School official calls for shift in teacher 'mindset' | April 29, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 29, 2011

School official calls for shift in teacher 'mindset'

Expectations affect proportion of black, Hispanic kids in special ed, she says

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto teachers must change their "mindsets" if the school district is ever to escape state sanctions for having a substantial overrepresentation of Hispanic and African-American students in special education, a top official said Tuesday.

"Every adult in our system must understand that every child can learn, regardless of who their parents are," Associate Superintendent Virginia Davis told the Board of Education.

"Unfortunately, we still do hear that comment that (minority students) 'are just not ready for my program.' We have to turn around that belief in our district," Davis said.

Palo Alto is one out of 17 of California's 1,000 school districts to be labeled by the state Department of Education as having "significant disproportionality" in special ed.

Overall, about 10 percent of the district's 12,024 students are in special education.

While African-American students comprise 3.1 percent of the district's total enrollment, they make up 26 percent of students in special education. Likewise, Hispanic students comprise 10.2 percent of overall population but 22 percent of those in special education.

That compares with about 4 percent of Asian students and 8 percent of Caucasian students, she said.

"A high percentage of students of color are in special education by the end of fifth grade and the numbers rise by the end of eighth grade," Davis said in a report to the board.

For example, at one unnamed middle school in the district, 50 percent of Hispanic fifth graders and 25 percent of African-American fifth graders were in special education in 2006-07. At the same school three years later, 55 percent of the Hispanic students and 33 percent of the African-American students were in special ed.

Davis presented a four-pronged plan to remedy the disproportion, relying heavily on early intervention for students showing signs of difficulty, known in education as "response to intervention," or RTI.

The goal is to identify and seamlessly help students in mainstream classrooms before they must be taken out for special help.

"This is going to take everybody — from the top down — across our system," Davis said, stressing the need for continued "equity training" and other types of training for teachers.

"We have a lot of teachers putting themselves out there, but there's a lot of concern that everybody needs to get on board or we're not going to see differences."

Of 405 elementary students referred by their teachers for extra math help this summer, 24 percent are English language learners, 11 percent are currently in special education and 19 percent are non-resident students who attend Palo Alto schools through the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program, Davis said.

Of the 720 recommended for "literacy intervention" this summer, 34 percent are English learners and 23 percent are Tinsley students, she said.

"It's not asking teachers to do more — it's asking them to be more deliberate about what they do," Davis said.

"It's a large learning curve, if you're somebody like me who taught for 20 years.

"It's asking them to look differently at students, at how you look at data, and being open to letting a reading specialist come in. You have to be open to that."

School board members said they appreciated Davis's candor with the data.

"It is imperative, it is our duty, to understand this," board Vice-President Camille Townsend said.

"Both my parents only went to the eighth grade, yet their kids — all eight of us — went to college (and beyond)," Townsend said.

"I often wonder if a student of color has the same issues as I had, and where did we end up differently?"


What do you think the school district should do about the disproportion of minority students in special education? Share your opinions on Town Square on Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


Posted by troglodyte, a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2011 at 11:32 am

My sense is that since 1966 (when I joined the PAUSD), some issues never leave: 1) appropriate secondary math approach; 2) appropriate texts for elementary; 3) stress for high schoolers; 4) appropriate kinder/first reading curriculum (whole language, anyone?), 5) Pressure to adhere to state mandates whether they make sense or not for PAUSD; 6) appropriate support for minority students and others who "fall through the cracks; 8) the tendency of Churchill administrators to prescribe "change the teachers" solutions without much sense of why teachers do what they do.

In this case, I suspect that teachers desperately want support so that students can succeed & not "fall through the cracks" in an incredibly competitive, academic environment. Their basic assumption is that "all kids can" learn with proper support. So get the support, whatever for it takes.

Posted by markos, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 27, 2011 at 12:22 pm

UNfair! You can't expect the teachers to undo other school districts failings. You can only be responsible for the kids that you started with in K through 3 where the basics were taught. Its hard to go back and re do the wiring. Why aren't you looking at which group has the single parent, income levels, how many schools they have attended? Those are the factors, not race. You want to use race so its easily identifiable.........not because you want to fix the problem.......well good luck and do it because job security is more important than fixing the problems. Great business model, works for the prison system too!

