Education Matters: San Dieguito’s watershed moment

Watching San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) parents rise up in defense of their children and fight back against the unfair placement of the district’s Adult Transition Program (ATP) was electrifying and inspirational.

After so many years of inaction and unfulfilled promises, parents had finally had it.

Sometimes it takes a near-riot to be heard by intransigent government agencies used to doing things on their own and in their own way.

At the July 28 ATP forum, parents directly addressed SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill and unloaded their pent-up frustrations. The special needs of this student population were finally noticed, but it should never have come to this.

So many promises were made and broken that it will be hard for the district to repair the damage.

Chuck Adams, the district’s former director of special education, was a frequent target. Parents said he should have been fired for misleading them and misrepresenting the condition of the ATP facilities at Earl Warren Middle School.

“We didn’t want to be at Earl Warren,” one parent said at the forum, “but he pacified us by saying the [ATP] facilities would be state-of-the-art.” This turned out to be untrue.

Instead of being fired, to the outrage of many parents, Adams was reassigned to a different position of authority in the district, as assistant principal at Carmel Valley Middle School.

What Dill described as an unanticipated increase in the number of ATP students this year triggered the need for three classrooms instead of two. But his proposal to split up the students and place one-third of them at a different location was a non-starter.

Although Dill searched for a solution, what came across was a lack of direction and the sense that this group of students could be moved around like chess pieces year after year.

Not until the following week did Dill manage to secure three classrooms for the ATP students at La Costa Canyon High School, so they could all stay together in decent facilities.

It wasn’t just where the portable classrooms were placed. The modular classrooms themselves were problematic.

Critics said they were not designed around the needs of special education adult students, with their cramped quarters, poor lighting and single toilets. One parent said the decision to place ATP in those modular classrooms felt like an after-thought.

The ATP classrooms, located next to the sparkling new Earl Warren classrooms, were a striking, and unacceptable, contrast. Parents felt betrayed.

“We’ve been so hopeful for so long,” said one parent sadly.

Dill apologized repeatedly, acknowledging that mistakes were made.

Those in charge

Mark Miller, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of administrative services, runs the special education program and was hired by the district in July 2016.

He came to San Dieguito after serving as special education director for the Irvine and Capistrano school districts. Reporting directly to Miller was Adams.

According to many parents, Miller has been notably absent from much of the discussion and interaction between the special education parents and the district.

He did not attend the July 13 board meeting when parents in the audience were particularly vocal about their dissatisfaction over the way the district has handled special education, and because of a previously scheduled vacation he did not attend the July 28 forum to hear the heated comments from parents about the placement of the ATP portables.

Miller has been in the district one year and says during that time he was “not part of the planning process.” He told me he “did not know what Chuck Adams promised” to the ATP parents and that he only learned that the ATP program would be at Earl Warren in May of this year.

He said the decision to keep the ATP at Earl Warren “was made before I arrived” and that “he didn’t make that decision.”

He also said he never heard any complaints from parents that they did not want the program at Earl Warren.

“For that to be true, he was very, very uninvolved,” said Mary Beyer, a special education parent. “For him to just be finding out in May of this year, what was he doing? How could Chuck Adams be reporting to him and not be aware of it?”

“He had a year to make changes to help the students and he didn’t,” said Lucile Lynch, another special education parent.

Miller also told me he attended three or four of the special education committee meetings last year.

“Since this was my first year in the district in my new role, I tried to be in as many meetings as possible to learn about district successes and challenges for all the areas that I oversee,” he wrote in an email.

He said he “heard a lot of the feedback” and as a result invited several parents to his office “so I could hear their concerns.”

“I literally worked for three days straight in late May or early June to meet with concerned parents,” Miller said, adding that books for a new curriculum were purchased for the transition program “based on what parents were telling us.”

But members of that committee had a different story.

“He did not go to three or four of our meetings,” said Beyer. “I only recall him being in one of our meetings. Then he scooted out after 10 minutes. He said would get all the information he needed from Chuck Adams.”

“Why didn’t he work with Chuck to turn things around then if he heard all the parents’ comments at those meetings?” Lynch said. “He had an entire year to work with Chuck, but literally not one thing was done from those meetings other than the special ed newsletter which I did myself.”

Spend time learning

Beyer said the special education committee was formed about 18 months ago and included parents of kids in middle school, high school and the adult transition program. “We had a good representation,” she said.

