When Superintendent Max McGee began his new post in the Palo Alto Unified School District last fall, one of the first changes he made was within the special education department. He asked that Holly Wade, then the director of special education for the district, report directly to him rather than to Associate Superintendent Charles Young.
Seeing a need for new structure, McGee continued to reorganize the department and its employees' responsibilities throughout the school year, most recently naming Chiara Perry, one of the district's three special education coordinators, as director. She filled the vacancy created in June when Wade was promoted to chief student-services officer as part of a larger reorganization of district management.
Perry, who has had a 17-year-long career in special education, is taking the helm of an often embattled department marred in recent years by several investigations into disability bias conducted by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.
But personnel changes aren't the only change the district has seen in special education in the past year. The superintendent's handling of a new Office for Civil Rights investigation opened last fall has exemplified a new approach in the district. When a frustrated Palo Alto family turned to the federal agency for help, believing district staff had not handled their child's disability accommodations properly, McGee met with the family personally, outlined what the district had already done both to fix the problem for this particular student and to change procedures so it wouldn't happen again, and provided the documentation to the federal agency, all without involving district lawyers. The case was soon closed.
With a new superintendent, a new director who emphasizes collaboration and communication, two new coordinators serving beneath Perry, and a new hire dedicated solely to handling anything related to students' 504 plans (which refer to Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guarantees certain rights in public schools to students with disabilities and their parents), parents are hopeful that the special education department could be entering a new era this year.
Just eight days before Perry's appointment, the department was found to be in full compliance, following a more than one-year-long verification review conducted by the California Department of Education (CDE). Palo Alto Unified was one of 33 school districts the state agency selected to review in 2014, based on its compliance history, State Performance Plan indicators for special education students and program improvement status.
During the review, which began in January 2014, CDE staff analyzed past compliance records; interviewed staff; visited school sites; reviewed data, including student records such as Individualized Education Programs (IEPs); and gathered parent input through in-person meetings, surveys and individual phone calls. Parents reported issues with progress reporting, lack of variety of program options, services not being provided in accordance with the IEP, and a failure of the IEP team to discuss transition services, which are required for students 15 years and older, according to a CDE report.
In September, the Department of Education notified the district that each of the 52 student records reviewed had at least one finding of noncompliance, such as overdue IEPs, missing notices for meetings on transition plans and students not invited to their own IEP meetings. Out of 3,388 items reviewed, 58.8 percent had compliant findings and 10.6 percent had non-compliant findings, according to the CDE.
The state agency offered a series of corrective actions for the district to work on over the next several months, including training at both the district and school levels and improved paperwork/recording methods. Wade and Perry stressed that many findings of noncompliance related to paperwork -- a box left unchecked, an incomplete file, an IEP assessment that was completed by the correct due date but not signed by the assessor.
"We meet a lot with parents," Wade said, "and (the CDE) said that it was clear that meaningful conversations were happening in the IEPs, but that wasn't finding its way into the right box."
Another finding was IEP notification forms that didn't inform parents that they are allowed to bring a support person to their child's IEP meetings. (Wade said that these forms come from the County Office of Education, so they had to contact the county to implement this change, invite parents to meetings with the new offer for support and hold those meetings before the district could be found compliant.)
CDE staff returned three times this year -- in April, May and June -- for follow-up reviews, finally finding the district in full compliance on July 8.
Christina Schmidt, chair of the parent-led Community Advisory Committee (CAC) for special education, said she's hopeful that the overhaul of the department will bring positive change to the district's special education families.
"The reorganization of the special education department is a positive move," she said. "Change is good. It's a demonstration of action taken to improve the existing quality of special education services for our students."
Yet, she noted, for the new director, "The opportunity presented by this reorganization unquestionably has its challenges."
Better communication, stronger policies and more stable staffing are among the CAC's top priorities for the department. The CAC wrote to the school board and superintendent, and members attended a board meeting, to request that the board appoint a liaison to the CAC, much like each board member serves as a liaison to certain schools and other community groups like Palo Alto Partners in Education (PiE) and the Parent Teacher Association (PTA).
They also requested that the board look into its policies and procedures regarding extracurricular activities to ensure they are both inclusive and in compliance with the law.
Schmidt said the CAC is also concerned about high staff turnover in the district. Two of the district's three special education coordinators left before the end of the school year, and several extended absences in positions like speech and language pathologists and occupational therapists proved difficult to fill, Wade said.
Schmidt stressed that turnover has a particularly high impact on special education students.
"For our kids, when you have a staff member that leaves and you don't have someone replacing them that is trained ... it's traumatic," she said. "This can set a child back a year depending on what their particular conditions are and challenges are. That is a huge, huge concern."
Wade and Perry said some turnover is due to typical things like retirement, maternity leaves, illness, relocation, teachers opting to go back to school for another degree or program. But special education is demanding work, they said, and it's not for everyone. Some staff took leaves of absences this year, Wade said.
McGee said he, too, is concerned about high turnover in the department. Three exiting special education teachers he met with in June expressed a "sense of not enough support" across the board, both at the schools and at the district office, he said.
Perry noted that Palo Alto is not alone in high special education turnover.
"It takes a lot. There is a lot of work. People say you have fewer kids you work with in special ed, but I've been in special ed for 17 years now and ... there's always turnover no matter where you are," she said.
However, "there's no place like Palo Alto," she added. "You have to have very thick skin and you have to work hard."
California is also suffering from a teacher shortage in this field. The number of new education specialist credentials has steadily declined since 2010, with 18.7 percent less credentials issued in 2013-14 than in the year before, according to an annual report from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing released in April.
Schmidt said she would like to see the district track and analyze special education turnover and compare it to trends within the general education staff.
Besides the two new special education coordinators, the district also hired six education specialists at the elementary level and 11 at the secondary level, as well as three new school psychologists and two mental health therapists, Wade said, to be fully staffed for the 2015-16 school year.
Perry, who began her career in 1998 in Georgia, has taught preschool, middle school and high school. Before moving to California several years ago, she served as the special education coordinator in the Gwinett County Public Schools, the largest school system in Georgia. In 2010, she moved to the Campbell Unified School district in California, where she worked as an education specialist for three years before coming to Palo Alto.
In Palo Alto, Perry was assigned to the secondary schools, working with the three middle schools and two high schools on professional development, compliance and the hiring and training of instructional aides.
In her new role, she will be overseeing the department's K-12 programs and staff and will be in charge of recruiting, hiring and training teachers.
Perry said she recognizes that "it's hard to repair relationships if a parent feels that someone is not doing what's best for their kid." She emphasized the importance of communication and being open to making changes, like finding a new case manager or trying something new in middle school after a negative experience in elementary school.
Most important to the special education community in Palo Alto, Schmidt said, will be putting rubber to the road when it comes to an expressed commitment to building relationships and a "framework of transparency" that creates opportunities for parents, staff and administrators to work together.
"All these stakeholders I just mentioned can really collaborate on building an education program for the district," Schmidt said, "but they have to be able to appreciate each other's values. I think that that has not been something that has been reinforced very often in the past. ... It's a big order."