A little more than a year after a district-commissioned report called for an overhaul of Berkeley Unified School District’s Special Education program, an internal report has revealed that many of the major problems still remain.
In a presentation at the school board meeting last week, Special Education Director Ken Jacopetti said that state administrators have recently criticized the district for what it called “over-identification” of special education students as well as for a low rate of transfers out of special ed. In addition, the staff report concluded that the district’s special education classes have an “over-representation of minority students.”
Berkeley parent Julia Epstein, one of the founders of the Berkeley Special Education Network (BSPED) which lobbied the district into commissioning last year’s consultant report, said that while the district has “many extraordinary special education teachers” and “progress has been slow but promising,” she found the problem with overidentification “appalling” and said that students “should not get dumped into the special education program” just because the “general education program in the district is not working properly.”
Last January, Kathleen Gee of Sacramento State University and Diane Ketelle of Mills College reported to the board and district officials that the district often pushed struggling students into special education—often segregating those students from classmates and erecting walls between the special education department and the rest of the schools.
BUSD “need[s] to rethink the organization of their services to put more resources and efforts into instruction and fewer kids into special education,” Ketelle said last year.
The school board accepted the consultants’ report.
But in their report to the board last Wednesday, Jacopetti and BUSD Special Education Manager Amy Buster said that, at least statistically, little has yet changed.
“While BUSD enrollment has been declining overall,” they wrote, “BUSD enrollment has increased in special education.” The report noted that BUSD special education enrollment rose from 924 students in December 2000 to 1,091 in December 2004, and the 12.1 percent special education enrollment rate in the district was now greater than the overall state rate of 10.3 percent. The report projected that at the current rate, BUSD special education students would account for more than 14 percent of the district’s population by the end of the year.
The report also noted that while “the state expects that 6.5 percent of special education students annually should exit and return to general education,” BUSD currently puts 0.1 percent of its special education students back into the general school population.
That translates to one student per year, a fact which was brought home to board members when Student Director Lily Dorman-Colby revealed that last year, “I was that student.”
BUSD Superintendent Michele Lawrence told board members that with an exit rate that low, “a child is labeled a special education student all of their school life.”
The report also showed that African-American students were enrolled in the BUSD special education program in greater numbers than their percentage in the district—51 percent of BUSD’s special education students are black, while 35 percent of the district’s students overall are black. The numbers were reversed for white students, 18 percent in special ed to 32 percent overall. The percentages of Asian, Hispanic, and mixed-race students in special education were roughly comparable to their percentages in the district overall.
Superintendent Lawrence called the district’s special education a “Catch-22 situation,” telling board members that if some of the money used for current special education programs could be diverted directly to the district’s schools for intensive instruction of students who are showing early learning problems, “I would be willing to bet that special education referrals would plummet, because the schools would have the resources to intervene with all of their students.”
Jacopetti said that district is looking into pilot programs at other state school districts where instead of doing evaluations of teacher-referred students with observed learning disabilities to see if the students needed to be assigned to special education, the districts are using the 50-day state-mandated assessment period to provide intensive extra reading instruction to those students.
“The districts are finding that many of these students are responding to that extra instruction, and their test scores are going up,” Jacopetti said. “That means they don’t have to be assigned to special education.”
The special education report was presented to the BUSD board as information only, which bothered BSPED member Julia Epstein.
“I was concerned that there didn’t seem to be a plan as to what to do with the information,” she said.
Epstein said that while she was “not completely disheartened” by the special education report, she suggested that the district consider rehiring Sacramento State’s Kathleen Gee as a consultant to look at what’s been put in place since last year’s report, and to give objective advice on future actions.
“I think that would be a good use for a small bit of money,” Epstein said. She added that while the district “seems to be pushing some things forward,” it is natural for parents of special education students—such as herself—to get frustrated with the pace of the process. “Parents tend to see things through the lens of their own children,” Epstein said. “Most of them want to see these reforms in time to be of some benefit to their children. So it’s difficult when things take five and six years to get accomplished. By that time, many of these students will be out of school.”?