San Dieguito parent petition calls for a special education overhaul

Parents of special education students made their voices heard on June 8, protesting before the San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) meeting and continuing on to the SDUHSD board room where they handed over a petition alleging unequal treatment and facilities for special education students.

“Stop segregating our students, stop ignoring our students, stop underestimating our students, stop treating our children as unequal and undeserving,” La Costa Canyon parent Janet Schenker said, wearing a red shirt with a stop sign emblazoned on the front.

The parents’ 41-page petition outlined the many ways they hope the district can reform special education programs in the district, as well as the adult transition program school (ATP), calling out an “inadequate” curriculum, too low expectations and a lack of equal treatment in facilities planning. If the district does not respond to the petition’s requests, the parents may consider filing a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.

Parents of students with disabilities have spoken out on their concerns about the special education program several times over the last few years — resulting in the formation of a special education parent forum in the summer of 2016. The forum met several times over the last year.

“The message here is despite some parent input, we are not being heard,” said La Costa Canyon parent Lucile Lynch. “There are changes to be made.”

What pushed many parents’ frustrations over the edge was seeing the new ATP classrooms at the Earl Warren Middle School campus during a tour in May. The ATP classrooms are housed in two portables with limited windows, set in the back of the Earl Warren campus. The petition states the inequity in the facilities stands out in comparison to what is being built a few feet away for middle school students — a contemporary design with large expansive windows to optimize natural light and larger, flexible-use classrooms in permanent buildings.

Parents have complained for years about how students in ATP feel “isolated and segregated” and they were disappointed to see that the practice will continue in the new facilities, which were described as resembling “tool sheds.”

“Is this really the best our district can do?” asked Charles Duncan, whose son attends Torrey Pines. “There’s no way in hell he’s going to attend this type of program. It’s horrible…This is what was promised to parents to be ‘state-of-the-art facilities?’”

The two 1,400-square-foot portables have a total of three small windows — only one window in the students’ instructional space as the other two are in the conference room and teachers’ offices. There are no windows in the bathrooms, no windows in the kitchenette and no windows in the sensory room.

The four-year program currently has three teachers, 20 students and 10 aides. Next year there could be as many as 47 students — along with the needed support staff there could be approximately 62 adults in the two portables with only two bathrooms.

TPHS student James Walker, who is working to complete his diploma and next year will be in ATP, was part of the group that took a tour of the new classroom.

“A couple of things need to be fixed,” James told the board at the meeting. “There’s no windows and the computers are facing the wall and that doesn’t seem right…how can we get an education when the computers are facing away from the teachers?”

As part of the special education parent forum, a floor plan for the new ATP facility was shared in fall 2016 and parents asked if they could provide input and they were assured they would be able to at a later date, Lynch said. When parents inquired about the progress throughout the year, however, they were told that the “walls are going up,” suggesting the construction of actual buildings not portables.

A time to provide input never came and parents were given a tour of the facilities in May. Parent Randolph Burrows, whose son attends Torrey Pines, said ATP being placed on a middle school campus in “second-class dwellings” gives the perception of “insensitive planning on the part of the district.”

“My son is a unique individual with talents and limitations, he’s not like anyone you’ve ever met,” Barrows said. “Our kids are not dumb. Our kids are perceptive. I’m continually amazed at just how perceptive they are. He understands when he is being typecast or framed as a disabled person. He understands that this is a second-class facility and placement.”

In response to the petition submitted on June 8, SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill released a statement: “The petition submitted to the board of trustees addresses many concerns related to our special education programs. The district and the board are committed to the success of every student. We measure academic achievement in many ways, including that of special education students. The needs of students with disabilities must be individually determined in order to meet the needs of the student,” Dill’s statement read. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution in either general or special education. While our math and English proficiency rates for students with disabilities are higher than California averages and our graduation rate for district students with disabilities at 85.9 percent is higher than the 83.2 percent state graduation rate for all students, we have built in targets to increase our achievement for all students, including students with disabilities. To increase achievement, we review our programs and individualized instruction to improve outcomes. The parent group has given us a lengthy list of issues they perceive with our special education program, so we will certainly take those concerns seriously and work to improve our programs to support successful student outcomes.”

