Early and aggressive efforts by teachers to help young children with learning problems have led to a significant drop in the number of Palo Alto students who later need special education, officials said this week.
In Palo Alto, about 9 percent 1,115 students officially qualify for special education less than the national average of 10 percent.
As schools across Palo Alto observed Unity Day with a range of anti-bullying and "inclusion" activities, Palo Alto's Director of Special Education Holly Wade reported Tuesday to the Board of Education on trends in special ed.
Special-education parents, who organized Unity Day activities Wednesday on nearly every one of Palo Alto's 17 campuses, said they were encouraged by Wade's report but noted that many problems remain, adding that the district needs to do a better job communicating its policies and plans to parents.
Wade told the school board that the number of students identified as needing special education has dropped by 150 over the past three years.
"We've been doing really, really targeted intervention starting in preschool and elementary school, and that intervention work has allowed us to serve students in ways so they don't need special education services," she said.
She also described aggressive "inclusion" efforts to educate many special-ed students who in prior times might have been segregated in regular classrooms.
At Palo Alto High School, for example, 11 classes in subjects like math, English, social studies and science are co-taught by a regular teacher and a special-education teacher.
"We've used the co-teaching, inclusion model for three years now," Paly Principal Kim Diorio told the board. "We have many sections now, as does Gunn.
"It's been a complete shift in our model of how we're delivering education. Enthusiasm has really caught on as teachers talk with one another about how successful this model is."
Diorio said "higher expectations" in the co-taught classes have led to better performance by special-ed students, and general-education teachers have learned from special-education teachers how to better gear their instruction to students at various levels.
At the elementary level, Palo Verde Elementary School Principal Anne Brown told the board, including more special-education students in regular classrooms "has made our team at the school very cohesive.
"You wouldn't notice who the children are," she said. "We have one child in particular who came to us speaking only one-word sentences. He's now up to two.
"I urge you to keep us going in this direction," Brown said. "It's also benefiting our regular-education students who are learning more about compassion, differences and unity."
Jordan Middle School Principal Greg Barnes said the school has offered inclusion-oriented, professional-development classes "not just in the special-education department but for all our teachers.
"As we ask our students and teachers to embrace this (inclusion) vision we need to put in structures to support it and make it successful," Barnes said.
The school has made changes to its master schedule to better include special-education students in general classrooms, Assistant Principal Grant Althouse said.
For special-education students not able to be mainstreamed, the district continues to offer separate classrooms, including high school classes focused on "functional skills, life skills like how to navigate in the community, how to navigate a social situation and how to get around campus," Wade said.
"We also put in a social-sexuality curriculum so our students can be happy healthy adults living in the community they choose," she said.
The district also pays for private residential education for 43 students.
"We do have therapeutic support classes, but for students with more significant mental health needs where we can't mitigate it in a school setting, some are in residential settings at this point," Wade said.
"Our residential numbers are up, and we continue to provide support to those families. I see that as something that over time will go down and we have students going in and out of residential as well."
Parent Christina Schmidt, who chairs the all-volunteer Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (CAC), said she was encouraged by Wade's report but expressed some skepticism.
She urged the district to offer more information on reasons for the reduction in special-education numbers.
"Are these students who have graduated out? Have they been taken out of our system and moved somewhere else, or have their services been reduced? I'd just like to have more information about exactly how these numbers are reduced," Schmidt said.
Despite greater efforts in the past three years to keep special-education students in their neighborhood schools, Schmidt said they are still being moved around too often. "Moving a child from school to school and it does happen in this district is not necessarily the best for the child," she said.
"If we're going to have these inclusion classrooms, are they being developed across the board in all schools so a child starting in kindergarten can continue on in that school?
"I think the community at large should have a greater understanding of what this means," Schmidt said. "There are still so many questions from parents.
"Parents need to see the long vision so they can understand the changes," Schmidt said.