By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
For many hard-pressed educators in an era of dwindling resources, particularly at a very large school like AP Giannini with almost 1,400 students, this sort of situation is a tough call for administrators and teachers.
Deborah McNight, Executive Director of Special Education Services, described in an e-mail the district's biggest challenge: "Ensuring that all of our teachers and staff receive high quality professional development in order to consistently utilize the core curriculum and to be able to effectively differentiate the curriculum for our diverse learners." She also insists that special ed students in self-contained classes are included in at least some general ed classes with their peers, always PE and often an elective.
Dyer is convinced that Wesley's daughter belongs in her classroom. "She feels much safer here because she needs the individual attention and even I can't give her enough. She thrives on it," says Dyer, who does concede that what the girl needs most is social skills, not learning skills. "If she doesn't have that attention, she will get it in a negative way."
Many educators feel that if the only small-class environment available is the special ed classroom, special ed might be the best option. "When someone throws you a life raft, you grab on. We just have to make sure it's the right raft," says Principal James Dierke at Visitacion Valley Middle School in Bayview-Hunters Point.
Special ed, of course, may be the right raft for a lot of kids. To agree that there is an overrepresentation of students of certain races and ethnicities in special ed is not to deny that some of them do have disabilities or learning difficulties. Special ed helps many of these students access the right combination of support and instruction to address their problems.
But the disproportionately large number of African-American and Latino students placed in special education suggests that too many of the learning difficulties experienced by these children may be explained as "something wrong with the child" that special education can "fix." This is according to the National Institute for Urban School Improvement (NIUSI), a think tank funded by the U.S. Department of Education and created to help reform special ed programs in urban school districts.
"Special education" is defined as a set of services that attach themselves to general education, and refers to the teaching of students with learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, or behavioral problems. A student needs to qualify for these special services. Qualification is determined by an intensive and time-consuming process called an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), in which the student's teacher, principal, psychologist, and parents meet to determine the specific special needs of a child if he is not succeeding in a regular classroom.
It was at the IEP meeting that Wesley felt he disagreed with the findings of his daughter's educators. Many times parents don't have the sophistication to completely understand the process, so the administrators decide for them.
This is where things get complicated. In many cases, students viewed as low performing or having behavioral problems in general ed classes become classified as either "emotionally disturbed" or as having a "specific learning disability." These classifications are often controversial because they are based in great part on IEP school evaluations that are necessarily subjective, says Biegel.
Educators have been taken to task for placing a disproportionate percentage of students of color in separate classes based on these classifications. African-American students alone comprise more than half of all those classified as emotionally disturbed in the entire San Francisco Unified School District, although they comprise only 14 percent of the district population as a whole, according to Biegel's report.
The first job is to find out why this is happening. Some experts say it's cultural. Educators point to a disconnect between educators and students -- to the differences between the racial, cultural, and socioeconomic status of teachers and administrators in most schools as compared with the students they serve.
According to NIUSI, students from racial and ethnic minorities arrive at school doors with a great deal of cultural capital, or stores of knowledge, which instead of being accommodated by educators and schools, are sometimes misconstrued in ways that lead to inappropriate placement in special ed programs.
It might be that a more supportive classroom environment or a more adept classroom teacher could effectively work with these students in a regular classroom. Instead, special ed becomes a "place" to which students are sent when they don't perform.
Once-stigmatized students tend to linger in special ed, and those who are still there in high school face much more limited educational opportunities. Typically, these students are not afforded the option of completing graduation-equivalent requirements, and their options for higher education are limited at best.
Many principals and teachers seem to recognize these trends in their schools, but with lack of time and resources, they have a difficult time addressing them.
"I think everyone is aware that this is a problem, I think it's the elephant in the room. No one wants to admit it's there," says Principal Dierke. "These kids are just not getting all the services they need. In an era of declining resources, these kids are high-maintenance and they need lots of resources."