With 10.1% of PAUSD students qualifying for special education services, district and site level administrators say they are constantly focusing on improving the program to give these students the extra help mandated by law.
However, some teachers and parents say PAUSD does not adequately support special education teachers or students and fails to provide the resources that special education students need to succeed.
After President Gerald Ford signed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act into law in 1975, public school districts were federally required to provide free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.
Steven Davis, a parent of children in PAUSD’s special education program and founder of Disability News Wire, an organization that promotes equal accessibility and inclusivity for students with disabilities, said finding education for special education students was difficult before IDEA.
“Before it, kids with disabilities had no rights or expectation of education,” Davis said. “Schools would just say, ‘Yeah, we’re not teaching your kid.’”
Amendments passed in 1990, 1997 and 2004 mandated additional educational opportunities for students with disabilities in public schools and expanded the scope of IDEA.
IDEA has allowed more than 7.5 million students with disabilities to access free public education and special education services designed to fit their needs, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Special education advocates say IDEA has provided students across the nation with the educational resources to become economically self-sufficient and live independently. However, within the last five years, California has struggled to keep up with the law’s regulations.
The Department of Education categorizes each state in one of four categories regarding how well they are implementing IDEA in their public schools: meeting requirements, needing assistance, needing intervention and needing substantial intervention. A report in June of 2022 classified California as “needing assistance” in meeting the requirements of IDEA parts B and C, which cover special education and early intervention services.
Yet, based on test scores, PAUSD has done a better job at meeting these standards than the state average. According to Disability News Wire, the 1,087 PAUSD students with disabilities in 2021 scored 71 points higher in math than all students with disabilities across California and 94 points higher in English Language Arts.
Briana Gonzalez, a Gunn special education teacher, said part of the reason for the success of PAUSD special education students on these tests is that the district integrates these students into the regular education classroom through a co-teaching model where classes are taught by both a general education teacher and a special education teacher.
“(We) have education specialists who have all the skills to make content accessible (to) make sure we’re reaching all learners, and we’re bringing that into the Gen Ed curriculum,” Gonzalez said. “We’re creating comprehensive but accessible standards and meeting all the learners in the room.”
While the co-teaching system is relatively new and not without its flaws, Principal Brent Kline, who oversees Paly’s special education program, said it is constantly evolving.
“The level of understanding and the effectiveness of that partnership between special education and general education teachers continues to grow into a better program than we have already,” Kline said.
One of the legal responsibilities of special education instructors and co-teachers is to attend Individualized Education Program meetings to determine a student’s IEP plan. Special education teachers write IEPs while co-teachers attend the meetings.
An IEP meeting lays out the special education instruction, support and services a student with disabilities could potentially qualify for.
According to the Judicial Branch of California, these meetings must happen at least once a year and require the attendance of a general education teacher, a special education teacher, a school administrator, the student’s parent and the student if they are 14 or older.
However, inconvenient IEP attendance requirements and a lack of communication from administrators have caused many teachers to feel confused and frustrated.
Teri Baldwin, president of Palo Alto Educators Association, PAUSD’s teachers union which negotiates employment terms with the school board, said IEP meeting times depend on the parent’s availability.
“For an IEP meeting, it’s definitely dependent on the parent’s schedule,” Baldwin said. “It trumps anybody else’s unless it’s after school and somebody just can’t be there. Then, they try to schedule when everyone can be there.”
Due to the priority given to parents’ schedules in this process, several special education teachers told The Campanile that they are effectively forced to attend IEP meetings even if these meetings are held during the teacher’s contractually mandated prep periods. These teachers also said they do not receive compensation for this time.
All the special education teachers interviewed for this story agreed to be interviewed only if their names were not used because they said they fear reprisals if they speak out against the current system.
“As a special education teacher, we regularly have IEP (meetings), and I have been told by administration and people from the district office on more than one occasion that I must use my prep time and not be compensated for it,” one special education teacher said.
But a Memorandum of Understanding between PAUSD and PAEA, which is an agreement outlined in the teacher contract that is not legally binding, says special education teachers will be compensated for meeting time that accumulates to more than six outside-of-school hours in a semester. Baldwin said PAEA and PAUSD negotiated to reach this threshold.
“We tried to get it for any hours outside of the workday,” Baldwin said. “And the best we could negotiate was six hours per semester.”
PAUSD lead negotiator Lisa Hickey originally agreed to an interview for this story, but one day later, fellow PAUSD lead negotiator Trent Bahadursingh said he and Hickey could not comment on negotiations.