Posted by Alex Young, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 27, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Here's a simple fix. Just lower the standards for regular classes and mainstream everyone. Think of the great test scores when you give the average PAUSD sixth grader a fourth grade test. Sound stupid? This is actually the policy in the LA City Schools which as a result are much more "equal" than PAUSD.

Posted by Ada, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2011 at 1:08 pm

This is a joke, Virginia Davis! Maybe Virginia Davis you would suggest failing Asian and Caucasian kids so that they can be sent to special ed just to make the proportions look right. Insane, insane....

Posted by I have been there, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Apr 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm

The joke is that the district claims that they sent the students of color so they can get help, but the reality is that teachers want to get the low achievers out of their way so they will not be hold accountable for not teaching them, and they actually get less help. Once the child is in special ed, the teachers are not accountable because there is an excuse, the child has a learning disability.

Posted by Mom, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 27, 2011 at 1:32 pm

The problem is that some kids are behind on the first day of kindergarten, before any teacher has a chance to educate them. Most kids in the district go to great preschools, are read to by their parents and have lots of books at home. A student who does not have that support at home isn't able to keep up.
Teachers are referring for extra help because they know those kids need it, not to be racist.

Posted by Anne, a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 27, 2011 at 1:43 pm

'I have been there' is completely wrong. Coming from a Special Ed. background, students don't enter the program unless they qualify after meeting the requiremens for learning disablilties, or other specific issues. A teacher cannot, and would not, just get a child out the so they have to deal with them. The teachers in our district work unbelievably hard to meet the needs of ALL of the students they teach. "Blame the teachers" is the quick and easy way of not dealing with a tough socio-economic issue.

Posted by Anne, a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 27, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Also, Mom's observation is entirely correct, many children enter kindergarten with a 5-year deficit in skills. We need to start at the pre-school level and reach communities who are not being served. Kindergarten is often too late.

Posted by Denese, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 27, 2011 at 2:39 pm

First of all... I am Afro-American and Lation so race is not a factor in this for me.

All of this can't be put on teachers. There are some teahcers who go the extra mile and some who focus on the over achievers. Parents have to do their part with studing and making their child do their home work. We need better tutoring also. There are some tutors in the in the tutoring center who tutor to the more advanced student and not all tutors can tutor students with special needs.

I also believe that there is such a focus on ESL students that we tend to forget all students need help. It would be interesting to see how many of the special ed kids are at Paly and how many are at GUNN. Recently, there was an article on the influx of Asian Americans moving into Palo Alto especially for the schools. what is the make up of the Stanford Math program?

Everyone has a hand in these kids being in special who will really be the gate keeper?

Posted by Maya, a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 27, 2011 at 4:24 pm

This is LUDICROUS! The majority of Palo Alto teachers have extremely high expectations for every single student regardless of race. Where are the kudos for getting kids to grade level and getting kids that extra help and attention when they need it?? Before you sit on your throne and cast down nasty accusations about teachers over identifying children of color for special services why don't you spend a week or two in the classroom and see if you can ignore a child in need just because he or she is Hispanic or African American. Better yet, stay where you are so no further damage can be done to our students. It's clear you haven't got a clue!

Posted by T. C., a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Apr 27, 2011 at 4:32 pm

I would like to thank all the teachers along the way that helped me get my son into the right help he needed to be successful. If they just leave him to struggle then he would hate school and have a bad outcome. Special education, summer school, English language development teachers are the best thing that happen to my son. They gave him the confidence to go on and believe he can do it. Mrs. Davis doesn't know what she is talking about. She just looking at the numbers to get money but not thinking that some of our kids needs help and if you don't help them then you are racist for not helping my child Mrs. Davis.

Posted by Teacher, a resident of Nixon School
on Apr 27, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Let me be very clear. Every single day of the year there are at least 27 teachers going above and beyond the requirements of their job description to help each and every student achieve. If a student begins to fail, we fail. We do everything in our power to see that every child succeeds. Sometimes that means getting assistance from Special Education. It is not a matter of "low expectations" or who "their parents are," it is a matter of being thoughtful, caring, diligent, proactive, and responsible. It is a kid by kid issue. One size does not fit all and to insinuate that we are pawning kids off to special ed and or summer school due to race, is hugely insulting.

