The Palo Alto school district will likely be cited by the state this year for having a significantly disproportionate number of Latino and African American students in special education for the three years in a row.
The Santa Clara County Office of Education's Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) informed the district on Aug. 3 that it had received notification that the state has projected Palo Alto Unified will be out of compliance this year, according to an email the district provided to the Weekly.
Superintendent Don Austin said he expects to see a finding in this area for the next several years.
"Since it is not practical" to take students out of special education who have already been classified as needing the services, he said, "it will take time for this situation to cycle through."
Austin was not surprised by the finding, which he described as "exceedingly common" in districts across the state. The county Office of Education's SELPA told Palo Alto Unified that there are 12 school districts on the way to be cited as significantly disproportionate this year.
Austin acknowledged the district's historical overidentification of students of color. In 2011, Palo Alto Unified was one of 17 districts in the state to be cited for significant disproportionality in special education.
"There's really no reason why identification should be tied to ethnicity in the way it is for us right now," Austin said. "That needs to be better."
Austin disclosed the finding in an August update to the school board that is published on the district website. He noted in the update his expectation that Palo Alto Unified will receive the more serious "significant" disproportionality finding this year. The California Department of Education reviews data to make the findings, including race or ethnicity in a district's special-education identifications; the identification of students in specific disability categories; the placement of children with disabilities in particular educational settings; and the rate and nature of discipline for special-education students, such as suspensions and expulsions.
During a review in the 2017-18 school year, the state found the district out of compliance in the following areas: African American and Hispanic students with specific learning disabilities, African American students under any discipline and African American students with less than 10 days out of school. Out of 1,575 Hispanic students, 160 were identified as having a disability last year. Out of 212 African American students, 27 were identified.
A total of 18 Santa Clara County districts, including Palo Alto Unified, were cited as disproportionate last year, according to the county.
Data for this school year indicates there are disproportionate numbers of Hispanic students identified as having intellectual disabilities and African American and Hispanic students with specific learning disabilities.
Districts who are found out of compliance for three consecutive years must set aside 15% of federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funds to create and implement an improvement plan. Palo Alto Unified wouldn't be required to do that until 2020-21, according to the county.
Austin said work is already underway to address the issue, including adding more support in classrooms and using new software, Goal Book, to set clear goals and measure students' progress more routinely.
For Kimberly Eng-Lee, parent and co-chair of special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee, the finding was also not a shock. She said that the district is working to address the overrepresentation of students of color in special education and goals related to that effort are called out in the new districtwide plan, the PAUSD Promise.
"If anything, it just further supports the direction that (the district is) already going," she said of the finding. "It's a lagging external indicator and at this point, some oversight from the outside is not a bad thing."
Eng-Lee was surprised, however, that Austin didn't mention the potential finding during a lengthy discussion of the Promise at a school board retreat earlier this month.
"More than ever, we need transparency around disproportionality statistics and implications for this year's equity and achievement gap work. We request public disclosure of (1) where we are now, (2) specific steps in a plan, and (3) metrics that show if we're seeing the intended effect," she wrote in a prepared statement for Tuesday's school board meeting. "Our goal should not be changing numbers, but changing students — their experiences, their outcomes."
She pointed to the U.S. Department of Education's 2016 "Dear Colleague" letter that reminded school districts and charter schools of their legal responsibility to prevent racial discrimination in special education.
"Over-identification, under-identification, and belated evaluation of students of color to determine whether they have disabilities and need special education services can violate Title VI and Section 504, and in so doing harm students' civil rights to equal educational opportunity," wrote then-Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon.