'They gave us our child back.' How nonpublic schools serve the education system's neediest students | News | Palo Alto Online |


'They gave us our child back.' How nonpublic schools serve the education system's neediest students

Schools offer small, specialized environments for struggling students

Nicholas puts a puzzle together during class at Achieve Kids, a Palo Alto nonpublic school that serves students on the autism spectrum, as well as with emotional disturbances, and other developmental disabilities on Dec. 3, 2019. Photo by Sammy Dallal.

On a recent morning at Wings Learning Center in Redwood City, a young boy navigated his school's hallways lying on his stomach on a bright red, wheeled scooter board, using his arms to pull himself down a carpeted walkway, like a surfer paddling into a wave. He reached the front desk, where he stood up and asked a staff member for a key to a bathroom. An occupational therapist followed closed behind.

While it's unimaginable that a student would move through a traditional public school in such a manner, it's the norm at Wings, a nonpublic school for students on the autism spectrum. The student was taking a needed break from class in a way that was specifically designed to regulate him while working on his motor skills (using his full body instead of simply walking) and communication (talking to the staff member and making a request).

Wings is one of about 20 nonpublic schools in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties that serve some of the education system's most vulnerable students when their public school districts can no longer do so. Nonpublic schools function as extensions of public districts, but offer smaller, specialized environments designed specifically to support struggling students, rather than fitting them into the sometimes limiting structure of a traditional school.

These are students on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, including some who are nonverbal and rely on assistive technology to communicate. Others have emotional disturbances, depression, anxiety or disabilities that have become insurmountable barriers to their learning. Many of their disabilities manifested in extreme behavior at traditional schools — acting out, biting, harming one's self or others, refusing to go to school all together — that made it near impossible for them to exercise their right to a public education.

After exhausting all options at a public school, districts can refer students to nonpublic schools. The district must pay in full for the placement, which is meant to be temporary but can last several years, including transportation to farther-flung schools. Federal law requires public schools to provide students with disabilities free and appropriate public education, or FAPE, even if that "appropriate" public education program is not available within their schools.

Nonpublic school students make up just 1.6% of the state's special-education population, according to the California Department of Education. In Palo Alto Unified, there are currently 52 students enrolled in nonpublic schools (including one through a settlement agreement, rather than the district's special education process) at a cost of $2.4 million.

Nonpublic schools are often families' last resort, and their quality varies. Nonpublic schools made headlines in 2018 when a special-needs student on the autism spectrum died after being placed in a face-down restraint at a now-closed El Dorado Hills school. The incident prompted new state legislation that increased oversight of nonpublic schools.

But locally, parents said nonpublic schools' flexibility, specialized staff, individualized attention and deep understanding of specific disabilities was a saving grace for their children.

"We joke that EBC is not the school that when your child is born you hope that they get into but you are really happy it exists," said Kira Sabot, whose son attends the Esther B. Clark (EBC) School, a nonpublic school at the Children's Health Council in Palo Alto. "It's like they gave us our child back."

Nonpublic school students make up a small percentage of the state's overall special-education population. There are about 300 nonpublic schools in California, which are overseen by the state Department of Education. School districts contract with nonpublic schools, some of which are nonprofits and some of which are private, to provide services to special-education students. Nonpublic schools are subject to the same federal and state education statutes as public schools, including for staff qualifications and curriculum, and must go through a detailed process to get certified by the state.

Because they are typically small schools with low staff-to-student ratios and specialized services, such as occupational therapy or psychological counseling, nonpublic school tuition is costly, as much as $15,000 per month. Most nonpublic schools only take referrals from school districts; private placements by parents are rare. (Without a referral, a parent is on the hook for the school's full cost, unless a district agrees to a partial reimbursement.) Some Palo Alto Unified students attend residential nonpublic schools out of state, including in Utah and Missouri.

Cindy Loleng-Perez, the school district's new director of secondary special education, said when she arrived she was alarmed by the number of students placed in alternative schools for a 12,000-student district. (There are 103 district students in outside placements this year, including at nonpublic schools and other educational institutions.) After a review that she said showed "gaps" in services, the special education department is now working to bring some of those students back by developing new programs, including a more intensive therapeutic program and reconfiguring a specialized "learning center" classroom for students with moderate to severe disabilities at Duveneck Elementary School.

Read more in "Palo Alto district staff work to bring back some special-ed students."

Special-education parent advocates have applauded the plan to improve support within the district. But they're wary it could be executed poorly without sufficient staff, training and careful integration for vulnerable students.

"We are in full support of inclusion, and it is heartening to see this fuller continuum for our moderate-to-severe students," Kimberly Eng Lee, co-chair of special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee, told district staff after they presented their proposals to the school board in December. "But inclusion considers a person, not just a place.

"With out-of-district placement being three times more than the norm, this report might come across as only expense control. We hope not," she said.


Connor Kitayama was diagnosed with autism shortly before his third birthday. He attended public schools in San Mateo, where he had access to special day classes and an aide trained in applied behavioral analysis, known as ABA, a therapy that focuses on improving language, attention, memory, social and other skills for people on the autism spectrum. His family was largely satisfied with the education he received, though teacher expertise varied from year to year, said his mother, La Donna Ford.

Then, in high school, the rug was pulled out from under them. Kitayama pulled an aide's hair during class and the teacher said he could no longer be in the classroom, his mother said. The district's special-education director suggested Wings as a smaller environment that could be beneficial to him. Ford was devastated.

"I wanted Connor in a more typical school. It seemed like a failure to go to Wings. It seemed like he was doing worse," she said. "But it ended up being the best thing for him."

Nonpublic schools have the ability to structure their classrooms and instruction in ways that larger, traditional schools often cannot, said Wings Executive Director Karen Kaplan. She tightly controls enrollment — capped at 40 students — and places students only when teachers are ready to handle them. Classes have no more than eight students.

"The public schools have stricter rules and policies to adhere to," Kaplan said. "They can't always do what might be exactly what that individual kiddo (needs). The law says a program should be 'of benefit.' That doesn't mean 'the best.'"

