External review delivers mixed results on Palo Alto's special-education department

School board hears preliminary findings from evaluation

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.


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47 people like this
Posted by More truthiness
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 14, 2016 at 11:03 pm

The district's actively avoiding providing 504 procedures when directly asked, for months, is not what cost the trust in our case. It was the actively being lied to, i.e., the infamous letters containing nothing true (demonstrably, but no one in the administration wants to look), the plotting/colluding between district and school staff to hold 504 meetings without us parents or without real notice, the impossibility of getting records requests filled, the nasty environment and the backbiting, the interfering from the district personnel for legalistic reasons that utterly disrupted any possibility of normal relationships with the school or connectedness for the children, the boilerplate legal strategies intended to cause families stress, the demeaning and degrading treatment. When you have a child weeping every day after school, telling you of how alone, depressed, and inferior feels because of school, and staff bullying you to avoid hearing about it or bearing witness, talking over you to tell you everything is hunky dory and exaggerating, even lying about the accommodations made - that, that destroys trust.

Hire trustworthy people and put in place. mechanisms to hold those who aren't to account/remove them (with zero tolerance for untrustworthy behavior and lying) - that would solve the trust problem. It's not that complicated. All of this feels once again like more things we do in order to avoid facing what really must be done.

16 people like this
Posted by Executive Oversight
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 15, 2016 at 8:15 pm

The Board of Education approved this contract with no deadlines or a firm study design. Parents warned the Board of Education not to do this. It is bad practice. It has been over a year with this evaluation with no firm end date in sight.

The Board approved the contract with very little detail or specifics, and that is what the Board is getting back now.

Every month the completion date changed, along with new reasons for delays. Now it is that there must be more costly travel for Town Hall meetings with parents. Huh? Just give us the final report.

The District leadership is as much responsible for these delays as the contractor. District administrators told Board members the study design would not be created until after costly travel and meetings, after the money was already spent.

Next time any evaluation or research contract is up for Board approval, either in a budget session or as a separate agenda item, Board approval must only be granted with a firm, written design and deadlines that will be hit or missed.

Once the budget for this evaluation was approved with no design or deadline, only the most diligent could get specific information about it from the District. Even more galling is parents were told this evaluation would be independent and justify last year's reorganization putting power in the hands of a single person, with no competitive job applications. There are still major concerns about this, especially in putting Counseling and Psychology under control of the same person in charge of Special Education. This should never have happened. Parents tried to warn the Board not to, but the Board ignored input and concerns from the parents who knew what was really happening, parents who had worked with these employees many years more than the new Superintendent.

The Superintendent promised to study and report to families why services were so inequitable at different schools. Where is that?

So now the Board is not comfortable, but this is what they made for themselves and for us. The people promoted picked the consultant to study their work, according to the Superintendent at last year's retreat. In addition to the huge raises many received in the re-organziation, taxpayers are supposed to give these same employees an extra retroactive 5% pay increase from the time they were promoted and guaranteed raises for the next two years. Gotta laugh when the Board and Superintendent stress employees will only get the raises with positive evaluations. Evaluations of the people he picked over parent concerns will always get great evaluations.

14 people like this
Posted by More truthiness
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2016 at 7:47 am

I forgot one thing. Petty, personal retaliation by district people (along with school people who believe whatever they're told). I think the consultant SHOULD have parent meetings. In an ideal world. Good luck getting anyone who really should be heard to go. We won't.

I'm sure the consultant, who was hired by McGee to give cover to a whole lot of rottenness they could never have anticipated in a school district, must be in a real pickle now. Do something to really reveal even the little they've heard so far (and protect the kids, and their consultant reputation from being sullied when the truth eventually comes out, as it always does - usually uncontrollably after so much suppression and cover, just ask Skelly), or try to say just enough to extract themselves.

