San Dieguito approves new strategic plan for special education


A year ago, special education parents protested to the San Dieguito Union High School District board, handing over a petition demanding an overhaul of the district’s special education program and advocating for inclusion and fair and equal facilities. As a result of their continued efforts, the district listened and responded—the Adult Transition Program was moved out of the portables at Earl Warren and into a permanent home at La Costa Canyon High School and the Special Education Task Force was formed last fall, parents working together with district teachers and administrators to determine a better path forward.

Nearly a year to the date when protesters filled the board room, jeers turned to cheers with the passing of the task force developed special education strategic plan on June 7.

The year hasn’t always been a smooth road—some parents questioned the survey data used by the task force and others spoke out about the use of substitutes with the unexplained absence of a teacher in the ATP classroom.But as parent task force members Sophy Chaffee and Karen Rusnak said, they are hoping to put the “dark days” of special education behind them and look ahead with a plan that that emphasizes that all special education students are general education students first.

“Inclusion will elevate each and every student’s ability, performance and character to a higher standard for a possible new norm,” Rusnak said. “Clinging to the past often allows for blame. When we talk about the past it is not about change, it’s about trying to understand what happened. Forgiveness means letting go of the hope for a better past.”

Associate Superintendent of Administrative Services Mark Miller said the open and honest feedback from district parents has resulted in a “truly transformative” plan.

The task force made up of parents, teachers and administrators, transition specialists and staff met for 10 sessions over eight months, led by facilitator Maureen O’Leary Burness. Those parents involved donated over 40 hours of time.

“It was a pleasure to work with a range of passionate and caring people,” O’Leary Burness said.

Task forcer member Cara Dolnik, outgoing principal at Carmel Valley Middle School and new principal at Diegueno Middle School, said there were some lively discussions and debates but everyone listened to each other and came together around the common goal of doing what is best for the students.

The plan focuses on goals of improving transitions to college and career, communication, curriculum and programs, professional development and staffing, inclusion and meaningful student involvement, and accountability and oversight. It calls for standards-aligned content and high quality learning environments, support and participation through mainstreaming and reverse mainstreaming as well as elective and extracurricular opportunities for all students.

Besides the formal goals, Dolnik said the task force also imbedded goals around social and emotional well-being, consistent data collection to inform individual education program (IEP) teams on progress, goals and services, parent communication, and involvement and ability awareness training for all.

“Our work this year has been a phenomenal example of the power of collaboration, communication and teamwork and ensuring that all voices were heard,” Dolnik said. “We hope that the board and district will fully commit to our vision so that the special education department can move forward and improve the delivery and services to all students with IEPs.”

Parent Lucile Lynch thanked the task force members for their work and the district and board for listening when they came out to protest and advocate for their children. She called out trustees John Salazar and Mo Muir for being “true advocates for the special education community.”

Lynch was most excited about the new home for ATP planned as part of the reconstruction of Sunset High School set to begin next year. After being in portables for two decades, Lynch said the ATP program will finally have the space it deserves with its own classrooms, access to a kitchen classroom, access to an outdoor area for fitness and access to an auditorium.

“Diversity is being asked to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance,” Lynch said, quoting author and activist Verna Myers. “I hope that as this program moves forward that measures are put in place to make that happen.”

Melanie Landers, a parent of a student with special needs, said she was glad that the district listened and but she remained “cautiously optimistic” as many of the reforms have been parent priorities for the last several years.

“If this plan ultimately culminates in things being implemented I think it will be incredibly positive but some of my concerns are that I didn’t see a lot of real quantifiable measures or commitment to implementation dates,” Landers said.

Miller said the plan does include specific action steps with identifiable timelines and measureable objectives for assessment, as recommended by the task force. He said the plan ensures each goal is implemented in a “specific, methodical, and consistent manner.”

“It is my hope that our community honors the work of this task force and allows district staff and site leaders the time to implement the plan,” Miller said.

Some of the task force’s recommendations have already been put into action—for the ATP program, the James Standfield curriculum has been purchased and is being implemented, supplemental materials have been purchased and staff is working with local businesses to identify ways to expand vocational opportunities. Miller is working with feeder districts to address the sometimes challenging transition into the district from sixth grade and some task force recommendations have been incorporated into the 2018-19 budget, including the additions of a speech therapist, functional life teacher and occupational therapist.

To help improve communication, the first special education parent newsletter has been produced and the district will promote a special education parent handbook that will provide information about the continuum of services available in the district.

In voting to support the plan, trustee Amy Herman said she was encouraged by the district’s progress.“

I’m really hopeful that we can move forward together and serve our special education students better, that this really begins a new chapter for our district,” Herman said.