Kitayama, now 20 years old, is happy to go to school, his mother said. (State law requires that students receive special education until they're 22 years old.) He's in classrooms that are specifically designed for students with autism, who learn best visually. Pictures of students hang on cubbies as a cue for where to put their belongings away in the morning. Kitayama becomes anxious without routine, so the individualized daily schedules every Wings student receives, which use a mix of words and pictures, give him much-needed predictability. Students with different sensory needs can sit on ball chairs or use standing desks. The brightness of overhead fluorescent lights is filtered by paper to help students who are light-sensitive.

Speech, occupational and assistive technology therapists work on site at Wings, so students don't have to be pulled out of class to access the services. All staff have received autism-specific training, including how to handle aggressive behavior, and they meet before and after the school day to review student progress. On a recent afternoon, when a student started loudly acting out, two staff members quickly erected a portable blue tarp around him — not to block others from seeing him, but to reduce the stimulation in his environment to calm him down.

In contrast with Kitayama's public high school, Wings staff don't get upset or punish him when he has a temper tantrum, his mother said. Instead, they "model calm." They speak softly and use as few words as possible (she was told once that what her son hears when other people talk is akin to the incomprehensible mumbling of the teacher in the Peanuts cartoon) to move him into a separate, quiet room where he can sit on a beanbag and decompress before returning to class.

Compared to the pattern in many public school districts — lucking out with a particular teacher or specialist who understands autism one year, and losing out the next — "they live autism there," said Ford, who now sits on Wings' board of directors.

Wings is "functional based," meaning the program is geared toward giving students real-life skills. On Fridays, Kitayama goes grocery shopping at a local Safeway with his speech therapist. Students volunteer at the San Mateo County History Museum and Savers, a nearby thrift store. In a laundry room down the hall from classrooms, shirts and pants on hangers, a hamper and wooden dresser double as lessons in matching and sorting (which supports students in reading, Kaplan said) as well as fine motor skills. In the school's kitchen, recipes become reading and math lessons. The kitchen and laundry room are also means to teach the students independent living skills.

Nonpublic school students are still the responsibility of their home school district, which remain involved primarily through individualized education plan (IEP) meetings. Required at least annually, the meetings bring together the parents and staff from the district and nonpublic school to review a student's goals, accommodations and potential transition back to public school. The plan determines a student's level of care. Nonpublic schools also send quarterly progress reports to students' home districts.

Wings' ultimate goal, Kaplan said, is that students are "in the best environment for learning," which for some, but not all, will be returning to public school. Last year, three Wings students went back to their home school district.

"Wings' belief is that if they're ready, they need to go back," she said. "If they're ready to interact with typical children, if they're ready to do group learning, if they're ready to make those transitions, let's help them get back."


Todd Collins, the president of the Palo Alto Unified Board of Education, moved to Palo Alto from the East Coast in part because of its reputation as a well-resourced district with more ample special-education funding. His son, Harry, is on the autism spectrum.

Harry started school at Barron Park Elementary School but did not make progress toward his individualized education plan goals. The school would frequently call home if he started crying or acted out, asking his parents to pick him up. The district eventually referred them to the nonpublic Morgan Autism Center in San Jose, where Harry has gone to school ever since.

Two things immediately changed after he moved schools, Collins said. First, the family stopped receiving frequent calls home. The school, which has worked with severely developmentally disabled children and young adults for 50 years, is "equipped to handle whatever comes up," he said.

The second? The first Saturday after Harry started going to Morgan Autism Center, he voluntarily went through the morning routine his parents had been working to adjust him to. He got up, had breakfast and went outside to wait for the bus that on school days would take him to San Jose.

"He liked going to school, which he never had (before). He was a school resister before," Collins said. "Our experience is in lots of ways unique, but a lot of those aspects are not atypical. You use NPS schools because the kid is unique enough and what they need is different enough that they are better off in a segregated environment that is dedicated to their needs than they are in the general education environment in a neighborhood school."

Like Ford, Collins had difficulty accepting that his son wouldn't be able to attend his neighborhood public school. But now, he advises parents of special-needs children who reach out to him to stay open-minded about nonpublic schools.

"Most parents that I run into — and we were in this category — who have their kids in the public schools desperately want to hang on to them, in part because they like public schools, but in part because that represents their hope for their child, just like it represented our hope. You've got to consider every year, what's going to be better? Am I hoping against hope here, and we're actually hurting my child?

"There are all kinds of schools that work for all kinds of kids," he added. "We tend to anchor on the neighborhood school as, 'This is the preferred thing.' I guess for most kids, but not for all kids."


For students with mental health challenges so severe that they become insurmountable barriers to learning and functioning, nonpublic schools can be life-saving.

When Kira Sabot's 13-year-old son, Inshan Thomas, arrived at the Esther B. Clark School three years ago, he was emotionally dysregulated, suicidal and struggling academically. He had been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, a mood disorder and slow processing speed. He would spend more time in the office at his San Carlos public charter school than in class. On two occasions in fifth grade, he was restrained for extended periods of time, Sabot said.

After fighting with his school to provide adequate services, the family eventually turned to legal action and won a placement at Esther B. Clark through a settlement agreement. The first time Sabot toured the Palo Alto nonpublic school, which she found through her own research, she became convinced it was the best option for her son.

"It felt like these people get it. For the first time, after I have been told that I'm the problem, my child is the problem, for years, it was like, 'This is where he needs to be,'" she said.

Esther B. Clark serves students who are considered emotionally disturbed or have other health impairments that adversely affect their ability to learn. Students have diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation and oppositional defiant disorder. They may have been chronically truant and are at risk for being placed out of their home due to the severity of their social or emotional challenges.

Many students arrive at the school's doors so emotionally unregulated that the school focuses only on stabilizing their mental health for the first few weeks before introducing academics. There is no homework for the first 30 days after a student enrolls.

