School board hears comments on controversial model for special education
on September 11, 2015
The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) school board opened the new school year’s first meeting Wednesday night with conversations about enrollment processing and new programs for English Language Learners, and heard opinions from community members about a plan to implement a full-inclusion model for special education students.
Several attendees vociferously expressed their opposition to the OUSD’s proposed adoption of a full-inclusion model for special education, which would place special needs students in general education classes. If it is implemented, some students with special needs or disabilities would take all their classes in general education classrooms, contrasting with the present model, in which many students split their school time between general and special education classrooms. According to district officials, severely disabled students will still be offered special services and instruction in special education classrooms, based on their needs. Students on a diploma track with mild to moderate disabilities will be the most affected by the inclusion model. This move towards a full-inclusion model follows a trend that has garnered controversy nationwide, as many educators argue that this policy does not account for the individual needs of all special needs students.
Special education teacher Mark Airgood, who at the meeting was sporting a black t-shirt with bright green lettering reading “Oakland Education Association,” works with Equal Opportunities Now/By Any Means Necessary (EON/BAMN), a caucus that promotes civil rights. Airgood, along with about a dozen teachers, parents, and BAMN members—many clad in similar fashion—attended the board meeting to argue against this model.
“Students across the country are being pushed towards mainstreaming, without any connection whatsoever to their individual needs,” said Airgood during the public comments portion of the meeting. “We need to extend the Individual Education Plan up to a full range of programs for special education students, programs, and services, as needed, as dictated by the disability.” Airgood called the plan “one-size-fits-all education” and a “cost-cutting measure.”
While some students may benefit from placement in a general education setting, the plan’s critics said, others need the support that a special education classroom offers. The group also noted the strain this would place upon general education teachers, many of whom handle large class sizes and have not received the necessary training to accommodate special needs students.
Bethany Meyer, a resource specialist at Piedmont Avenue Elementary, took the podium to notify parents of special education students of rights they retain under the California Department of Education. She stated that schools “can’t make any changes to a student’s placement or services without the parent’s consent.”
The board did not reply to these comments, nor did they discuss issues related to special education in the district. These items were not on the agenda for the meeting.
Later in the evening, OUSD COO Hitesh Haria presented figures on district enrollment and asked for feedback and questions that could help his department streamline the enrollment process. Though the information Haria presented was not new, his request catalyzed a flurry of debate amongst the board members and attendees, many of whom expressed dissatisfaction with the current waiting list system.
Currently, the OUSD allows parents to apply for enrollment in any district school, regardless of whether it is their neighborhood school or not. But not all students can enroll in their first choice school, so the district’s administrative rules state that “neighborhood siblings will receive first priority, then other neighborhood students, then outside neighborhood siblings, then PI (Program Improvement) status, and then lottery.”
Board members expressed concerns about a lack of transparency in this process and the office’s accessibility to parents. “We’ve got to introduce more transparency regarding the waiting list,” said Director Shanthi Gonzales of District 6. “There’s a lot of suspicion about the process.”
Gonzales said there are disparities in the numbers of “interesting programs” at the different schools within OUSD, mentioning the Italian program at Oakland Technical High School. “If we know that a student is in a specific program that cannot be continued somewhere else, that needs to be something that goes into consideration” in the prioritization process, said Gonzales.
Board of Education Vice President Jody London (District 1) voiced concerns that long-time OUSD families are not rewarded for staying within the district. “A big frustration for parents in my area,” London said, “is that they send their kids through elementary school and middle school, they get to high school and families who have opted out of OUSD for middle school, or never even started with OUSD, show up at Oakland Tech… and their kids are given priority in a lot of the programs, that these other families have been having their eye on.”
The two student directors on the school board contributed to the discussion as well, their responses sought by board members when the conversation shifted to how eighth graders were choosing the high schools they attended.
“I’m really glad that I did enroll in Oakland High,” said Darius Aikens, a student at Oakland High School who had been unable to enroll in his top choices of Berkeley High School or Oakland Technical High School. “But when I was listening to the presentation, my initial thought was, ‘Why aren’t all our schools top priority?’ Or ‘Why aren’t all our schools number one choices for students?’ Especially if you live, say, in West Oakland? Why is West Oakland not the school you look forward to?”
After the enrollment discussion and public comments section, many filed out, leaving only a handful of listeners left to hear about a new program for English Language Learners (ELL) students, a demographic constituting 31.4 percent of OUSD students. This program, presented by English language executive director Nicole Knight, would provide more targeted support to ELL students. This year the district will partner with Mills College to pilot a program allowing teachers to attain a newcomer teacher certificate, which would train and certify teachers to work with ELL students. The program also aims to increase family engagement, enhance existing OUSD language programs, and align language program policies across OUSD schools.
Board members expressed optimism regarding these goals and commitment to the advancement of programs designed to aid ELL students. Several raised concerns about a shortage of bilingual teachers, with Torres citing an incident at Oakland Tech High School in which the vice principal was forced to leave a teacher’s meeting in order to translate because there were no available bilingual staff members.
“We realize that we have to continue, and perhaps increase, our visa sponsorship of teachers from Spanish-speaking countries,” responded Knight, “while we develop our pipeline of bilingual teachers.”
The state of California now issues a seal of biliteracy—attached to a high school diploma—to students who graduate proficient in two languages. Knight hopes that the expansion of this program, alongside university partnership, can help recruit and train bilingual teachers from OUSD’s own school district.
The school board closed their meeting with an exercise that might be seen in any one of the OUSD classrooms, as senior business officer Vernal Hal brought out six sheets of chart paper, each labeled with a different priority for budget allocations, from college and career readiness to student engagement. He asked the board members to place dots on the priorities they deemed most important, a process designed to force members to consider the most salient points that needed to be prioritized for the budget for the 2016-2017 school year.
The next regular OUSD school board meeting will take place on Thursday, September 24.
Correction: On September 15 we updated this story to include clarifications from the OUSD regarding the special education full inclusion model, to note that it would primarily affect students with mild to moderate disabilities and that special services and instruction would remain available to students with severe disabilities.
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