report commissioned by the Berkeley Unified School District, proposed changes could help make the task easier for her and less costly for the district. 

District Director of Special Education Ken Jacopetti estimates that by reforming the system and providing better training, the district might reduce the $1.1 million they spend on sending some special education students out of the district, and prevent some hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses that in past years have gone to defend the district in due process hearings. 

As the system now stands, “it takes constant baby-sitting on our part because everyone [in the district] is so overworked,” MacArdle said. “I don’t know of a single parent not pulling their hair out.” 

When Anthony MacArdle, who is diagnosed with autism and cerebral palsy, first entered kindergarten, his propensity to flail his arms around and hit people had school officials pushing to banish him to a segregated special education class. After she fought off that plan, she grappled with the district over an instructional aide who often showed up late and unprepared. 

Eight years and three due process hearings later, Anthony is happily enrolled in general education classes at King Middle School with the help of an instructional aide and his mother, along with other parents of special education parents, hope that years of struggling against the district bureaucracy is finally paying dividends. 

Last Wednesday, the school board enthusiastically accepted the report it commissioned calling for the overhaul of special education—which administrators acknowledged has failed some children and ballooned budget deficits. 

“We cannot continue to operate the way we are,” said Superintendent Michele Lawrence. “The dysfunction especially in the budget process for special education is like mistletoe: It will consume and eat the tree and we’ll all die.”  

Special education students range from those diagnosed with autism or Down Syndrome to those with less serious learning disabilities and behavioral issues. Some are included in general education classes, but many are segregated—depriving them of opportunities to learn beside their peers and costing the district a chance to better allocate its limited resources. 

Though report authors Kathleen Gee of Sacramento State University and Diane Ketelle of Mills College didn’t crunch numbers, they recommended reforms that could ultimately trim some of the $14 million spent annually on special education, $7.9 million of which comes from the district’s already tapped general fund. 

The biggest problem, Ketelle said, was that the district viewed special education not as services within the regular school curriculum but as a separate place inside the school. 

To ensure that struggling students received assistance, Ketelle said Berkeley pushed them into special education—often segregating them from classmates and erecting walls between the special education department and the rest of the schools. She said Berkeley High School provides the worst example, often relegating special education students to “a school within a school,” but district elementary and middle schools face similar problems to varying degrees. 

The authors said that mindset has swelled the ranks of Berkeley’s special education students to 1,128—roughly one out of every 10 students—and spawned an inefficient web of services, including 52 teachers and 124 instructional aides, many providing one-on-one service. 

Ketelle and Gee called for reassigning many of those students, most notably the 191 assigned to special day classes, mostly students diagnosed with behavioral disorders, to general education classrooms with instructional aides inside to help them and other students.  

“They need to rethink the organization of their services to put more resources and efforts into instruction and fewer kids into special education,” she said, recommending reassigning some one-on-one aides to classrooms where they could assist several students during a lesson.  

Gee said that returning the bulk of special education students to regular classes will require extensive training for all teachers and aides to tailor classroom instruction to meet their needs, a process Lawrence said is already underway. 

More training could also save Berkeley some of the $1.1 million it currently spends to send 47 of its special education students to private academies with staff qualified to handle severely disabled children, often those with autism or behavioral disorders. 

To implement the classroom reforms, Gee and Ketelle call for structural changes to the special education department.  

First and foremost is a plan already being implemented to shift responsibility for special education student assessments from district managers to schools sites. Last year, state auditors found Berkeley Unified had mothballed around 300 student assessments and had failed to update students’ individual education plans, putting the district out of compliance with state law, and vulnerable to costly lawsuits. 

“If the school doesn’t take ownership for assessing the child, it goes to the district office and falls into a black hole,” said Director of Special Education Ken Jacopetti, who found the district 240 assignments behind when he assumed his job in September. 

He is acting on Gee and Ketelle’s recommendation to reform Student Study Teams in district schools, so students that are struggling in their general education classes can get early intervention and needed services without being assigned to special education. 

Support within the schools varies, the report said, with some doing a fine job at integrating special education students and teachers into the school and others lagging behind. 

The disparities in services are apparent to Lena Willis who is eager to move her five-year-old autistic son from Rosa Parks to Leconte after he cycled through seven instructional aides in his first five months of school.  

“At Leconte they have people manage the aides so they have a plan to work with the classroom teachers. At Rosa Parks the aides are thrown into the classroom and they get commands from three or four different people and ultimately quit,” she said. 

Berkeley’s problems are not unique, said Wendy Byrnes, a parent advocate with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. “This is endemic of systemic problems across the board; it happens in a lot of places.” 

Like other districts, Berkeley gets little help in shouldering the burden of special education costs. This year the federal government will cover just 16 percent of all costs, though the 1975 Individuals With Disability Education Act had promised federal reimbursement of 40 percent. California exacerbates the money crunch by capturing federal dollars and funneling them to its own special education mandates.  

This year the state is expected to take the estimated $74.5 million growth in federal aid earmarked for special education in California and put it towards the $107.4 million the state is required to supply districts in cost of living and growth adjustments. 

Berkeley Unified officials pledged Wednesday to change their entire philosophy towards integrating special education students into their schools, which MacArdle believes will enrich the lives of other children as much as it has for Anthony. “He’s more motivated around typical peers. When he’s in an environment with only disabled kids, he just sits around and doesn’t do much,” she said. “In the regular class he’s stimulated to do his best.”