"It allows for us to be way more flexible here than you would be able to be in a public school setting where they have specific content that they need to be delivering," said Head of School Jody Miller. "We just don't have those same pressures here." (Students who have completed a year there are required to take the state's annual standardized test, but the school doesn't focus on the results.)

A therapeutic approach — seeing the students' emotional volatility as a symptom of underlying mental health challenges that must be treated — is woven into the structure of the school.

Students meet weekly with therapists whose offices are across the hall from classrooms to work on coping and communication skills, changing unhealthy behavior patterns and building self-confidence. (Parents are also required to attend weekly therapy.) Weekly group and art therapy is meant to teach sometimes rigid and isolated students teamwork, flexibility, empathy and problem solving.

Each of the school's seven classrooms is staffed by a special education teacher, classroom assistant, licensed therapist and behavioral specialist. Classes are kept small, with fewer than 12 students. A student support counselor trained in de-escalation techniques is always on campus in case of a crisis. A schoolwide scoring system reinforces positive behavior through daily feedback between teachers, students and their parents.

The school focuses on building relationships with students for whom connection at school has proved difficult in the past.

"We know the root of the issue is not the behavior. It is the mental health challenge that the student is having," Miller said. "If we can help to repair that to give them skills, then those behaviors dissolve."

Inshan said he feels more heard at the Esther B. Clark School than at his public school, where he felt dismissed by staff and was bullied by peers. At the nonpublic school, academic and behavioral missteps have become a chance to ask for help rather than be punished, he said.

"They actually help. They say, 'If you don't understand something, then ask,'" the eighth grader said.

He still doesn't like going to school, he said, but Esther B. Clark has made it easier to overcome that hurdle.

Over three years Sabot has watched her son's mental health improve to the point that he's able to sit through 50-minute class periods, earn and B's and participate in PE.

"He feels confident, not all the time of course because he's still a work in progress, but he's comfortable there. He's comfortable in his own skin and while he's always going to be a kid that is glass-half-empty," in terms of his attitude, she said, "he smiles."

Before nonpublic school, Pauline Navarro's family was stuck in a "failing spiral" trying to support their son. Then a junior at Palo Alto High School, he had significant emotional disturbances that led to frequent, sometimes violent, crises at school and home. They had tried private school, counseling, hospitalization and other treatment programs, of little to no avail. The school district eventually suggested nonpublic schools, including TLC Journey Academy, a residential school in Sebastopol. Navarro was reluctant to move her son away from home at first. She now credits the nonpublic school with saving his life.

"TLC was clearly from the beginning all about connection, and that was clearly what was driving our son down," she said.

Like many nonpublic schools, TLC Journey Academy offers a small, individualized setting for students who are struggling with anxiety, depression, trauma, school avoidance and withdrawal. Because it's a residential school, there is 24-hour support and care, as well as art and equine therapy, yoga, volunteer opportunities, prom and a LGBTQ support group. While he was there, Navarro's son found emotional connections through group therapy and grew more tolerant of other people's behaviors. With more targeted support, his grades — and self-confidence — improved.

"He could possibly not be here today if the school hadn't been so supportive and sent him to TLC," Navarro said. "It saved his life. It certainly saved our relationship and ... it certainly saved his ability to start making better choices."

Her son ultimately graduated from Journey Academy rather than returning to the Palo Alto school district. The district paid for the full cost of the program, which is now about $15,000 per month. (He declined to be interviewed or use his name for this story, but asked that his mother use hers to "help other kids get the help they need.")

A notable contrast between the public and nonpublic school experience for many parents is nonpublic schools' collaborative approach to working with families. Many require intensive parent involvement and have liaisons who work with families at their homes. The Navarros, for example, drove from their home in Los Altos to Sebastopol weekly and participated in therapy with their son.

Sabot now feels like a partner with her son's school rather than an adversary. Esther B. Clark School staff are in frequent communication with her, as much as about Inshan's challenges as positive progress. Parents who feel isolated from their public school communities often find their tribe at nonpublic schools: other parents who understand the unique challenges of raising a child with special needs.

"The emotional impact for the family is enormous and may include fear and worry about the child's well-being, safety, and suffering, as well as what the future will bring for your child," said Christina Schmidt, a Palo Alto special-education advocate and parent of a nonpublic school student. "NPS is not a panacea ... Our schools are a bedrock of our community, the places where so much of our community's social life occurs. When your child leaves the district, both the parents and the child suffer social isolation."

Inshan is preparing to transfer out of Esther B. Clark School this year, his mother hopes to the nonpublic Palo Alto Preparatory School in Mountain View. Students typically stay at Esther B. Clark School for three to four years, said Chief Schools Officer Chris Harris. About 75% of students return to their public schools and are most successful, Harris said, if they can transition into a smaller therapeutic day class. (Palo Alto Unified has one each at Duveneck, Frank S. Greene Middle School and both high schools.) Other Esther B. Clark School students go on to less restrictive nonpublic schools, charter or private schools.

Demand for Esther B. Clark's program has increased over the years, Harris said. There are 75 students enrolled at the school's Palo Alto campus and 50 at a San Jose campus. He attributed the rise to a one-size-fits-all focus on state standards and academic rigor in public schools that makes it difficult for youth with emotional and learning disabilities to "partake at a level that makes them feel like they're being successful at all."

Ford, for her part, agreed.

"I think the traditional school system has failed the kid. I don't think the kid has failed," she said. "We think all our kids ought to go to Yale. Public schools aren't right for all kids."

A national rise in youth mental illness could also be driving the demand, Miller said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 to 20% of children in the U.S. experience a mental disorder in a given year. The suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 years old shot up 56% between 2007 and 2017.

Esther B. Clark School is seeing students with more severe mental illness and has had to transfer a record number to more intensive support, including residential treatment, Miller said.


The existence of nonpublic schools raises the question: Is there more that traditional public schools can and should be doing to support students with disabilities?

Yes, nonpublic school leaders and parents said.

While there will always be some students who require specialized treatment, some aspects of the nonpublic school environment — small class sizes, targeted training, more time for staff collaboration, support for families — could be replicated at traditional public schools.