8 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 18, 2016 at 9:58 am

This article is damning about the special ed policy in PAUSD: "OUr culture right now is let your kid fail". What could be worse? How can these people sleep at night?

5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 18, 2016 at 1:11 pm

When is this final report coming? He was first out here in October 2015, so it's been a long time. The preliminary report wasn't exactly earth-shattering or data-rich, so not quite sure what they are doing.

10 people like this
Posted by Concerns
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Aug 20, 2016 at 8:48 pm

Concerns is a registered user.

@Resident - The final report is delayed again. Holly Wade said in Retreat in August it would be delayed until the middle of October. (In June Retreat, she said it would come out in a few more weeks.)It was on a proposed Board Calendar to be presented in mid October.

The report has been underway much longer than October, 2015. It was promised since at least June, 2015. Parents were promised this study would justify promoting
Assistant Superintendent without competitive job posting because this independent evaluation would prove it. Parents worried control of Counseling, Psychology, Special Education evaluation and Special Education services were all under 1 single person, who has no mental health license or behaviorist certification. She has a strong incentive to reduce services and costs, and a heavy incentive to say children do not need help and that mainstreaming children is completely successful. In fact, she has said it often.

It does not seem independent evaluation since the people evaluated choose the evaluator.

I am unimpressed with the District's management of this contract, which can't seem to get it done. The Board has shown poor oversight without requiring deadlines and deliverables, so that at this point no one can say it is overdue because there were no due dates.

I am also worried the people who requested the study, and they control the outcome and what results we hear.

I am concerned Board of Education candidates are already using it as a reason to vote for them in the upcoming election, on a report that does not exist. Why is it coming out just before an election?

I am concerned about Dr. Wade's evasive answers to Board questions. When Wade was asked for the parent handbook/policy manual, which parents have requested for years and years, she covered it over saying we already have a SELPA manual. She knows very few people know what this government entity is or what it does.

She has done nothing to make the SELPA manual readily available to families. SELPA procedures suddenly appear when she wants to stop something. Are they even enforceable, or only a way to stop progress and full disclosure.

Her other answer to the request for procedure manual was that she prefers to wait until Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is in place. First, the Board has not approved a shift in Special Education to UDL. Why would they without a final report? Why would they approve UDL when they were told Co-Teaching and Full Inclusion were 100% successful? Second, what the heck is UDL, specifically, other than a topic the evaluator wrote a book promoting? Okay so we will get a report promoting a policy which he promotes in his books. UDL is an extremely broad term that can never be fully implemented.

If families have to wait for UDL implementation for a procedure manual, it will never happen. Exactly as it stands now.

It was strange that Baten Caswell only now is upset PAUSD Special Education is a Failure System. While she is correct it is a Failure Culture, she has been on the Board for 9 years. How is it she didn't realize this earlier? She and Emberling and Townsend all attacked parents, accusing them of perjury for reporting bullying of disabled children. These Board members bullied parents and children from the Board dias. They sent a clear message to Administrators bullying and blaming families of disabled, the weakest part of our District, was condoned by the Board. Bravo to the few and the brave who stood up these Board members.

It was obvious the Board was not impressed with Wade at this retreat. Wade changed the subject to "and the good news is..." She had no plans. She is still touting hiring more teachers for Co-Teaching, but the Superintendent and Board clearly saw Co-Teaching as a failure. It never existed in elementary schools. Although Wade told us all teachers were fully trained in "Differentiated Learning", that has clearly failed. Ask a teacher or aide. They were never all completely trained in differentiated learning for every child in their classrooms. It was never possible all students were 100% supported in the mainstream classroom by eliminating special needs classes as Emberling and Wade claimed. Supports at schools did not increase. Complete success is an absurd claim, because that would have cost far more time and money than the District ever had.

The psuedo-scientific claims were silly. They would be funny if they were not so sad and harmful.

How a study that was going to suggest programs that cost money will now suddenly save money is beyond my reasoning ability. Then again, we don't have the study, so maybe it proposes miracles. We need it now.

