"Every adult in our system must understand that every child can learn, regardless of who their parents are," Associate Superintendent Virginia Davis told the Board of Education.
"Unfortunately, we still do hear that comment that (minority students) 'are just not ready for my program.' We have to turn around that belief in our district," Davis said.
Palo Alto is one out of 17 of California's 1,000 school districts to be labeled by the state Department of Education as having "significant disproportionality" in special ed.
Overall, about 10 percent of the district's 12,024 students are in special education.
While African-American students comprise 3.1 percent of the district's total enrollment, they make up 26 percent of students in special education. Likewise, Hispanic students comprise 10.2 percent of overall population but 22 percent of those in special education.
That compares with about 4 percent of Asian students and 8 percent of Caucasian students, she said.
"A high percentage of students of color are in special education by the end of fifth grade and the numbers rise by the end of eighth grade," Davis said in a report to the board.
For example, at one unnamed middle school in the district, 50 percent of Hispanic fifth graders and 25 percent of African-American fifth graders were in special education in 2006-07. At the same school three years later, 55 percent of the Hispanic students and 33 percent of the African-American students were in special ed.
Davis presented a four-pronged plan to remedy the disproportion, relying heavily on early intervention for students showing signs of difficulty, known in education as "response to intervention," or RTI.
The goal is to identify and seamlessly help students in mainstream classrooms before they must be taken out for special help.
"This is going to take everybody — from the top down — across our system," Davis said, stressing the need for continued "equity training" and other types of training for teachers.
"We have a lot of teachers putting themselves out there, but there's a lot of concern that everybody needs to get on board or we're not going to see differences."
Of 405 elementary students referred by their teachers for extra math help this summer, 24 percent are English language learners, 11 percent are currently in special education and 19 percent are non-resident students who attend Palo Alto schools through the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program, Davis said.
Of the 720 recommended for "literacy intervention" this summer, 34 percent are English learners and 23 percent are Tinsley students, she said.
"It's not asking teachers to do more — it's asking them to be more deliberate about what they do," Davis said.
"It's a large learning curve, if you're somebody like me who taught for 20 years.
"It's asking them to look differently at students, at how you look at data, and being open to letting a reading specialist come in. You have to be open to that."
School board members said they appreciated Davis's candor with the data.
"It is imperative, it is our duty, to understand this," board Vice-President Camille Townsend said.
"Both my parents only went to the eighth grade, yet their kids — all eight of us — went to college (and beyond)," Townsend said.
"I often wonder if a student of color has the same issues as I had, and where did we end up differently?"
TALK ABOUT IT
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