"If they just added a bit more time (for staff), would they need us? If they did a little more training, would they need us?" asked Kaplan. "I don't want us to go out of business because there's always going to be the kiddos that just can't get in the public schools. But I feel badly because I turn away kids right and left."

She suggested school districts create dedicated classrooms with full-time specialists, such as for occupational and speech therapy, rather than have part-time staff travel among different campuses who have to then pull students away from instructional time.

There's also potential for partnership between nonpublic schools and their public-school counterparts. Staff from AchieveKids in Palo Alto, a nonpublic school that serves students on the autism spectrum and with emotional disturbances and other developmental disabilities, will visit willing public schools' classrooms to observe teachers and give feedback. One year, when AchieveKids noticed higher-than-typical referrals from a local school district, they worked with a specific teacher who was struggling to support students before transitioning students back.

"If we're not working collaboratively together, there are a lot of kids falling through the cracks," said AchieveKids Executive Director Ryan Eisenberg.

In one example of public-private partnership, AchieveKids partnered with the Campbell Union High School District and Pacific Oaks College in San Jose to launch this year a state-funded teacher residency program. The goal is to address a shortage in special-education teachers in California and expose them to both public and nonpublic settings, with more in-depth training than would be offered in a typical credentialing program.

Other school administrators were more skeptical that traditional public schools can realistically change deeply entrenched structures to mimic the nonpublic environment.

"The kinds of kids that we're working with, unless you're going to take your class sizes down to 10 and ... you're going to have one teacher with an extra adult in the classroom, I don't think you're going to find success," said Sean Haggerty, admissions director for Daniels Academy, a Utah nonpublic high school that Palo Alto Unified students attend. "I don't know that you can completely revamp the educational system to meet this slice of the pie."

One Palo Alto parent described nonpublic schools as the "best-kept secret in this town." Many parents said that until their district referred their child, they were unaware nonpublic schools existed.

Parents and school administrators urged parents of children who fit the nonpublic school profile to be "good consumers" — to ask their district questions, to call local nonpublic schools, to visit them if possible and to educate themselves on their legal rights.

For parents who might feel that leaving their public school district is admitting defeat, Ford urged open-mindedness.

"It's definitely not a failure," Ford said. "It's just giving your kid what they need."

Special-education expert Jody Miller joins Weekly journalists for a discussion on nonpublic schools on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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17 people like this
Posted by Independent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Jan 10, 2020 at 9:12 am

Some students are not best served by being in a public school that seeks to save money off their backs, and instead give rich raises and benefits to administrators and staff.

Other, regular students can also be endangered by having students w relatively severe issues continuing to attend the public school, like the student who threatened to shoot up Gunn, for example, and apparently is now attending classes at Paly. What? Why? What about our students? What about staff? Or the student who was found to have sexually assaulted multiple victims, and allegedly attacked another one at Paly, but was allowed to continue attending school at Paly, even though administrators knew of his record. What? Why? What about our students?

Student safety is more important than inclusion, imv.

And overall student safety is more important than the district avoiding a lawsuit from these damaged students for removing them from campus, and sending them to an alternate school, imv. But wait, that would mean possibly spending money defending a lawsuit from those students' parents for moving their kids, meaning possibly less money for raises and rich benefits for administrators and staff. So much for overall student safety. They prefer to keep the money for themselves.

11 people like this
Posted by See Sth Say Sth
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 10, 2020 at 1:27 pm

The US K-12 education has been Led astray by the prestigious progressive educationists for decades; our public schools have deprived countless children of their future. Adults keep ignorant, or keep silent, at the anti-intellecualism takeover of America K-12 education. Therefore, all will have to swallow the bitterness of a dysfunctional K-12 education system.

The Stanford GSE faculty have been at the helm of pursuing, promoting, and implementing destructive reform math in California and across the nation. NCTE guidelines lure teachers into effortless, "child-centered" ELA teaching. Anti-intellectualism originating from Stanford's GSE and other education schools have hijacked American K-12 education. In response to declining test scores, PAUSD is hiring the most destructive educators to "reimagine" its middle school math. What a dark age for U.S. public education! What a tragedy for the disadvantaged kids who rely exclusively on school education!

Please read Web Link; Web Link; Web Link.

24 people like this
Posted by Elaine Hahn
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 10, 2020 at 2:53 pm

As a proud parent of an Esther B. Clark school alum, I can testify, first hand, on the life-saving, life-changing aspect of that school. The amazing staff at EBC work to help students learn coping skills and other skills they need in order to transition back into the least-restrictive school setting appropriate for each student. At least in the case of my child, he needed to be in a non-public school setting in order to gain the skills he needed to be in a more "inclusive" environment. EBC helped my son change his trajectory from one of depression and hopelessness to one of hope and gradual, continual success. Our family will be forever grateful that Esther B. Clark school exists.

14 people like this
Posted by DGSanJose
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2020 at 5:42 pm

Good information.

Would have been good to hear about special education for kids other than autism. Autusm gets the bulk of attention and resources, although there are many other conditions.

13 people like this
Posted by PAUSD was great for my kids.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2020 at 6:10 pm

My children, recent graduates of PAUSD and now in very competitive colleges, got an excellent k-12 education and were very well prepared for their college experiences.
My oldest just graduated and is doing well in the work world.

Not everyone's experience in PAUSD is like yours.

23 people like this
Posted by @pausd
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2020 at 7:32 pm

I think you might be missing the point. The article isn’t slamming PAUSD. I also attended PAUSD K-9 and received a great education but my brain is typical. Neurotypical students need very different learning environments than special needs students. These non-public schools are a god-send for the students who need more than what PAUSD can offer for THEIR child. Many, many thanks to all who work in and advocate for special education. It really does take a village (or 10).

I agree. It feels like the services for autism are overwhelming, which is wonderful, but hard when your family needs more than it can get for a different condition. We are at EBC for other issues, it’s actually not really for autism. Good luck to you.