Posted by Barron Park Parent, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm

This article assumes that racial prejudice must be the cause of this problem. Has anyone stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, that minority parents who have kids transferred in are in fact pretty smart people. Maybe, just maybe, they are choosing to have their kids come here because they know, or suspect, that their child does have special needs. They know that Palo Alto Unified will be a very good place to get help for a special needs child. PAUSD has one of the best special ed programs anywhere. These people are not stupid. Many are coming to PAUSD for special ed. At this point, there are many excellent charter school options in EPA for typical kids. Most people will try to get into one of those programs, as their first choice for a typical kid, rather than come all the way here. The fact is that many of the charter options are actually better than what PAUSD is offering. As a result, PAUSD is attracting a disproportionate share of special needs transfer students because the special ed is what is truly better at PAUSD.

This article falsely implies that PAUSD is pushing minority kids into special education when in fact it may be minority parents who are saying please give my kid some (very expensive) special help because I know it will help. Does this mean that minority students are more likely to have special ed needs? Of course not. It just means that a minority parent with a special needs child IS more likely to pick PAUSD.

Why must people always assume that minorities are not sophisticated consumers of education? Anyone who thinks this should spend some time talking to the parents of some of the transfer students. Most of them thought long and hard before placing their kids in the program. Those who have kids with special needs made a choice to come. These are not people who get pushed around easily or who allow their kids to be misdiagnosed. It is time for the good people of Palo Alto to stop thinking that they are so superior in so many ways.

Posted by PA Mom/volunteer, a resident of Woodside
on Apr 27, 2011 at 7:45 pm

"Anne wrote:

Also, Mom's observation is entirely correct, many children enter kindergarten with a 5-year deficit in skills. We need to start at the pre-school level and reach communities who are not being served. Kindergarten is often too late."

I say that I couldn't agree more and invite you to look at a young man who is working very hard in EPA to change that dynamic. His program is called "10 Books A Home" and I invite you to check it out: Web Link

BTW, I have no affiliation with his program (yet - I hope to become a volunteer though!), I just read about his program and admire him for his vision.

Posted by I Have Been There, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Apr 27, 2011 at 7:47 pm

I am completely right and what you said is true no child should be put in special ed unless the parents agree, but sadly some bad teachers break the rules. In our case my child was put against our will for a month, I took her out when I found out. I filed a complain with the Sacramento Office of Ed, they supervise the schools. The district was found out of compliance. I know other child who were put there too. Later they qualified her and is now a special ed. student.I have the proofs, so do not say I am wrong, unless you investigated the case and found the district to be in compliance.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 28, 2011 at 7:05 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

The obvious solution, and the one solution that will NOT be implemented, is the elimination of classification by race.
Each student is an individual deserving to be treated as an individual. Eliminate the classification and you eliminate the problem. Let the assignment to special ed be determined by test scores and behavior alone. Any challenge can be answered by reference to those indices. As with whites, Asians and Hispanics, some are brilliant and some are as dumb as a box of rocks. Get over it and get with the task of the best education to each student that she/he can absorb.

Posted by older parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 28, 2011 at 9:52 am

I agree that classification by race is outdated and figures can be misinterpreted/misused. It gets worse when government bureaucracratic funding is tied to such figures.

Someone suggested increased government programs/$/input in pre-school years, but isn't ANYTHING the parents' responsibility? All parents should have awareness of their growing children and their needs and basic preparation for entry into K/school system.

Or, if it is "required" that someone have a prerequisite like a fancy preschool to enter this district, (in order to "keep up" and not get placed into special ed), perhaps that should be stated.

Otherwise, there should be freedom and it is the parents' responsiblity to take care of their small children. Once in the school system, appropriate assistance can be offered, but this sounds increasingly like some parents expect a nanny state!