I can't see Baten Caswell or any of the legacy Board members fixing the system that they wanted and created.

7 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 27, 2016 at 6:14 pm

This is very disheartening. I agree with many of the comments. Clearly, the special education philosophy and system in place in PAUSD is not designed to actually benefit learning disabled children.

I am surprised Holly Wade is allowed at the helm, as she clearly does not have the best interests of learning disabled children at heart- rather, she seems to want to fight parents as much as possible, using the long and very powerful legal arm of PAUSD to squash any requests for assessment or assistance.

She seems to be the most responsible out of the whole administration for the culture of failure that is currently in place, and it doesn't seem like anyone from within is trying to do anything about that.

10 people like this
Posted by More Truthiness
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 27, 2016 at 6:58 pm

We never interacted with Holly Wade. Brenda Carrillo was the instigator of our special torment. I do not know who works for whom. With Linda Lenoir retired, if McGee would only replace these two, it sure seems like most of the old horrible guard responsible for the antagonistic untrustworthy culture would be gone. Nevertheless, that's not the same as creating a trustworthy, caring, problem solving culture proactively. For that, they have to put truth and serving families collaboratively as a higher priority (from nothing at all). They would have to put the kids first, and I just don't see that happening from this report.

13 people like this
Posted by NotVotingCaswell
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 27, 2016 at 8:24 pm

It was six years ago we first spoke to Caswell about our disabled child. She offered kind words, but that was all.

Yes, Melissa - it is a culture of failure.

And has been for a long time. Your failure.

So why haven't you done a single thing about it?

You support and run a system which abuses our children.

For many many years. You will not get my vote this election.

4 people like this
Posted by Smarter Balance
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Aug 27, 2016 at 10:22 pm

Smarter Balance is a registered user.

You can view the Smarter Balanced 2016 test results for PAUSD disabled students by pulling down on "Students with Disability"

Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by for every child
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2016 at 8:22 am


Welcome to public education where there is a precise order to how things are done.

Any actions school board members take they must take together, as a board. Together they approve policies and evaluate the Superintendent's performance. It is the Superintendent who works at the micro level enforcing their policies with the personnel he hires, trains, manages, and, if needed, has to fire.

School board members can be sympathetic, as you say Melissa Caswell was, and can direct a family to the people who are hired to help them but, again, no one board member can force a fix and no one board member has any say over the details after the referral. That part is the Superintendent's job.

Have you approached Superintendent McGee? He is the one who needs to insist that those who work for him do the right thing.

If you think a new board policy is needed that lays out what that right thing is, have you spoken to the board policy review committee about it?

If those two things fail, give a ring to Ken Dauber who, around the same time you post your child's troubles started, began a campaign to get rid of our last superintendent for similar reasons. In a Palo Alto Weekly Op-Ed titled "PAUSD Needs New Leadership," Ken Dauber, with his wife Michele Dauber, said that "the school board should do the job that we elected it to do and hire [new] leadership."

The school board did. Dr. McGee started a few years later, as it happens around the time that the school board approved anti-bullying policies that came about because a family, like yours, was unhappy with how the prior superintendent handled their child's situation.

That new policy helped every child.

6 people like this
Posted by NotVotingCaswell
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 28, 2016 at 8:57 am

So, that's it?

If we simply lower our expectations to zero, and wait for another superintendent to arrive (and still not fix the problems) then we get - what?

Really you are saying the same thing as me - it's broken, the last super didn't fix it, the current super won't...

Ok, great they stopped picking on my kid, but we will graduate in a few years and the schools work much harder to avoid helping kids the they work at helping kids.