~ Current EBC parent

8 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 10, 2020 at 9:37 pm

I’m confused about the mention of a mod-severe special ed program at Duveneck. It existed for 1 Year from 2018-19 then suddenly closed with little notice to the families who then were forced to move their special needs child to schools outside their neighborhood. Horrible. But, new director sounds promising ..

5 people like this
Posted by Eve Sutton
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2020 at 12:58 pm

Elena Kadvany and Sammy Dallal have created an informative, empathetic portrayal of special education in and around Palo Alto. Readers can keep this resource handy to expand their own understanding of students, families, teachers, and schools–– or to help newcomers.

27 people like this
Posted by Still hurting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2020 at 1:17 pm

I'm always glad to hear when other families and children get what they need.
Our district could be serving such students, but unless an ethos of honesty, openness, and working with families can take hold, it will be just another window dressing we spend money on that actually hurts kids who need help.

[Portion removed.]

My kid didn't even need to be sent to another school, but needed honest evaluation and accommodations for common LD's. Although the district did an evaluation in early elementary school, they basically hid it and did nothing, and falsely claimed the problems were being handled privately.

Our family and our child were bullied and overtly harmed by administrators [portion removed] for their own reasons, who in turn made things horrendous for all of us. We have had to pay a lot of money for our child's alternative learning, and said child needs further evaluation and help to do well in college, but we're still afraid to approach the district because of the backbiting and retaliation. I see no evidence that they would be open and honest with us, and when I've made efforts to consider it and pull together records, I've had so many nightmares because of what happened, I stopped. I have called the new superintendent's office to make an appointment, but no one ever calls back.

Our district does really badly for kids who are what's called "2e" - not just those with autism, but those with common learning disabilities the children may be able to cover for, performing enough to advance with their cohort, but not nearly to their potential, and not getting the services or education they need to thrive later in life.

The damage to these kids can be lifelong. The district has a new dyslexia initiative, but seems to want (as is their habit) to only address new kids coming down the pike that they've never harmed, and to ignore other common learning disabilities like dysgraphia.

They have a duty to the kids in the district NOW, including those they know have been ill served. Most people don't sue, even in the face of the ludicrous evidence of overt malfeasance that employees keep throwing at your feet (laughably and tragically believing they are actually protecting the district through their further harm of students and illegal actions).

Ken, Todd, Jennifer [portion removed] -- you have a moral and legal duty to ALL children in the district, even if you don't like their parents, even if the district has done terrible things to them already. Turnover in the district is not a replacement for your proactive observance of the Childfind provision of the IDEA. Shame on all of you for making ridiculous excuses like "you can't boil the ocean." Sure, but you CAN do right by children who have been hurt by illegal and immoral behavior by employees of our wellfunded school district. [Portion removed.]

22 people like this
Posted by Still hurting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2020 at 1:19 pm


"Our district could be serving such students IN HOUSE, but unless an ethos of honesty, openness, and working with families can take hold, it will be just another window dressing we spend money on that actually hurts kids who need help.

20 people like this
Posted by Stll hurting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2020 at 1:24 pm

Further clarification:
The damage to these kids can be lifelong. The district has a new dyslexia initiative, but seems to want (as is their habit) to only address new kids coming down the pike that they've never harmed, and to ignore other common learning disabilities like dysgraphia. "

No matter how many times things go badly when they thing they can just pretend there is a clean slate, that turnover solves everything, the district still behaves as if only they just pretend like they never did anything wrong and start anew THIS TIME things will all magically proceed in utopian splendor, and nothing will go wrong despite their never having come to terms with the need to develop a value of honesty, compassion, service, openness, and working with (and for) families. Predicating any effort on that flawed premise dooms it from the start. They never learn.

10 people like this
Posted by @ still hurting
a resident of Los Altos
on Jan 11, 2020 at 1:31 pm

You need an educational advocate. Let me know if you’d like a recommendation.

Also, PAUSD has a horrible reputation for special education. You’d be better served in other cities like Los Altos. It’s worth getting an advocate to move districts or eat yourself to a NPS.

19 people like this
Posted by Still hurting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 12, 2020 at 2:30 am

@@still hurting,

Thank you for offering. I can't afford an advocate. I had a lawyer for awhile but in the end, the cost wasn't worth it, and I regretted not having that money to put toward our child's education.

We can't afford to move, that's not an option, either. I'm afraid I don't know what an NPS is.

We need further evaluation, and some very remedial help at this point. I'm just not up to making my family vulnerable to the possibility of underhanded personal attacks like we experienced before, including against the physical health, emotional health, and academic future of our child. I could never have expected people who work for a school district to be so nasty and vengeful. Our first need is to protect our child.

I wish there were an impartial arbiter we could go to and bring all the evidence, and ask for the services our child needs now, but it's not worth getting in the sights of people who would actually overtly go after a sweet kid with a learning disability and overtly hurt them (or try to move board members who know about it and just ignore you).

I did keep OCR people up to date, but then despite my overtly stating that I did NOT wish to file a complaint, someone in the office opened one anyway and I had to close it (with someone in the district apparently crowing in a deliberate misinterpretation of what happened). I watched during the Title IX investigations but they never welcomed any complaints except sexual harrassment. The review of our special ed by that consultant was such a joke.

The effort fighting the district just wasn't worth it. In the end, we just needed to put our efforts (and limited funds) directly to support our child. At least we could try to heal emotionally from the institutional abuse and retaliation. Just the other day, this many years later, my child relayed a really disturbing story about how a teacher had leveled a serious threat and I finally understood why certain things happened. I think they realize that if they make your child feel unsafe and abused enough, you will probably leave.

19 people like this
Posted by Still hurting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 12, 2020 at 6:16 pm

"My children, recent graduates of PAUSD and now in very competitive colleges, got an excellent k-12 education and were very well prepared for their college experiences. My oldest just graduated and is doing well in the work world.
Not everyone's experience in PAUSD is like yours."