Posted by paly parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 28, 2011 at 10:14 am

Older Parent - while preschool is not required, I don't know any PAUSD student that did not attend some kind of preschool. Sitting still in a group, taking turns with other kids, being away from mom and dad, listening to a teacher, these are all things that kids can't learn at home. Lack of preschool should not put you into a special ed class, but in PAUSD it will make kindergarten more difficult. It doesn't have to be fancy, lots of kids attend a parent coop group a couple mornings a week and that was sufficient.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 28, 2011 at 10:34 am

I wonder - how the statistics would change if students of PAUSD employees, VTP, etc. who are not residents, were separated out? I think the parents of students who are struggling or have special needs are very wise to get jobs or transfer in to the community. This is a highly educated community who values education. Any parent wants what is best for their child.

Posted by jb, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 28, 2011 at 2:54 pm

I'm old as dirt, but when I was in school, the kids in special ed had learning and physical disabilities that were obvious to everyone.

If we have a mushrooming special ed population whose only claim to disability is race or nationality or a poor educational history, perhaps the district should consider testing kids and placing them in the grades they test for.

It is miserable trying to bring a student's second grade background up to third grade readiness while teaching a third grade class full of kids whose parents devoutly wish they were getting a fourth grade curriculum.

The other thing that happened a lot more when I was a child was that kids were held back when they didn't measure up. That is so rare now that the Smithsonian would like to see the kid it happens to!

Posted by jb, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 28, 2011 at 2:54 pm

I'm old as dirt, but when I was in school, the kids in special ed had learning and physical disabilities that were obvious to everyone.

If we have a mushrooming special ed population whose only claim to disability is race or nationality or a poor educational history, perhaps the district should consider testing kids and placing them in the grades they test for.

It is miserable trying to bring a student's second grade background up to third grade readiness while teaching a third grade class full of kids whose parents devoutly wish they were getting a fourth grade curriculum.

The other thing that happened a lot more when I was a child was that kids were held back when they didn't measure up. That is so rare now that the Smithsonian would like to see the kid it happens to!

Posted by good grief, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 29, 2011 at 6:21 am

Thank God this idiocy was just beginning when my son was in need of being referred to testing and support ( special ed) in second grade. If the teacher had been afraid of being called a "racist" for helping my kid, just because he is hispanic, he might never had gotten the help he got.

You all who worry about 'racism' in special ed are only going to end up cutting services to those "of color". Already I know 2 teachers who did NOT refer for help BECAUSE the kids were black and the parents were already known to have a huge chip on their shoulders about race, and they didn't want to get into a hassle with them and the district.

So, how is that "racism" thing gonna work out for the kids, hmmmm??

Posted by Paly Mom, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 30, 2011 at 5:21 pm

I was hesitant to read these postings since I knew many would reflect the P.A. tendency to defend the status quo and refusal to even entertain the notion that the disproportionate number of African American and Latino students in special ed. classes reflects anything other than lack of home support and opportunity. As a member of the community for 16 years, I am tired of the assumption that those who are struggling in Palo Alto schools are all from E.P.A. Many A.A. and Latino students live in Palo Alto, and they often experience subtle racism in the form of lower expectations on the part of some teachers and counselors. Talk to the handful of A.A. and Latino students in AP classes. Read Paly's WASC report and their explanation for the achievement gap.
I doubt seriously that anyone is suggesting that students of any race who have legitimate learning disabilities shouldn't receive the support they need. The problem is that determining which ones have real disabilities (learning differences, some prefer) is not as exact a science as many psychologists and educators would like us to think. Therefore, when a student is struggling and teachers can't figure out why, they are often identified as needing special ed. classes. If A.A. and L.A. students are over-represented in P.A. schools, it's not time to stop considering race/ethnicity as a factor. (If most of the students placed in special ed. were boys, wouldn't we think that was worth trying to understand?)

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on May 1, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Paly Mom, EVERYBODY experiences discrimination, both subtle and overt.

Posted by From Yonkers, a resident of Professorville
on May 2, 2011 at 10:08 am

I don't care what causes the achievement gap. I just want it closed. Federal intervention destroyed my high school. It went from the top high school in town to the bottom because the district could not close the gap in the district, there was forced bussing, there was white flight, and now that school is going to be shut down, and so is much of what made my old neighborhood pleasant. Very sad.
I love our town. I do not want it ruined because we did not serve minorities well. There are ways to bolster learning for minorities that are not special education, and are not bussing. Summer institutes, extra tutoring, mentorship, and after school classes are a few. They cost a lot of money, and they are making up early childhood deficits that were not PAUSD's fault, but it is worth it to preserve the district for everyone.