However, Kline said teachers can ask to be compensated for any prep time they have to give up for IEP meetings.
“Teachers have the discretion to ask for additional compensation,” Kline said. “So maybe they don’t understand completely what the process is.”
In an email sent from Kline to the Paly staff in October of 2020 and obtained by The Campanile through a public records request, Kline wrote, “It is the professional responsibility of all certificated members to attend IEP meetings of students in their classes, including such meetings that are scheduled during planning periods.”
In a follow-up email sent to Paly PAEA Representatives eight days later, Kline corrected himself and wrote, “In my next communication to staff, I will revise my messaging so that it aligns with the collective bargaining agreement, … which includes the choice to attend or not attend IEP meetings.”
Another special education teacher said they were unaware they could ask to be compensated for IEP meetings held outside of school hours.
“It was never presented as an option,” this teacher said. “I’ve never been told that, and I never thought to ask.”
The first teacher said this lack of clarity on this issue is partly rooted in the high administrator turnover rate at Paly.
“This is my fourth principal,” the first teacher said. “Nobody seems to understand all the components of the program.”
While Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson, the only administrator who has been at Paly for the past 17 years, said the changes in administration are generally beneficial to the school, he also said it is too early to tell whether the current administrative team can effectively deal with the special education program since many decisions regarding special education happen at the district level.
“The team we have right now is probably the best team I’ve worked with as a whole,” Berkson said. “I think everyone has different superpowers and we all complement each other in a lot of ways.”
The first anonymous special education teacher said this separation of administrative responsibilities between the district and school leads to an additional communication gap.
“(Decisions) about the program and its money are typically made at the district level or the mid-management level,” they said. “There’s this whole other world where the admin on site (at) my job is in charge of what I do here.”
In addition to a lack of transparency, the special education teachers interviewed for this story said they feel unsatisfied with district funding of special education.
“Our district seems to brag about how much money we’ve saved,” the first teacher said. “I find that deplorable. You mean you saved $10,000 (instead of) spending that in a way that could have benefited the students? Shame on you. Why would you be proud of that?”
Another special education teacher said the district should provide more funding for the program.
“There needs to be more money put into the department because these are our most vulnerable students who need the most support,” the second teacher said. “And if (it) is our promise that we are serving all students, we need to put the money where the needs are.”
Kline said he disagrees with these teachers’ comments about special education funding in the district but did not elaborate.
Another problem facing the special education department, according to the first special education teacher, is that PAUSD hires substitute teachers when a special education teacher is absent instead of paying other on-campus special education teachers, even though the substitutes may not have special education teaching credentials.
“Somehow it fulfills the need (when) the sub has no knowledge of special education (and) no knowledge of how to work with students with disabilities,” they said. “Sometimes having a sub show up is more work because you’re just trying to tell that sub what to do, or we’re paying someone not to do anything.”
Gonzalez said Gunn faces similar issues due to a national shortage of teachers and substitutes with special education credentials.
“It’s an overall issue in the field of special ed that, due to high turnover, we do not have a lot of substitutes available with special education credentials, and we do not have a lot of teachers with special education credentials applying for jobs, unfortunately,” Gonzalez said.
But Kline said the district is following all state protocols regarding subs.
“You don’t need specific credentials to be a substitute,” Kline said. “You just have to have a teaching certificate.”
Davis, whose children are in PAUSD’s special education program, also said the district does not fully recognize or appreciate the efforts of special education teachers in other PAUSD schools.
“We had Teacher Appreciation Week last year, and for the general ed class, they had flowers and all these other things,” Davis said. “And there was no setup or support for the special ed teachers.”
Another parent of two special education students at Paly said the lack of communication from administration has made student progress unclear. They agreed to an interview only if their name was not used to protect the privacy of their children.
“Administrators never reached out and asked us or any other parent if we think (special education teachers) are effective,” the parent said. “When you’ve got a class where what you’re providing is support, it’s much harder to determine whether that support is effective and whether what they’re doing is actually making a difference.”
Baldwin said special education is still a work in progress, but PAEA continues to provide proposals to the district in an effort to improve the program for everyone.
Baldwin said, “We’re trying to negotiate better language in the contract to help out special education, special education teachers, general ed teachers and the students that are in special ed programs.”
Editors note: In addition to Bahadursingh and Hickey, special education instructional leader Christina Dias declined an interview request for this story. None of the members of the Board of Education responded to email requests for interviews. Gunn administrators Courtney Carlomagno and Wendy Stratton initially agreed to interviews but did not respond to follow-up requests.