Your comment is emblematic of why problems don't get fixed. The view that somehow the need to fix problems or that an ethos of identifying and fixing problems is somehow incompatible with a great school district ends up hurting students with special needs or problems. There is no such thing as perfection. A great organization aspires to do a great job solving problems rather than relentlessly covering them up and pretending they don't exist.

All the children who COULD have as good an experience as yours if they were afforded very simply accommodations, for example, are legally entitled to those accommodations. They are legally entitled to the district proactively identifying those problems and helping, rather than spending tons of money fighting families to avoid helping.

We want to be able to say the same as you did of every child who is capable of it. What if the district fought families to take away their children's eyeglasses, so that a whole bunch of kids who would otherwise succeed, aren't able to read, and end up with cumulative educational deficits throughout their schooling? If your children had perfect vision and thus got the best our district has to offer, how does their good experience bear on the situations of those who don't, except to remind us of how important it is to accommodate children where it is eminently possible to do so?

And what if there was a law requiring districts to be proactive when it suspects children need eyewear? This is a very close analogy to what has been happening with our special ed department. We have employees who would rather dig in on portraying children as irreparably blind (and destroying these children and their futures) than just taking responsibility for doing the right thing by them (often very simple). That is also a close analogy to what has been happening in our district.

The only way the district can honor its own vision to help every child reach their potential (and honor their legal and moral duties to all children), is if it begin to develop some compassionate, effective, proactive processes for helping and solving problems. Instead, they just keep acting like the only people they have to respond to are the tiny fraction of the wronged who sue, and that the way to handle problems is to keep starting with a blank slate and pretending those who were hurt do not exist.

17 people like this
Posted by Resident of Barron Park
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 12, 2020 at 8:23 pm

As a parent of two sons on the autism spectrum, who graduated PAUSD, I have had nearly 20 years experience dealing with the system - anything from 504's (which were nothing but window dressing) to IEP's, special classes, non public schools, and reintegration back. I feel that the district has come a long way from only providing support for functional issues (handwriting, more time on homework), but hardly any for the emotional and social problems that are typical for the condition.

My younger son was initially misclassified with behavioral issues, despite an autism diagnosis. This led to eventually having him (mis)placed at Esther B. Clark. While a great school for some students, EBC had clearly no program or plan to support students on the autism spectrum, and he ended up spending much of his time in the "quiet room" (isolation cell basically...) and being punished. He eventually transferred to Achieve Kids, and stayed several years there. Achieve has been great and I will be forever grateful to their teachers, aides, psychologists and other support staff. They were able to help him to the point where we were able to transition back to Gunn around 10th grade.

The district high school education is a mixed bag. The special ed department at the school was generally quite supportive, and we were lucky to have a wonderful case manager there who stayed with him until graduation. Likewise some of the teachers were far more open to accommodate students with different learning needs.
But he school did not truly support integration, and I had to constantly advocate to get him services he needed. Socially he was isolated. The special ed students were sprinkled through the different classes, so there was little opportunities to make friends. The regular ed students were not interested in connecting with them, so my son was almost completely isolated socially during high school. He has not a single friend from PAUSD.

The district focus has been to get him to take and pass the required classes so he could get out of the system. Understandable given that his education is more costly than regular ed students, but disappointing, considering all the lip service being made on inclusion.
We were lucky that his case manager was fully committed and supported us along the way, but that certainly was not the case for the district office. For example, getting them to approve an additional year at the high school was a long struggle. It was clearly necessary for a student who cannot manage a full academic load, and struggling after transferring back from a non public school, where the focus was on behavior and social skills, and less on academics. But we got a lot of pushback until they finally agreed. I had the impression that the district either did not care or did not believe that a student transferring back from a non public school can or should earn a high school diploma, especially if it requires remaining an extra (expensive) year in school.

But by far the greatest failure of the system was in helping him (and maybe other students) transition to life after graduation. The focus of the district is to move them along and ensure they get either the a-g diploma requirements as quickly as possible, or transition to a post secondary non academic program, so they can graduate (and thus no longer be eligible for services - once they graduate, they are no longer entitled to costly services...).
As soon as the academic requirements for a diploma are fulfilled, you are out. Even if the students can't study or work independently. Teaching independence living skills is a far secondary priority compared to graduating them out of the system as quickly as possible.
So little to no vocational training, college transition support, etc., behavioral training, to prepare them to a life in a post high school world where school aides, and integrated support and services, are no longer offered. And little to no information on what is available out there.

15 people like this
Posted by Still hurting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 13, 2020 at 10:22 am

@Barron Park Resident,

Thank you for sharing your story. One thing in particular really strikes me, and that is how hard you had to fight, instead of being able to use your energy to create positive solutions for your child and others. (At any point, did you experience the utter distrust of win-win solutions that we did?)

You sound like an amazing person, and it's too bad all of your efforts couldn't have resulted in changing things overall for the better. You shouldn't have had to constantly advocate to get the basics of what your child needed like that. I have heard from many people who didn't feel they were able to advocate the way their child needed, and legally they shouldn't have to.

We have long been living with the circumstance in this district of grossly uneven treatment, and seemingly special treatment for board members' kids and some parents (particularly those who can afford advocates and lawyers).

I am grateful for this article but do wish it didn't have to rely on a relatively well-off board member's experience. I'm sure Collins has never had to fight like you have for the basics since getting on the board. And at least it doesn't sound like you or your child were singled out for viciousness and retaliation for fighting, so at least that's a good thing (although no one should ever have to reach to something like that to say something good about a school district, i.e., at least THAT person wasn't gaslighted, yay!)

4 people like this
Posted by Rich
a resident of another community
on Jan 13, 2020 at 6:39 pm

My two children attended EBC about 15 years ago and greatly benefited from the experience.