Posted by Sick of it., a resident of Greater Miranda
on May 2, 2011 at 11:11 am

Yonkers...what makes you think we can have equal outcomes? It is about equal opportunity, but nothing anyone can do is going to overcome choosing pre-natal imbibing, smoking, drugging, poor nutrition, inadequate health care. Nothing is going to overcome no FATHER in the home, an uneducated mother, lack of intellectual stimulation for the baby, toddler and preschooler. Nothing is going to overcome hitting kindergarten not knowing your colors, how to count to 10, how to sit in a group, listen to directions, and get along with others while some of your classmates are already reading simple words and doing simple addition, having been raised with good pre-natal everything, educated and education- promoting mothers, educated, stable, loving and employed fathers, and exposure to every thing possible to stimulate brain development, from pre-natal Mozart played to the womb to the best and most expensive pre-school money can buy.

So, get over the racism thing, and think PARENTS and CULTURE...

Posted by bea, a resident of another community
on May 2, 2011 at 1:48 pm

The comment stream about this article makes me grateful, once again, that my high-achieving child is not going to high school in this community. He goes to a public school in another community which has just been recognized as a CA Distinguished School because of its efforts to support the academic success of ALL students across economic and ethnic lines. He is appropriately challenged academically and has the opportunity to learn alongside peers from all kinds of backgrounds. PAUSD offers many wonderful opportunities not available there, but it also seems to be much more difficult to be "different" in this community.

Posted by Barron Park Parent, a resident of Barron Park
on May 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Being labeled "special ed" in PAUSD is not an academic death sentence. From what I understand, kids receiving special ed services have the opportunity to take advanced AP classes and achieve academic excellence. The services that they get, such as note taking, social help, and academic help, allow them their best shot at achieving their potential. Some of these "special ed" students are very advanced in some areas while being very week in others. They have a disability. They need help, but they are highly capable in many ways.

Special education students in PAUSD can and do go to college (even top schools sometimes). People who are implying that special education is being used as a way to deprive minorities of an opportunity really have it all wrong ...

Posted by Tata, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 3, 2011 at 11:08 pm

Racism is very subtle nowadays. We usually are not even aware of our racist attitudes. We grow with them, our parents and neighbors, even the TV and movies agree with our beliefs. We all know the stereotypes - if a child does not do well in school it is because the parents don't care. I have yet to meet parents that do not desire the best for their children. It is worth the money to provide paid well qualified tutors for all students on a sliding scale. Transportation should also be arrranged so that every child that needs and wants to can attend. It would be cheaper than having children fail. The prison system is so much more expensive that good tutoring and schooling.

Posted by Yoni, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on May 3, 2011 at 11:17 pm

I cannot believe anyone can think that if we stop classifying students by race that will solve the achievement gap. African American and Latino students are still going to be recognized as such by educators. I don't understand the argument. So, if we don't label a disease - it will go away?

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on May 4, 2011 at 5:21 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

The disease is in the classification. Not all Blacks are phi beta kappa candidates, neither are all whites. Each individual deserves as best an education as can be given, irrespective of "race", "color" "religion", "ethnicity" or "tribe". Any classification other than educational accomplishment is harmful to education.If you insist on a quota of and classification other than accomplishment then the value of the diploma is reduced to the lowest common denominator. Will there still be discrimination? Of course there will be, after all, 90% of Blacks voted for Obama, and who can say whether white who voted against Obama were not implying race was a factor. Of course, since Obama is half white, that kinda messes up your argument.

Posted by Jim, a resident of Monroe Park
on May 4, 2011 at 9:26 pm

I think it would make a difference if PAUSD had a more diverse teacher labor force. I only see European & Asian American teachers. The lack of diversity hurts even our European American children. I want my children to have teachers of diverse background. The more diversity my children are exposed to means they are learning different points of view. We need to look at the world from different perspectives.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on May 5, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Again, a call for quotas. Perhaps the more intelligent Blacks prefer other, better employment. Shall we draft Black instructors until the ratio is exact?
Baring a showing of overt racial discrimination race has no place in the running of a school.

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