San Dieguito ready to tackle special education with task force

The San Dieguito Union High School District held a special education workshop on Aug. 17, providing a general overview of the state of the program as a whole and sharing goals for the future with the board and a group of highly-engaged parents.

Mark Miller, the associate superintendent of administrative services, said this year San Dieguito is prepared to evaluate the special education curriculum, improve transition planning for students at all levels and to increase parent participation. The parents will be involved in the district’s recently- approved special education task force that will take a look at a variety of topics in order to craft a long-term strategic plan. The group is expected to begin meeting this fall.

“I think we can all agree that the last couple months in this district have been quite a turbulent ride. Often it is with these turbulent times that produce learning on what could’ve been done differently,” Miller said.

Miller said district staff has heard numerous concerns from special education parents over the last several months and has been working “diligently” to address them. They have relocated the Adult Transition Program from portables at Earl Warren to new classrooms at La Costa Canyon High School, worked to increase support for students at the site level, and have hired of administrators with special education experience. As of July 1, the district’s administrative services department was re-organized, with the key focus of integrating general education and special education. Miller said, “All students are general education students first.”

“We have also learned that much work needs to be done around communication and in creating a community of inclusion at our school sites,” Miller said. “One common theme that I’ve heard over and over is that our parent community wants to work with the district in providing a road map for special education…The task force has the potential to be an environment where members can learn specifics about special education services, pour into data and meaningfully participate in civil discourse and ultimately draft a plan around special education.”

In the workshop, Miller went over how the district’s special education program was performing through various measurements, such as graduation rates, California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) test scores, and post-secondary education and employment.

The CAASPP scores are just one measure to mark student progress. Miller said more students with disabilities are taking the general test while a smaller subgroup of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities take the California alternate assessment. This is a change from the state’s old testing program where a larger population took the alternate assessment.

Miller showed charts that showed the percentage of students who met or exceed standards on the CAASPP math test were at 26 percent, compared to 15 percent county-wide and 9 percent of the state.

Miller said that he knows math is an area in which students with disabilities are struggling.

“The way the information is presented does not provide enough details to help the board appreciate how poorly La Costa Canyon and Torrey Pines are doing, and those two schools have most of the students with disabilities,” said parent Lucile Lynch. “The lack of scrutiny by school site is one of the issues we repeatedly raised in the special education committee meetings this past year.”

According to the School Accountability Report Cards, Lynch said only 8 percent of students with disabilities at La Costa Canyon Canyon met or exceed standards and at Torrey Pines, only 5 percent met or exceed standards, meaning 95 percent are not proficient.

“We know we have work to do, math is a specific area that we are not scoring well,” said Miller, noting they are working to shore up the program and provide intervention measures.

Miller said the district’s measurement of post-secondary education and employment is “flawed” and they need to come up with a better way to track their students’ success. San Dieguito is working to improve students’ transition to post-school life by developing a plan based on students’ strengths, preferences and interests. One parent said that the district needs to be more thoughtful in its assessments of students and take into account their individual skills — “don’t just put them in retail.”

Miller also discussed the due process complaint procedure within the district and how, as much as possible, they work to resolve differences. A due process complaint is a written document used to request a hearing related to the identification, evaluation or educational placement of a child with a disability or the provision of a free, appropriate public education to the child. The complaint can be filed by a parent or the public agency — the district is required to file when the parent refuses to consent to any part of a special education student’s IEP (Individualized Education Program).

Of 1,365 students on IEP in San Dieguito, nine parents filed a due process complaint in 2016-17 and the district filed five. In 2016-17, the district spent $162,347 in legal fees and $634,102 in mediation settlements.

“To me, we need to find out why parents (or IEP teams) are asking that students be moved out of the district,” Lynch said. “I know many of the families that are no longer in one of the district’s schools and they all seem to have commonalities that could possibly be addressed by this district in order to retain their presence in a district school.”

Across the state, due process complaints have increased over the last several years — “Our expectations are higher,” one parent said. “Parents are fighting more because they know that their kids are capable of making improvements and progress.”

In concluding the workshop, Miller said he believes that the district is in a good position to work with the community to examine issues and come up with solutions for all students.

“I believe now is the time to move forward and not backward,” Miller said. “District staff has committed to improving student learning, we’ve committed to seeking parent input and we’ve committed to community engagement through this newly-formed task force. I believe that continuing pointing of fingers and continued disparaging of the special education staff is not going to be productive. We have listened.”

“We want the best for our kids,” said parent Kaya Hogan. “I’m excited for this to work. Let us tell you want we need.”

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