12 people like this
Posted by @ still hurting
a resident of Los Altos
on Jan 13, 2020 at 8:49 pm

I resonate with your response on a deep level. The force(s) that administrators use to belittle, traumatize, lock out, etc etc students and families in need should be illegal. Well, it is. But I digress. I’m going to assume you are in PAUSD but I have heard a nearly identical story in MVWSD as well. You are exactly right that advocates are incredibly costly in advanced cases such as ours and it’s simply not fair. Money talks, as it was pointed out in this article with Mr. Collins.
The only thing I caution you about is further trauma for your child from repeated actions by teachers and staff at school. When school is a terrifying place to go, students are further traumatized each and every day. To face trauma on top of the other disabilities they manage each day is nearly intolerable. I know the ripple effect to the family can seem even greater. Everyday I wait for my phone to ring wondering if something happened at school and if I need to go pick (him/her) up; I’m always on pins and needles while walking on eggshells wondering what’s going to happen next.
I don’t pass any judgement whatsoever if you say you can’t move; but even if you can get into a shared apartment in Mountain View in the LASD, you will not be met with the attitudes you are facing in your district office. There are decent districts, there really are. I’m so sorry for what you’re going through. Trust me, I really, really do understand. You sound like an incredible parent.

2 people like this
Posted by Observations
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 14, 2020 at 9:01 am

Not being involved, but having read recent articles, my observations:
Some parents require of the school district special services; some demand mainstreaming. One reads periodically of complaints demanding each of these, so it must be hard to ever satisfy parents.
People move here to rent at a modest rate (sometimes) while placing special needs kids in our district. This is a very good deal for these parents, since we homeowners fund the fancy school district and special accommodations through our astronomical property taxes. You are very lucky people.
I know a special ed teacher in another large, relatively nearby district, and things are much better here.
What is to account for the massive rise in the # of students who are in mainstream ed but who get extra time on SAT?

6 people like this
Posted by Property Taxes
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jan 14, 2020 at 2:19 pm

A Board member may have said he moved to Palo Alto for it's Special Ed program, most families do not. Families who move to Palo Alto before their child is born do not move to Palo Alto for services, since they do not know their as yet unborn child will have a disability. Even if they know their child has a disability, they do not know they will need special education services before they are born.
Many people with disabilities do not need services. If children does need services, they may only need them for a short time. Districts try to catch and work with disabilities early. For example, it is very normal with children with autism to start school in a program to teach them skills, then mainstream into a neighborhood school by kindergarten.

Most services are only provided in a group lasting for 20 minutes a week. In a group of 4, that is 5 minutes a week of service for the child. Many services are available to all students, such as mental health services (most clients are not disabled), study skills and some social skills classes.
Most disabled students do not attend NPS schools. The vast majority do remain in their local district school. Another group attend a different school in the same district with a special needs program for part of the day, and mainstream into classes as much as possible.

It is unimaginable to think anyone would every move to Palo Alto to get a child placed in an NPS. The legal process required is so extensive, no one could ever say it will end up in an NPS school. A lot can change during this lengthy process. A child may respond well to interventions, they may improve as they grow older, they may end up with a teacher who "gets them", the new District school may have program. (Not all schools in PAUSD are equal, some have therapists at the school site 4 days a week, some only a therapist who drops in 1/2 day a week. Kids from certain PAUSD school without support staff do tend to have worse outcomes because of the inequity between PAUSD schools).

Never seen a PAUSD teacher or administrator who wants a child to be put in a special placement. It is never their goal. They try to make it work at the local level first. Even if a teacher were to push for that, there are many levels of review to ensure a children are not locked away for having a disability. It's the law.

One problem with the article is leaving the impression most NPS placements cost $15,000 a month. Most are far, far less, $36,000-$45,000 a YEAR is more common. NPS tuition is often cheaper than the cost of a full time aide and services in a PAUSD school.

Renters are not lower forms of life from home owners. Property taxes are included in their rent, making the rents higher. Although the home owner pays the taxes, the owner also benefits from the hefty appreciation in home values over time. Renters do not. PAUSD voters chose this system of school funding. If it is unfair to some, and I tend to think it often is, you can always vote it out and go back to taking payments from the state. I don't like paying taxes for other districts, but I also believe it is my duty to educate all children in the State.

The exception to all this are some (not all) Stanford properties. No one is blaming the parents living on Stanford properties with lower rents than they would get on the open Palo Alto housing market. Taxes not paid for schools on housing on Stanford land is unfair to those who do pay the taxes. This does have to be resolved.

In terms of school services and activities, each child is different. We don't complain about meeting needs for drama, music, art, sports. How many students are on a schools basketball or football team? School sports teams are not open to all students, and only a few benefit from District expenditures on it. Parents do also donate a lot of time of money to sports, but the district still pays for the coach(es), stadium lights, practice time, secretaries, equipment, etc. No one would every accuse sports or choir families of taking too much from the District or being "lucky". NPS and the disabled students make an easy target, being vulnerable and easy to blame for any District budget problem, accurately or not.

12 people like this
Posted by Still hurting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2020 at 2:43 pm

"Not being involved"
Thank you for admitting that your opinions are not based on any direct experience.

"Some parents require of the school district special services; some demand mainstreaming. One reads periodically of complaints demanding each of these, so it must be hard to ever satisfy parents."

Or maybe, different kids have different needs, and sometimes the parents know better what they need than backbiting administrators?

My family pays through the nose to fund other people's children to go to our district, and I don't begrudge anyone who can't afford it, that's what public education is. I do resent being pushed out by illegal and traumatizing actions, and having to pay for the favoritism.

"Districts try to catch and work with disabilities early. "

Districts SHOULD try to catch and work with disabilities early. They are legally obligated to, even if the parents say nothing. Ours does not. Where a child of a board member gets a special placement, our child's early assessment was buried and nothing was done, except to punish the child later as if the problems were the child's fault. In our district, people with the money for lawyers and who otherwise are favored get these things. The rest of us have lifelong wounds to nurse.

15 people like this
Posted by Still hurting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2020 at 2:51 pm

"School sports teams are not open to all students, and only a few benefit from District expenditures on it."