She said it was an informal committee made up of parents trying to make improvements in special education, and one of first issues addressed was the location of the ATP.

Miller said there were good reasons to place the Adult Transition Program at Earl Warren – a convenient central location in the district, public transportation, and access to a nearby shopping center. He also said it is “not uncommon to have special education classrooms in modular buildings.”

“Early on, over a year ago, one of the key issues was that parents were not happy being on that Earl Warren campus,” Beyer said.

Being at Earl Warren “was a very sore point for the ATP parents which is why Chuck kept assuring them that despite it being near EWMS, they’d have a ‘state-of-the-art’ stand-alone facility,” Lynch said.

“We gave up that fight because we were under the impression it would be great,” said Beyer.

Miller said his goal when he was hired was to spend time learning about the district and its programs, and that after he met with some of the parents in May and June, he immediately proposed adding windows and windowed doors to the modular classrooms at Earl Warren.

He also said after meeting with the parents, he “immediately found a third classroom at La Costa Canyon” for ATP, despite Dill telling parents at the July 28 forum that he would try to secure one.

Underestimating the number of ATP students this year was baffling for parents. Although Dill said the higher-than-expected number came as a last-minute surprise, parents said it was predictable long ago.

“How could they not know that?” Beyer said. “Most of these kids in the special education classes have been together since seventh grade. Numbers haven’t fluctuated that much. The kids all came up through the system together.”

Accountability

Beyer and other parents are frustrated that no one in the district is being held accountable.

“Chuck Adams has never had to face any of the parents over this,” Beyer said.

Although cautiously optimistic about progress, Beyer remains skeptical.

“We really thought we were being listened to, with Chuck Adams,” she said. “This just undercut all of that. It tainted the confidence and the trust the special education parents had in our district.

“I feel that they all knew all along that they were going to put our kids in portables. They just never expected the backlash that they would have. I feel that there is a mentality at the district that the ATP program is just a holding/babysitting program.”

At a board workshop on Aug. 17, Miller plans to present a new structure in place for the administrative services dept., highlighting a focus on special education.

He said he is “100 percent invested in special education” – that he has a “true compassion” for the kids and “wants to see them be successful.”

In an email, Miller wrote, “We look to continue our parent outreach through the newly formed Special Education Task Force, ultimately building on our current successes and identifying challenges around special education to collaboratively create a roadmap and long-term plan around special education services within SDUHSD.”

“As much as I want to move forward, it’s important to know where the breakdown in communication was,” Beyer said.

Meredith Wadley, SDUHSD’s director of school and student services, is now in charge of special education, reporting to Miller.

Wadley first came to my attention when she presented student-to-counselor ratios at the May 11 school board meeting that conflicted with recommendations from the American School Counselor Association and the National Association of School Psychologists.

These two credible organizations both recommend 250 students per counselor. Yet Wadley, without citing her source, told the board the national recommendation is 491:1, and congratulated San Dieguito for its ratio of 430:1.

Can Wadley, who simplistically compared her house remodel to the need to plan in advance for the district’s special education program, make it right for these students?

She has an uphill battle to undo the damage and chip away at the doubt and mistrust that’s formed over the years.

Media spotlight

Besides Miller, others who weren’t present at the July 28 forum, and certainly should have been, were three missing board members. Dill decided inexplicably not to have all five trustees present. Only trustees Mo Muir and Amy Herman were there to hear the often heated discussion.

At a special board meeting Aug. 2, the school board approved the creation of a Special Education Task Force. But it should not have come to this degree of unrest to motivate administrators to do the right thing.

Should it really take the media spotlight and a hundred parents and students clamoring for decent, equal ATP facilities to get the district’s attention?

The problems in the district are fixable and avoidable. All it takes is strong leadership, transparency, respect for constituents, and a visionary at the top to guide the district.

It also takes a school board with spine to ensure that top staff is doing the right job.

But there is hope. Perhaps this can be a watershed moment for the district.

Perhaps now the district will turn itself around and become accountable to its constituents, more open with decision-making, more transparent and more communicative. Perhaps now San Dieguito will act more as a partner to parents and students rather than autocratic and dictatorial, and will recognize its responsibility to listen and empathize.

How we treat our most vulnerable says everything about who we are.

The school board for its part needs to wake up, stop pretending all is right with the world, and get its broken house in order.

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

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