A Plea for Special Ed Reform at CCUSD
On May 8, 2018, what started as a routine Culver City Unified School Board meeting at City Hall, transitioned into an impassioned plea. A chorus of CCUSD elementary school parents and teachers testified about Special Education (SE) practices in the school district — its long-time practice of segregating SE students, and the urgent need, in CCUSD elementary schools, for up-to-date, research-backed inclusionary teaching methods, such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a methodology that integrates all students in one classroom and offers flexible ways with which students engage and access materials. UDL practices have been preliminarily introduced in CCUSD’s middle and high school.
Earlier in the evening, Culver City Middle School Principal Elsy Villafranca, shared a video presentation, a high-level overview of the proposed expansion of an inclusion program for students with special needs, and the observed benefits for SE children. In the video, Ms. Heather Mekemson, an inclusion teacher, describes “increased peer-to-peer friendships, a higher-level of learning, and increased social interactions, not only from students with disabilities, but also among students of the general education environment.”
CCUSD Superintendent Leslie Lockhart showed her support of the evening’s focus on SE, stating, “We really want to support our teachers, in their efforts to build…expertise in Universal Design for Learning…I’m not talking about just special education teachers. I’m talking about every teacher.” She continued, “UDL practices are solid instructional practices that benefit all of our students, and as exemplified in the work (we) have been doing with the secondary teachers…we envision the same process to begin at the elementary school level…It’s time.”
Testimony Highlights Spoken before the CCUSD School Board
Lindsay Crain, Linwood E. Howe Parent
“I have a second grader at Linwood Howe and I’m here to support our incredible teachers and staff who work with students with disabilities throughout the district. They’re struggling, as are the families, to work with an antiquated system that’s not backed by research: segregated classrooms.
The sad reality is many students in elementary school are not getting equal access to the core four subjects. While typical peers get science and social studies every day for an hour, some students in the SDE’s (special day classes) may receive science instruction a couple times a week. Many get it once a week, and some less. It would be illegal to let our gen ed students miss half of the mandated curriculum.
It’s unethical to continue this practice with our students with disabilities. Imagine generations of children who passed through this district, without being taught some of the basic tenets of curriculum, in any meaningful way. This has to stop.
This is the way it has been historically done. I don’t think anyone is continuing this out of malice, but I think everyone can agree that we should not be robbing an entire set of children out of an equitable education.
Inclusion needs to happen, and it’s not a gift for a small group of kids, or a small group of teachers. Universal Design for Learning benefits every type of learner, from the most gifted to the most challenged; it’s backed by science and research, and it’s where we need to be headed immediately.
I’m encouraged every time I hear our heads of curriculum say we’re paving a path towards inclusion, as well as the efforts of the middle and high school, but this needs to start in preschool.
Every day we’re talking without a plan. Students with disabilities are receiving half an education. The number of students who need services are growing. You can’t keep sticking kids in a separate classroom, and ignoring the glaring deficits in this model.
What does this practice say about our philosophy to the other kids in school?
We need a plan. We need an inclusion specialist or consultant to begin assessing our district immediately, as in: hired and ready-to-go for next year. Every child deserves evidence-based instruction.
No student in this district deserves to be an afterthought.”
Kelly Hatfield, El Marino Parent
“I have a unique perspective as both a Special Education teacher and a parent. Special education parents often feel marginalized and unsupported. Even with my background, I find CCUSD to be very lacking in transparency and communication. Parents and teachers are afraid to speak up, afraid about retaliation, or our children getting a target on them.
The special education practices in Virginia were light years ahead in 2000, and, where Virginia continued to evolve, it seems California has not. It’s stuck in the old practices. There’s 50 years of research on inclusion and there is no proof that segregated classes are better. In fact, research shows the opposite is true. Other districts and states are evolving and moving forward, why hasn’t CCUSD?
My mom is a special ed teacher in high school in Virginia. She started a full inclusion program many, many years ago, and she found that she ended up helping the general ed kids more than the special ed kids. The general ed teachers begged to have the special ed kids so that they could get the co-teaching practices.”
Arianna Demerski, El Rincon SE Teacher
“When we have these inclusive practices in place everybody involved grows. First, our general education teachers and our special education teachers will have more collaborative time to enact assessments, and input accommodations necessary for students, no matter what their disability, who should be represented on the general education roster as well.
Our students with disabilities would not have academic thinking modeled for them by their general education peers, but would also have very important social skills, language opportunities, which can only be created in large classroom settings, and by students who already have these skills. Finally, by having this diverse population of students with disabilities represented in the classroom, we increase empathy compassion and understanding for our general education students.”
Deanna Kandle, CCMS and La Ballona Parent
“My son, for the first time, is fully immersed (at CCMS). At least half of his classes are not just special day classes but, are also typical classes. It’s amazing to see his confidence, what social interactions he has, how funny he is, and how confident he is, coming home. If I even tried to talk about the fact that he has special needs, he’d stop me in the middle of the conversation.
Andrea Parra, El Rincon Parent
“I’m really excited about sending my son to the middle school. I look forward to his being included in the classroom, and in the general ed classrooms.
(I agree with) the urgency to hire an inclusion specialist to evaluate the programs that are in place now, and make significant recommendations as to how those programs might be modified. Many of us have felt excluded from the general communities. Not intentionally, but just because of our kids and their special needs we end up having like a parallel universe.
The turnover of the special day instructors is concerning. Linwood Howe is especially affected, and I’m not quite sure why that is, so that is also something that maybe we should look at.”
Sandra Albers, Linwood E. Howe Parent
“As a parent of a special needs kindergartener at Linwood Howe, I’m here to support the Special Ed teachers in our schools. I ask that they be provided with enough aides, with enough support from the administration, with enough training for the general-ed teachers, to be able to co-teach with them, effectively.
(My child’s) diagnosis is a rare one. It doesn’t fit a specific well-known set of deficits, strengths or prognosis for the future, so I’m especially grateful when he’s given access to the same curriculum and same expectations as his general ed peers.”
Lina Riano, Linwood E. Howe Parent
“We feel these kids are isolated. That they are not included with the rest of the peers. It’s just amazing how you see these kids every morning in this assembly and they are apart from the rest of the group. I don’t really understand why. We would like for them to be included with the rest of the kids.”
Anasa Pickens, Linwood E. Howe Parent
“I’ve spent a good time with Linwood Howe with my son and the first few years that he was there as a special needs child who doesn’t have a lot of integration in the school, I would ask him if he had any special people in his life. He couldn’t really say who affected him.
They seem to be left out. There’s nothing more disheartening than to watch a class of children, who are just as good as everyone else, be in the back of a room. Their classroom separated from everyone else. It’s almost like they were a little bit of an embarrassment because we don’t know how they’re going to behave, and they behave just like all the other children.”
Deborah Glenn, Linwood E. Howe Parent
“We have to put aside the status quo of largely segregating kids who have special needs in special day classes that limit their access to the broad curriculum they will need to graduate. We’ll have to transform ourselves into the inclusive district. Forty years of research shows, when done right, inclusion not only benefits kids who have disabilities, it benefits all the kids, and that’s because they are exposed to tailored instruction that meets the way different individual kids learn.
The current system is not up to the task. Not only does it shortchange the kids who have special needs, it also takes away the opportunity to give our typical learners the benefits of being taught side-by-side with these kids. It underestimates their ability to understand, embrace and accept those peers.”