In an emotional meeting Tuesday night, about 50 parents of Palo Alto special education students recounted their children's school experiences to state officials, who are in the process of verifying whether Palo Alto's special education program meets legal requirements.
The meeting -- which Palo Alto school district officials were not permitted to attend -- was part of a months-long "verification review" in which California Department of Education officials said they will visit several Palo Alto schools, review randomly selected files and interview teachers, parents, school staff and psychologists.
Jivendra Singh, a California Department of Education technical assistance coordinator who oversees special ed compliance in Santa Clara County, said the state reviews about 30 of California's 1,000 school districts each year. She declined to specify why Palo Alto was selected this year, but said districts typically come to the state's attention because of incomplete data.
On its website, the California department of education lists three possible triggers for verification review.
They include complaints that a compliance violation exists; sub-average performance on state performance rankings or ongoing deficiencies in compliance.
A few parents walked out in the early stages of Tuesday's meeting after Singh announced that a member of the press was in the room.
Robin Ryan, who identified herself as a special education parent from the Sacramento area and as a consultant to the California Department of Education, ran the bulk of the meeting, passing out clickers so parents could use them to answer a series of questions about their experiences. She also invited participants to make brief oral comments.
Parents reported mixed experiences for their children, with some expressing great frustration with the system.
Several parents complained that special education classes are slow to get organized at the beginning of the school year, taking weeks to begin academics while regular education students begin the first week.
Others said it was difficult to get information or to get teachers and school staff to find time to meet with them. "I'm proactive," one mother said, "but there comes a time when you feel like you're just screaming all the time" to find out what's happening in the classroom.
Two parents who recently moved to Palo Alto from other school districts praised the program, saying they found special education services here to be far superior to services at their previous districts. One of them described Palo Alto's special ed program as "a dream come true," despite occasional disappointments.
The audience was asked a series of questions that were tabulated by electronic devices designed to ensure privacy.
Asked whether their children's strengths were considered during their Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) meeting (a meeting between parents and school staff required at least annually), 66 percent answered yes.
Asked whether they received progress reports on how their child was doing on IEP goals at least as often as the school's regular report card schedule, 70 percent said no.
Asked whether their child is receiving services in accordance with his or her IEP, 75 percent said no.
Asked whether the school district facilitated parent involvement as a means of improving services and results for their child, about half said yes and half said no, according to Ryan.
Singh said state officials plan to return to Palo Alto in late January to spend five days reviewing files, visiting campuses and talking with staff and parents. She also invited parents to submit written comments.
In a letter to Singh Wednesday, Stanford Law School Professor Michele Dauber, who attended Tuesday's meeting, requested that the state hold a second meeting, saying she was "personally aware of more than a dozen parents who received no notice of this (Tuesday) meeting."
Asked during Tuesday's meeting whether they had been notified of the meeting through U.S. mail, most but not all of the parents raised their hands.
Dauber's letter also said the translator provided by the Palo Alto school district for Tuesday's meeting is a district employee even though parents had been told that no district employees would be present.
About 9 percent of Palo Alto's K-12 students, or 1,115 children, are currently in special education programs, according to a recent report from the school district.