At the June 8 meeting, Dill acknowledged that the ATP program is housed on the perimeter of Earl Warren but said that the location was intentional as students will be coming and going during the day — the location gives students direct access to a parking lot and entrance where they won’t have to go through the middle school campus.

Dill said regarding the appearance of the portables, it should be noted that landscaping has not yet been completed and said that the color of the structure matches the rest of the campus — many parents in the audience groaned in response.

“Regarding the internal facilities, the classroom technology is the same as the rest of the classrooms,” Dill said.

He said the computers were placed facing the wall to mimic the look of the “genius bars” in other district sites and they were prevented from adding windows because of power and data located on the walls. Dill said in the last week they have explored adding windows to the building.

Regarding the space concerns, Dill said that the program is designed for the students to be out in the community as much as possible for work experience and there should be no issues with overcrowding.

For the last couple of years, the district housed ATP students in portables at Earl Warren Middle School. Prior to that, the students were moved almost every year to different locations, such as the local library, which the petition states failed to provide continuity for the program. ATP has been housed at Mira Costa College in the past but were evicted there due to the college’s space limitations — parents prefer the Mira Costa location as it puts ATP students among peers their own age.

The petition states that in the district’s Prop AA bond for $449 million in district-wide facilities upgrades and improvements, ATP was the only program left out of the master plans to provide state-of-the-art facilities for all students.

SDUHSD Trustee John Salazar said that the district is building “palaces” at other campuses with Prop AA funds — “Why wouldn’t they have a real building, not a portable?” he asked.

Dill said the district will be having a facilities workshop in July or August and they will be taking a comprehensive look and re-evaluating the facilities plan.

Per the petition, parents are requesting a total “overhaul” of the special education curriculum that should include electives, career pathways, after-school activities, more course structure and more research-based curriculum rather than activities-based. The petition states many students would benefit from vocational, career and job readiness programs.

The Torrey Pines student, James Walker, said he works at Petco as part of the Workability program and was told he could get to a higher level if he had cash register training.

“I think more vocational skills training is needed for kids like me,” James said.

Schenker, who was a member of the special education parent forum, said that for diploma-bound students there are no electives and no fundamentals track that includes all the academic classes needed for graduation.

Schenker said special education parents have to make a “terrible binary” choice for their students’ education in SDUHSD. Students either continue toward a diploma and are not able to access transition skills and programs that the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) peers have or they continue with a certificate of completion and remain in TAPS or Functional Living Skills (FLS), go on to ATP and forgo their diploma.

Students have until age 22 to be a part of the district services and Schenker said the district’s ATP program should incorporate a track where students can complete classes toward a diploma and receive needed transition services and employment readiness.

“Special education needs to be viewed as a multi-year program that incorporates academic subjects while also transitioning students’ post-high school life for more independence and employment readiness,” Schenker said.

Parents say there is also a failure to assess non-diploma bound students to provide meaningful grades or benchmarks.

In the spring, parent Sophy Chaffee saw 75 assessments for her daughter in general education versus seven for her son in special education — his seven final “grades” were all “A’s,” she said.

“There appears to be an unwritten rule that all special education students in the TAP and FLS programs get automatic A’s,” Chafee said. “That says to me you don’t think these students are capable of progress that can be measured. It’s not grade inflation. It’s grade abdication.”

Chaffee said in the past, she has chosen to stay silent about grades and assessments because she didn’t want to cause problems for her son’s teacher but she said her silence began feeling like further abdication.

In listening to the parents speak out on Thursday, June 8, the board seemed willing to cooperate with the parents.

“As board president and a representative of the San Dieguito Union High School District, I want to state unequivocally that it is not our intent to treat our special education students in an inequitable manner. The board was not aware of many of the concerns that were shared with us on Thursday at our board meeting, or that were outlined in the petition given to us that night,” said SDUHSD President Amy Herman in a statement.“Although there are many issues to address, I am committed to working cooperatively with our special education families and district staff to come up with possible solutions.”