Townsend is most representative of the anti SPED crowd, but she is leaving. Caswell I can vote against, and will. Emberling also won't get my vote,

8 people like this
Posted by More Truthiness
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2016 at 10:06 am

The new policy did not help every child. I can think of more than one case in which families even left the district and their children's friendships because of ongoing bad behavior by staff and the antagonistic culture As @NotVotingCaswell describes. McGee is worse about working out some kinds of problems than Skelly, and way worse about records. The steps you describe are only what should help, they do not actually do anything but waste your time.

Caswell and Emberling weren't just do nothings, they actively tried to thwart parents getting help from outside to fix our district. I agree, they still work much harder at not helping kids than helping kids. Once all the effort goes to not helping kids, there's no way to do both. A district nurse whose professional efforts are bent to testifying against kids in court and manipulating expert input to avoid accommodating kids at will, cannot also be an effective advocate. A district administrator working behind a desk who is never in contact with the damage done but has a lot of power to take out petty slights on families, even use expensive district legal resources to deliberately induce stress, can never be an effective advocate for anything except that negatice culture. The Finnish system has a Do whatever it takes for every child model, you simply cannot get the benefits from that if the first order of business us to do whatever it takes to keep kids from accommodations.

Board policies are meaningless unless there is some realistic way to enforce them when they are flaunted, that also doesn't engender retaliation by administrators who work with McGee and whose word will always be taken above injured students and families. Remember now that the district culture is to avoid the accommodations, so they are starting already from an illegal culture that they accept and protect - the law says staff must be proactive in identifying needed accommodations and offering them, because it turns out to be cheaper and better for kids and the system in the long run. That's not what they do.

I don't know what to say, @Not Voting Caswell, if you are ready to leave the district so you don't have to endure the retaliation against your child, you can make another OCR complaint. I'm sure Caswell and Emberling would make political hay out of it, though. Otherwise, special ed families can only decide whether the effort and money they spend is better spent fighting the school or put directly to benefit their child. Sorry but it's the hard reality here. People who don't give a damn about children with certain special needs, don't like parents and don't know how to serve or collaborate, have a culture of avoiding helping kids, and they hold all the cards.

6 people like this
Posted by for every child
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2016 at 10:40 am


I guess you could call it lowering expectations. Think about it this way.

Some Palo Alto families spend $30,000 a year to send their child to the "perfect" small private school which, because it is private, admits only children the school knows ahead of time will do well and won't cost too much to educate.

Even if it were possible for PAUSD to design 1 school system for 10,000 + students that would meet every child's every need, PAUSD only has half the money that that private school has, so funding alone means that PAUSD can not replicate what that perfect private school offers.

Parents who expect otherwise will surely be disappointed.

Board members have to figure out how best to spend those limited funds. It's not easy and, no matter what they decide, there will always be people who are unhappy that more wasn't spent on their child.

Families like yours want more to be spent on Special Education students, even after the district decided to spend more on them than on other students.

Other families pressed the school district hard to spend close to $100 million to take over Cubberley to design and test out a newfangled secondary school for their children there, only happy if their children are taught in a certain setting in a very specific way BTW without regard to whether that school would be good for Special Education students.

There are families whose children need more psychological and mental health support. They insist that that should be a top priority.

There are families who think that nothing matters more than small class sizes so that their children can feel more connected to their teachers.

There are families for whom academics and learning matter most, wanting more money to be spent on finding, hiring, and retaining the best teachers.

And there are even families who urge the school district to spend lots of money just on their one child and, if it doesn't, sue, which costs the district money too.

You are on the right track though. Anyone with a strong preference for how school funds should be spent should vote for those who agree with them. But just voting out incumbents accomplishes nothing if the people you are voting to replace them with don't share your view. Before you pull the lever on election day, insist that all of them give you a prioritized list showing how they'd spend limited funds and make sure you keep it so you can show it to them in case they change their mind, as often happens, after winning a seat.

7 people like this
Posted by NotVotingCaswell
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 28, 2016 at 12:36 pm


You may try to reframe this as a money problem.

But it isn't a money problem.

