A longtime special-education advocate and Harvard University Graduate School of Education professor is visiting Palo Alto this week to kick off a review he will be conducting of the school district's practices, programs and culture around students with disabilities.
The school district has brought in Dr. Thomas Hehir, a professor of practice in learning differences, to evaluate its historically embattled special-education department, which is at a point of transition with new leadership and structure.
There are two new special-education coordinators serving beneath new Director Chiara 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).
The special-education department was also recently under a verification review conducted by the California Department of Education (CDE), which found the district to be in full compliance in June after more than a year of analysis.
Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade, who until this year served as the district's director of special education, said the external review conducted by Hehir was prompted both internally the change in leadership in the special-education department and externally.
Special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee (CAC), which is led by parents in the district, requested last year that the district assemble a task force to collect more parent input and better "understand outcomes associated with receiving services within special education," Wade wrote in an email.
Hehir and two researchers, Monica Ng and Kevin Mintz, will be visiting school sites, meeting principals, teachers and staff; conducting classroom observations; interviewing students and parents and reviewing student data to assess the quality of "educational opportunities for children with disabilities in Palo Alto," Hehir told a group of more than 30 parents and some school staff at a parent discussion event Tuesday night.
He stressed that the scope of the review will reach beyond special education to assess the experiences of children with disabilities in the district.
"I don't want people to think that this is about special ed," Hehir said. "This is about ed. This is about kids having educational opportunity, of which special ed is a piece, because many kids need specialized instruction."
Hehir began his career as a special-education teacher on the East Coast in the 1970s, teaching at what he said was the first vocational high school in the United States to integrate students with disabilities. He went on to open more vocational schools for children with disabilities for the Massachusetts Department of Education, then worked as an administrator in Boston Public Schools before he attended Harvard to obtain his doctorate. He said at the time, in the late 1980s, there were no students with disabilities at Harvard.
From 1993 to 1999, Hehir served as director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs under the Clinton administration. As director, he helped implement the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees students with disabilities the opportunity to receive a free and "appropriate" public education.
When Hehir returned to Harvard in 2007 to teach topics like inclusive education, he was struck by the number of students with disabilities in his classes. This spurred him to write a book, "How Did They Get Here? Students with Disabilities and their Journeys to Harvard," which focuses on 16 undergraduate and graduate students at Harvard who have disabilities including deafness, dyslexia and cerebral palsy.
One of those students is Mintz, one of the two researchers assisting with the Palo Alto review. Mintz, who has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair bound, attended the parent discussion on Tuesday night and shared his own experiences going through educational systems with serious physical disabilities.
Mintz, who Hehir said could not speak as a preschooler, became the first student with a physical disability in Miami-Dade County in Florida to be taught alongside students without disabilities. He went on to Harvard, where he was a student of Hehir's, and is currently a graduate student at Stanford University.
Mintz described how his father became his care provider in eighth grade and until he graduated high school, even moving with Mintz to London for a year while he attended the London School of Economics to obtain a master's degree.
Hehir said Mintz and almost every other student in his book said they relied on their parents becoming their advocates and, frequently, their service providers, to get them to where they were at Harvard.
"Why should you have to go to extraordinary lengths when you have a child with disabilities to get what is their right?" Hehir asked.
The students in the book responded to the question, "How did you get here?" with several answers, Hehir said. They had one or two teachers or specialists who believed in and fought for them. They found learning strategies that worked for them and allowed them to be more independent and successful. They asked their teachers for more when they were thirsty for intellectual stimulation. They found extracurriculars sports, clubs, music, the student newspaper in which they excelled and could find confidence. They developed a positive sense of self around their disabilities.
School board member Terry Godfrey, sitting in the audience Tuesday evening, told Hehir that the district is looking for a more systemic approach to supporting students with disabilities.
"We can't grow our own set of parents to give to each kid and we can't pluck teachers from other places to make them 'the' teacher," Godfrey said. "I think for us it's more, how do we make this a system here where it doesn't matter who your parent is or if you encounter a great speech therapist but that you're included in Palo Alto schools and all those other things actually don't matter?"
Hehir responded that leadership, particularly of school principals, is critical to developing a system that supports all students. He said principals should sit in on Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings with parents and students, put in place instructional practices geared toward more inclusive classrooms and allow teachers the space to not only learn these practices, but also to be innovative and try outside-of-the-box strategies.
"The single biggest variable is principal leadership," Hehir said. "If principals don't internalize the values of inclusive education, it is very difficult for anything else to work."
One parent of a student with special needs described very positive experiences at her daughter's elementary and middle schools the principals attended her IEPs, one school involved her in a theater production, she was in a successful co-taught classroom where the special education and general education teacher worked together to support her but not at the high school level. The parent said they initiated some kind of training via Skype to help integrate her daughter into the mainstream at the high school, but the principal was "not on board." The parent ended up withdrawing her daughter from school.
"It really comes from top down where if the principals welcome our children, it will send a signal to the teaching staff," the parent said.
Hehir also talked about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an educational strategy that aims to move teachers away from one-size-fits-all instruction to more flexible and inclusive classrooms. Hehir compared the concept to buildings that are designed with people with disabilities in mind ramps are built for people in wheelchairs, and fire alarms placed so that deaf people can see them, for example.
Schools, historically, have not been designed in the same way, Hehir said. UDL asks teachers to present material in multiple ways (because everyone processes information differently, with or without disabilities), to have multiple ways to determine students' competency (beyond just a paper-and-pencil test, for example) and to offer multiple means for engagement.
Mintz cautioned that "universal design is not a panacea."
"UDL is wonderful. I've benefited from it, but it's also about really knowing your child or student and thinking about what will work for them," he said.
Hehir stressed the importance of co-teaching, a strategy that Palo Alto Unified is focusing on this year, particularly at the high school level. Both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools hired new full-time co-teaching and inclusion specialists this year. Close to 30 teachers at Gunn and 19 at Paly are now co-teaching classes.
Ideally, co-teaching means a regular and special-education teacher share lesson planning, instruction and assessment in one class with a mixed population of students. The end goal is inclusion, a well-established model that Palo Alto Unified and many school districts have moved toward as segregated special-education classrooms fall by the wayside.
Tuesday night's discussion was the first of several events that will be hosted to gather parent input for the review. There will also be a parent coffee on Thursday, Oct. 8, 8:30-9:45 a.m. at JLS Middle School, 480 E. Meadow Drive.
In a later phase of the review, parents, students and staff will also have the opportunity to provide written input "to support a clear, balanced and intentional perspective of how we are supporting all students," Wade wrote in an email to parents.
The budget for the first phase of the review is $32,900, according to Wade. The budget for the second phase will be later determined.