A Harvard University researcher and longtime special education advocate hired to assess the Palo Alto school district's special education services said in a preliminary report that the district has higher-than-average rates of inclusion and "very promising" practices, yet identified communication, trust with families and lacking data as areas in need of improvement.
The Board of Education discussed the report at an all-day retreat on Monday, June 13, with the researcher, Dr. Thomas Hehir, attending via video conference.
Hehir presented his team's preliminary findings and recommendations, which were compiled after they spent a week in Palo Alto this fall visiting schools and conducting informal observations in classrooms; meeting with parents, teachers and school and district-level administrators; analyzing student data; and conducting online surveys of parents, administrators and teachers.
Hehir, who began his career as a special education teacher in the 1970s and is now a professor of practice in learning differences at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told the board that his team found the district has higher than the national average rates of inclusion in general education classes. Students with disabilities in Palo Alto Unified have scores on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) that are comparable or exceed the state's average performance for students without disabilities, according to Hehir's report.
The district also has some "promising" inclusive practices emerging in its early childhood programs and elementary schools, he wrote in his report.
Hehir was also "encouraged" by the work of the Minority Achievement Talent Development (MATD) committee, which last year issued a set of recommendations around improving equity and access for minority and historically underrepresented students. Hehir and his team recommend including students with disabilities in the district's overarching equity plan, which is being developed as a result of the minority-achievement group's recommendations.
Where the district has fallen short, he found, is in its identification and support of students with disabilities and their families.
"We feel very strongly that the process of identifying kids who have disabilities needs to be proactive and where possible preventative," he told the board on Monday. "In other words, providing kids who are struggling with supports before they fail."
The identification process for Section 504 and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), which provide students with accommodations, is actually a "barrier to providing targeted supports and accommodation in a timely fashion," the report states.
Forty percent of parents surveyed said that their experiences with the identification process was "not at all positive" or "a little bit positive." Only 13 percent described it as "extremely positive."
He told the board that early identification, strong communication with parents and teacher training are all critical aspects of a successful identification process.
Hehir said that many district parents told him there is a lack of information about the district's special education policies, practices and procedures which in turn can engender "mistrust" between families and the district.
His report also notes that "currently having a disability in PAUSD is associated with academic failure."
"Our culture right now is 'let your kid fail,'" echoed board member Melissa Baten Caswell.
"How are we going to go to the next step?" she asked.
Hehir encouraged the district to be more clear about its expectations for teachers and principals as it relates to the identification process and serving students with disabilities broadly.
Transparent communication with parents about those expectations is also key, he said. His report recommends creating a "parent handbook" that articulates the purpose, policies and procedures around special-education identification, intervention, available support services, accommodations and the like.
Another critical improvement: teacher professional development, he said.
"We saw some very impressive classrooms in the district. It's not like you're starting at ground zero here," he told the board. "But we did hear from teachers, and I think in a very sincere voice, that there needs to be more, and that they want more."
Hehir is a proponent of 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.
His report suggests that UDL offers more educational advantages than co-taught classrooms, which the district has invested in over the last few years. 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. Last year, 27 teachers at Gunn High School and 19 at Palo Alto High were co-teaching classes.
Co-teaching must be done carefully, with the right pairing of teachers and instructional strategies that don't have the effect of watering down curriculum, Hehir said. Co-teaching is a "good evolution" away from segregated general and special education classrooms, but "I would probably start thinking about the next step," he told the board.
The report also emphasizes the importance of data-driven instruction and planning within special education. Palo Alto Unified, however, "lacks data that is instructionally useful in improving educational practices and identifying the impact of practices on students with disabilities," the report states.
Toward the end of the discussion, Baten Caswell became visibly emotional after Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade said the next steps will be a series of town hall meetings to share the results with families after this summer. Baten Caswell said that special education families will want and need to hear a concrete action plan, not simply a report.
"A town hall meeting that just tells people the report that doesn't do it," Baten Caswell said. "People need to hear what we're doing."
Christina Schmidt, a longtime leader with the parent-led Community Advisory Committee (CAC) for special education, told the board Monday that training in inclusion and unconscious bias, better use of data and parent engagement are all necessary parts of a successful action plan moving forward.
"Every parent in this room knows you cannot have enough parent engagement," she said. "They have to be welcome to the table individually, with their personal families and as advocates."
Hehir will likely provide his full, final report to the district in several weeks, Wade said.
In other business at Monday's retreat, the board discussed an elementary mathematics pilot proposal, new data from the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) and Palo Alto Reality Check survey, as well as the board's own governance practices, procedures and goals for the next school year.
Watch a video of the full-day retreat on the Weekly's YouTube channel.