Most of what we needed involved no money. We just wanted poor treatment to end. The district makes no attempt to work with families - even in cases where it would cost them less to do so...

Your money argument is false.

17 people like this
Posted by Burned
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 28, 2016 at 6:16 pm

Burned is a registered user.

My son was in Special Ed since first grade. He had, among other learning disabilities, a problem with transferring what he read on the board to paper-- it had to do with transferring from one plane to another.

This was especially problematic with math.

In all the years he was in PAUSD, he got no help with math, and the math block he developed , after sixth grade!

10 people like this
Posted by Smarter Balance
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Aug 28, 2016 at 6:38 pm

Smarter Balance is a registered user.

If PAUSD "decided" to spend a lot more on Disabled students, it failed.

Smarter Balance test results show PAUSD Disabled students scored significantly worse than non-Disabled students.

MATH - Overall - 39% of Disabled students did NOT meet Math standard. Only 3% of non disabled students did NOT meet the math standard. For Disabled 11th Graders, nearly 59% did NOT meet math standards. 11th graders are about to graduate and face the world unprepared.

English/ Language Arts - Overall - 38% of Disabled students did NOT meet standard, but Overall only 4% of non disabled students did NOT meet standard. For Disabled 8th Graders 48% did NOT meet standard, but only 3% of non disabled students did not meet standard. That means 8th graders about to enter high school are not prepared to do high school level and pre-college level work, and are unlikely to graduate from PAUSD meeting standards.

Web Link#

11 people like this
Posted by More Truthiness
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 29, 2016 at 9:50 am

"Most of what we needed involved no money. We just wanted poor treatment to end. The district makes no attempt to work with families - even in cases where it would cost them less to do so..."

Same here! If you point out how working together will save money and even help others, then you are really toast.

10 people like this
Posted by Floored
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 29, 2016 at 3:29 pm

Floored is a registered user.

The Special Education in PAUSD is useless. We came from another district where our son made great strides with his IEP teacher. She saw him almost daily.

After moving to this district, and going through two solid weeks of testing, our son saw his IEP teacher twice a week, and only for math. They never dealt with his auditory processing disability, or with his sequencing disability!

An avid swimmer, they told us that his vision was poor because he blinked a lot-- his vision was fine, he just had irritation from Jordan's over-chlorinated pool!

2 people like this
Posted by Handbook
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 3, 2016 at 11:04 pm

Handbook is a registered user.

Dr. Wade wants to avoid producing the PAUSD Parent Handbook the evaluator recommended to increase parent trust (not to mention giving parents knowledge of information that only she holds). I had a Handbook in high school, decades ago!

I've asked Special Education including Dr. Wade for procedures, and they change the subject, talk over parents, blurs the answer saying things like parents could not possibly understand, oh dear, there is the District policy, the SELPA policy, how could we give you both, you could not possibly know what you want, oh dear, must wait until we have universal design for learning, don't worry we do this everyday....

Other Districts are capable of producing handbooks. San Francisco school district has one explaining families legal rights, Special Education rights, dealing with police on campus, needed forms, how to file complaints. PAUSD needs to stop being so opaque, and Dr. McGee needs to stop deriding families and claiming there are no complaints because families didn't don't know they had to use a certain form, forms his $990 a day employees withhold from the public.

Web Link

1 person likes this
Posted by Marcia Perez
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Sep 28, 2016 at 6:53 pm

I just sent an email to the school board and super regarding the town hall meetings they offered on this issue. I would also like to organize more parents. If you are interested in approaching the district in an organized and concerted effort of our grievances, observations, successes, etc. please contact me directly. Past parent comments highly welcomed. I have been lied to on more than one occasion by government bureaucrats working for PAUSD. We should demand integrity and transparency in a tax paid for public school that needs to be held accountable to the students and parents.

You can send me past emails, correspondence, complaints, anything. Call me if you want to talk.

Marcia Perez (415) 297-6009

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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