PAUSD’s special education department is being reorganized to reduce its independence and thereby eliminate confusion and increase efficiency, Superintendent Don Austin said.
The reorganization brings the special education services under the district’s overall educational services, according to an announcement on March 29.
“Other districts traditionally have special education as a part of educational services, which means they’re more closely tied to the general education part of curriculum and instruction,” Austin said. “Here, it has been a little less connected and a little more of a standalone, which creates some issues when it comes to efficiencies and being able to serve our students and staff. In other places, it has been much more integrated as a part of general education.”
Austin points to the lack of centralization as the reason why some district initiatives failed.
“I saw the district make some attempts over time, things like multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), and (they were) hitting roadblocks because it was either being introduced through small pockets of general education or more likely through special education. If that (had become) a global district initiative we could (have) put a lot of resources behind it. We can put more money behind it, more training, more people, more time, more energy and that will lead to a better result than having things parsed out.”
Superintendent Don Austin
Though the separation of the two departments seemed to have some benefits, they were ultimately outweighed by the drawbacks, according to Austin.
“When you separate out a department like special ed, as an example, it could receive more of a laser-like focus, but I think the downside of not being combined with a huge part of our district, which is the general education program, tipped the scales to a point where the benefits did not outweigh the downsides,” Austin said.
According to Austin, this reorganization will involve the hiring of a director of secondary special education, a position left empty due to the recent departure of the previous director. The new special education director will work alongside the current director of elementary special education, Alma Ellis. Additionally, Assistant Superintendent Lana Conaway will no longer oversee special education and will instead focus on other areas.
“(This) allows (Conaway) to be shifted over into doing work in equity and access, guidance, social and emotional learning and student services that have not received her full attention. So by changing the structure of special education, it’s going to have a double benefit of allowing us now to really focus in some of these equity areas that we have not made enough progress in over time.”
Superintendent Don Austin
By including the special education department in general education, Austin hopes to equip all teachers with the necessary skills to work with all students. Under the current structure, any students with disabilities, specifically those dyslexia, are required to go through the special education department to receive a learning plan.
“I would like all teachers to have the tools to be able to best serve all students sitting in their classes, knowing that there is a spectrum of students,” Austin said. “When special education is so separated out, the average general education teacher feels like special education is something else — somewhere else, (but) when we start looking at professional development plans that really make special education plans part of our daily conversation, it’s going to better serve our students.”
Special education teacher Bridgette Malatesta looks to this reorganization as a step in the right direction.
“Any move that we make as a staff and as a school district in this school towards more inclusion will always be more positive,” Malatesta said. “Good teaching is inclusive of all kinds of techniques, so you don’t have one technique for special ed, one technique for ELD, and one technique for general ed. You have good teaching techniques across the board.”