Kimberly Eng Lee, chair of special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee (CAC), lauded Conaway's commitment to "finally looking closely at our district's own patterns of practices and needs and sharing those findings to date."
"This acknowledged and authentic shift to a systems-level evaluation, especially around known problems and recommendations, will help staff discern and improve systemic patterns and efficiencies that impact our students," she said. "This helps restore our trust."
The district has struggled to restore trust with its special-education families for years. The department was reorganized in 2015 and then a promising new director resigned mid-year in 2017. And an external review of the department conducted by a well-known Harvard University researcher in 2016 largely failed to meet the high expectations.
This new evaluation is meant to do what that report did not, Conaway said Tuesday.
The district's program-evaluation coordinator, Clarisse Haxton, said the internal review started with a gathering of basic data about the approximately 1,000 district students who receive special-education services — what their disabilities are, the kind of services they receive, outcomes of those services, staffing and the like.
The review has moved into a second, qualitative phase. Haxton and Conaway have been observing classrooms and conducting interviews and focus groups with staff and parents. The district has started surveying special-education parents at the end of meetings on their children's Individualized Education Plans (IEP); initial responses indicate an improvement in satisfaction this year relative to prior years, Haxton said. The district will also soon launch a districtwide survey of all parents and staff to gather more input.
The district also plans to release a parent handbook and hold educational events to help families navigate the special-education system.
Conaway emphasized data, thoughtful professional development and collaboration between special and general education as critical to improving special education.
"Our district is only as good as our lower-performing, historically underrepresented students," she said. "We cannot say we are the best of the best yet until we are serving those kids appropriately."
Board members said they were encouraged that the district appears to be primed to move beyond a longtime pattern of "fits and starts" on special-education reform.
"We've had good starts before, but we've lacked the ability to convert good intentions into a plan, a plan into actual execution and actual execution into follow-up where we actually figure out if what we're doing is actually working," board member Todd Collins said, adding, "I've never seen a group assembled at Palo Alto Unified in the 14 years I've been here that I felt was more up to the challenge."
The school board asked for more detail in Conaway's next report, including documentation of all special-education services and placement options, especially at the secondary level; the identification process, including how students might be mistakenly identified as needing services or not get the services they need; more parent survey data; and budget estimates.
The board also asked Conaway to return with an update sooner than scheduled, in May.
Lee asked the district to not only work actively with the Community Advisory Committee but to also find ways to better engage minority and low-income parents of special-education students.
She said she expects the district's new superintendent, who has yet to be hired, will "place high priority" on both community and financial support for improving special education.
In other business Tuesday, the board unanimously approved an agreement that the teachers union will forego a 2-percent bonus this year and the funds, about $2.2 million, will be reallocated to the schools. The district's classified union has yet to reach the same agreement with the district on its 2 percent bonus.
The board also directed staff to evaluate the possibility of placing a new bond on the November 2018 ballot that would fund the district's next series of facilities improvements. Trustees authorized spending up to $50,000 on consultant services related to feasibility, communications, potential ballot measure development, poll development and analysis, and financial and legal advice.
Board members also discussed a new class size policy and largely expressed support for it, with some edits and additions. The policy will come back for approval at a subsequent meeting.
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