The decision by district officials to eliminate the moderate to severe special education classes at Ohlone and Escondido Elementary School and consolidate them into the programs at Nixon and Barron Park has upset staff and families of the students who will need to move schools.
Mild to moderate special education programs will continue to be offered at Ohlone and Escondido.
PAUSD Director of Special Education Amanda Boyce said the revised special education programs will offer two distinct classes based on grade level, a style that best aligns with the needs of special education students.
“The model we are moving towards in terms of having a kindergarten-through-second and third-through-fifth-grade program is going to best serve our moderate to severe students,” Boyce said.
Boyce also said this restructured program will allow special education teachers to better focus on individual students.
“Most of our students in our moderate to severe learning centers are being taught in a single classroom with six grade levels,” Boyce said. “Students will benefit in terms of the teacher’s focus.”
But Elisabeth Doxsee, an Ohlone instructional assistant in the moderate to severe special education program, said she was disheartened when she heard about the district’s decision.
“I was very disappointed,” Doxsee said. “I am a proponent of the style of learning at Ohlone, with our project-based learning, emphasis on social emotional learning and mixed grade levels.”
Doxsee also said Ohlone is a better choice for moderate to severe special education students for many other reasons.
“One of the beauties of being on an open single-level campus like Ohlone is that we can stand in our special ed classroom, and within our line of sight, watch our students walk to their gen-ed classroom, which promotes their independence,” Doxsee said. “The Nixon campus in particular concerns me because of the multiple flights of stairs and the pods where you need to have a staff member with some of our students for safety reasons, which limits their independence.”
Boyce, though, said the plan has been in development for a long time.
“This conversation has been ongoing for a few years,” Boyce said. “It’s the ongoing charge of our special education department to constantly discuss how to best serve students in our various programs in special education.”
Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ladomirak said the inconvenience for families who need to move away from Ohlone and Escondido contributed to the delayed decision.
“(Our) staff was very aware that having to move children was going to be the number one challenge of the restructure,” Ladomirak said. “Part of the reason it’s taken so long is the awareness of how challenging it would be to move families.”
Boyce said one way the district determined which schools would retain their special education programs was by minimizing the number of affected families.
“We looked at how many kids would be disrupted if we relocated a program next year (to determine) which decisions would minimize that impact,” Boyce said. “The combined number between Escondido and Ohlone is somewhere around 15 (families).”
And Ohlone Principal Elsa Chen said there was justifiable disagreement by parents who wanted their children to remain at their current elementary school.
“This move, as with any change, is understandably difficult and definitely an emotional one,” Chen said. “It’s never easy to see a part of one’s school community leave.”
Ohlone Parent-Teacher Association President Rowena Chiu said she agreed with the decision to create two separate special education classrooms but was still upset about the lack of communication with the parents and staff of Room 19, the special education classroom at Ohlone.
“I appreciate that the school district has not taken this decision lightly,” Chiu said. “However, I do think that they have acted in a way that is reprehensible. I don’t believe they properly consulted with the teachers, the staff and the families within Room 19. As a community member, I think what is happening is unfair.”
But Boyce said that, in a January meeting, the decision was brought to the attention of the Community Advisory Committee, a group of volunteer parents who advocate for special education students. Ohlone, though, does not have a parent representative on this committee
Even though a special education committee was consulted, Doxsee said she wanted professional consultation as well.
“(PAUSD) consulted the CAC. I know they advocate for special needs, and that’s awesome,” Doxsee said. “There was no input from any of the staff or professionals involved. I was very surprised that there was no input from the teachers.”
Because of this, Chiu said she thinks the district didn’t properly consider the impact of moving children out of Ohlone, a choice school where admission is determined by a lottery system.
“It’s possible the school district saw it as purely an administrative decision which they made according to convenience, logistics and practicality in terms of the needs of the district,” Chiu said. “I don’t think they have properly considered the personal implications to the families affected.”
Doxsee agrees and said she thinks the interests of the district don’t align with the needs of the students of special education students and parents at Ohlone and Escondido.
“I think the best interests of the students would be served at a campus like Ohlone: socially, academically and logistically,” Doxsee said. “I think that the district’s emphasis is on geography, logistics and finance. And those two interests don’t always meet.”
The Escondido principal and a special education teacher did not respond to interview requests for this story.