You make very good points. This is an interesting one -- Palo Alto has many homeschooled students (dozens that I know of, probably a few hundred all in all), and they pay property taxes, too. The City, not the school district, pays for middle school sports, pays for the after-school teen center, etc, yet the policies and opportunities favor kids in the schools and practically shut the independently educated ones out as if they don't exist. By the way, our district has an obligation to those kids' special needs, too. They don't even allow those kids to take standardized tests at district schools.

2 people like this
Posted by Support Public Schools
a resident of Addison School
on Jan 14, 2020 at 3:47 pm

Want the benefits of public schools?

Maybe go to a school.

btw: there are not Hundreds of home school kids in town. Provide a link to prove it.

14 people like this
Posted by A resident of Barron Park
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 14, 2020 at 6:07 pm


You wrote:

“ People move here to rent at a modest rate (sometimes) while placing special needs kids in our district. This is a very good deal for these parents, since we homeowners fund the fancy school district and special accommodations through our astronomical property taxes. You are very lucky people.”

This is such an insulting and demeaning comment, that I don’t even know where to start. People move to the neighborhood that can best serve their needs and the needs of their children, as long as they can afford the rent and manage the commute - whether the child has special needs or not. True, some districts have less resources, and the services may be less comprehensive, but this directly results in worse outcome for the child with special needs. By that I don’t mean whether a child gets into their top choice teacher or class or college - this is about whether the child can Attend or graduate school at all. Of course any parent will try what they can to ensure the best outcome in that case - Whether they are renters, homeowners, or homeless - no difference.

I am both a homeowner AND a parent of a special needs child (born after buying my home, by the way), and I don’t begrudge any parent who makes the sacrifice to rent (Or buy) in the school district they deem best to serve the needs of their child. Incidentally, Palo Alto is probably not always the best - Mountain View and Los Altos may have better programs for some (or most?) disabled students.

Anyone who thinks that parents of children who have issues severe enough to merit placements in NPS are “lucky”, is clearly too insensitive and heartless to realize what challenges our families and children face. Do you seriously think any parent wants to put their child in a non public school or get expensive services to “milk” the system? Do you have any idea how many other options were tried and failed before families, teachers and other support staff finally make that decision? And once the child is in the non public school, the school district is still involved in the child’s education, and we all work to find a way to hopefully integrate them back to the home school. Non public schools have drawbacks - the child no longer attends school in the neighborhood, the population is too diverse to allow for high level academic program, so the academics tend to lag behind - making it hard for them to integrate back if they can, and other issues. These are truly last resorts.

At the end of the day, our children all will grow to be adults. Investing in the foundations early on can make the difference between a person who will never be independent and one who may be able to support themselves for the remaining 50+ years of their life post high school.

16 people like this
Posted by Still hurting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2020 at 8:21 pm

“Want the benefits of public schools?
Maybe go to a school.”

Please do the courtesy of reading what I wrote before. A lot of us were pushed out and our kids not only denied the educations but were proactively HARMED by behavior of district employees. Would you tell that to a kid who was molested by a teacher while the district did nothing about the teacher?

As a local and taxpayer, my family is entitled to the benefits of the LOCAL schools but denied them.

Your post also seems to assume that homeschool and public school are two different things, they aren’t. The majority of people I know who homeschool locally do so through public programs, However, they don’t nearly have the financial support that kids in our local brick and mortar schools do. People accept the second class status because of the freedom, or because they have no other option if the local schools have traumatized their children and they can’t afford private.

The one group I am most familiar with has dozens of Palo Alto residents. It’s just one group. When the Weekly did a story on homeschooling, they interviewed people in groups I don’t even know about. There are several public homeschool programs that serve Santa Clara County. That’s another group that has dozens of students in Palo Alto. Many homeschoolers go to community college - based on observations of student numbers in local community colleges, there’s another large group, including many Palo Altans. I shared my observation, no one is counting because like you, they demonstrate zero care about kids who have been pushed out.

If the local school district were more open to supporting all kids, they would know.

And by the way, of the dozens I know, there are a disproportionate number of gifted boys with learning disabilities, “2e” students who were not only NOT getting what they needed from our schools, they were being harmed in various ways.

2 people like this
Posted by @hurting
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 15, 2020 at 6:56 pm

Dear Still hurting,

Thank you for sharing for experiences. I hope that your journey will present some corrections. Those who walked your way know the importance of shared insights and support.

FYI, your censored comment can be found (before being censored) on the page I dedicated on my blog to the ongoing censoring.
I copy and then post comments before and after they are censored (only a tiny sampling) here:
Web Link (or search for: village fool palo alto before and after).

BTW, You are in good company. Here's sampling of censored quotes. I titled this blog post:
What do Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, George Orwell, Miguel De Cervantes, and Shakespeare have in common? All were censored by the PA online.
Link: Web Link (or search for: village fool palo alto twain Shaw Orwell have in common)

I hope you will see this comment, it will vanish soon.

Thanks again. Wishing you and yours all the best.
\/illllll/\ge F0000000000lL

Like this comment
Posted by Pauline Navarro
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jan 23, 2020 at 6:49 am

I just found this article. I am very impressed with the entire content, true to the spirit and the work that all our incredible staff INSIDE the PAUSD do as well as the work of the non-public schools. Extremely well researched and lovingly written. I have to thank Elena Kavany for being such a trustworthy journalist.

I also have to thank PAUSD. They showed a tremendous ability to absorb and usually extremely well manage and educate 3 very different types of children in our home, from one with Down Syndrome and Autism to othersevere emotional disturbances of several kinds; with aptitude levels from perpetually pre-K to, frankly, genius; with placements in various programs in and outside of district, and involuntary hospitalizations. We could not have asked for a better school district to be in, and thanked God every day that we accidentally landed here. Were there occasional blips? Yes. Occasional well-meant but very ill-said comments? Yes. Some cultural pressures components that were not the best for our kids? Of course. Everyone was human, after all, and mistakes and biases happen. The key for us was open, kind communication and teamwork with the incredible PAUSD staff. Our kids are grown now, and on their paths. Because of PAUSD, they could not have gotten a better start.

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