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School district launches special-education review

Original post made on Oct 7, 2015

A longtime special-education advocate and Harvard University Graduate School of Education professor is visiting Palo Alto this week to kick off a review he will be conducting of the school district's practices, programs and culture around students with disabilities.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, October 7, 2015, 9:40 AM

Comments (28)

Posted by concerned for the mainstream
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 7, 2015 at 11:02 am

How much are we paying him?
Please in the future ask these kinds of questions.

SpEd is wonderful.
SpEd is amazingly expensive.

Let's be open to critical discussions about all sides of education, including serious cost/benefit analyses.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 7, 2015 at 11:27 am

@ concern for the mainstream- the great thing about Universal Design for Learning is that it is great for ALL students, not just those with disabilities.It does take more work and effort on the part of the teachers and the rest of the staff to "present material in multiple ways (because everyone processes information differently, with or without disabilities), to have multiple ways to determine students' competency (beyond just a paper-and-pencil test, for example) and to offer multiple means for engagement."

Our experience with two kids at the high school level was that for most of the teachers, the material is presented in one way (generally the simplest) and competency was determined through testing. We also found that many teachers simply didn't teach, they expected the students to learn through their homework assignments instead.

Posted by Not Again
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2015 at 11:49 am

Here we go again, more investigations, and then when PAUSD gets the data they do nothing to improve this department. They know what they are supposed to do, but they do not want to, they want to play dumb. [Portion removed.]

Posted by concern too
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Oct 7, 2015 at 11:49 am

@ concerned for the mainstream - yes, costs a lot and not effective.
This article relies too much on quotes from District material and p.r., it needs more balance. It says nothing about how much this vendor costs. The Holly Wade comments are misleading. This is not a task force requested. This is a contractor hired by Special Education to evaluate Special Education. Parents requested a Task Force because the Superintendent showed he only takes Task Forces seriously. He put tremendous time and focus on the Minority and attendance task forces, but not fixing failures of Special Education. Instead he repeats what his managers/contractors tell him. The article in the link about new leadership and structure also needed more balance from an over-reliance on District quotes and materials. Special Education did not tell the public for 9 months of CDE's multiple findings of non compliance and order to the District to fix them. The District withheld these findings for 9 months, and only released them after it had fixed them to say it was 100%. The CDE's finding letter cites reports of non compliance and a previous District self-review still never released to the public. The structure is not new leadership because it promoted the same people already doing the jobs, and hired current contractors as employees. Wade's job was only open to current applicants, so was the only one who could apply. Only current contractors or employees were allowed to apply for other 'new' or open jobs. The Superintendent and Board did not provide oversight or supervision of Special Education, so now what the public gets is an evaluator chosen and paid by the people being evaluated.

Posted by Michelle
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 7, 2015 at 2:37 pm

If you are commenting, you should go hear Dr. Hehir speak tomorrow. His ideas were very positive and aimed toward improving PAUSD for all students. Many of his ideas might cost less than the current special education model, but may be more effective for all students.

PAUSD is lucky to have him here.

Posted by Dazed and abused
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2015 at 4:12 pm

If we had had the opportunity to:
1) immediately go to an independent 3rd party the first time we received any notes or correspondences riddled with (provable) outright falsehoods from district personnel, or immediately get help to set straight (with an independent 3rd party) misrepresentions of our child or the circumstances to teaching staff, and
2) enforce NOT having to deal with anyone who had treated us like that,

we would still be in PAUSD and happily so. I don't wish on anyone else what we went through. Staff seems to have done a cleanse of the record for the state and prior to McGee's arrival, and now Hehir's arrival makes their ramping up of the abuse just as school ended a little more clear. Hehir should make a point of overtly reaching out to people who have left because of being mistreated -- he's not going to get that information from district people.

Posted by Oh, Yes
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Oct 7, 2015 at 4:25 pm

PAUSD can be very cruel to its Special Ed kids and their parents. But a parent has to oversee a Special Ed kid's education constantly, just to make sure they are not getting shortchanged or cheated out of their rightful services. [Portion removed.]

Posted by Michelle
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 7, 2015 at 5:25 pm

To the last two commenters - why don't you reach out to Dr. Hehir? He made very clear last night that we wants to talk to parents. How would he know who to reach out to? He really is a very intelligent and thoughtful person.

Posted by Dazed and abused
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2015 at 7:26 pm

McGee is also an intelligent and thoughtful person. He said he wanted to talk to parents. But he was quickly pulled into the 25 Churchill quagmire, never to express any interest in correcting past mistake that continue to hurt families. The trouble with saying they want to talk to parents is they'll talk to the ones in the echo chamber to invalidate the ones experiencing problems, if past experience serves. Saying you want to talk to parents doesn't necessarily mean anyone is going to make an effort at finding the truth or reconciling wrongdoing, or protecting families from the kind of petty meanness and retaliation that go on behind McGee's back still.

I even know families who moved away solely because of the nightmarish behavior they experienced. It's hard to even get people to open up about what they experienced in a safe environment, much less to go back to voice it to someone they don't know. The length of time people endured retaliation and the seriousness of the retaliation mean no one is going to risk the trauma unless there is a pretty good chance it's going to result in something helpful (a pretty big risk given what people have been through) and not in harm or further retaliation. Who that took the extreme step of moving away is going to even know about Dr. Hehir being here, much less talk about what they've been through?

I can't even begin to tell you how unsafe and unwelcome we were made to feel, even though we had been in the district since early elementary. It was a wonderful school experience until we had to tangle with the special ed department. The experience has given me a sense a kinship with Hieronymous Bosch.

Having had the experience of someone in the district going to the school our child left for and revealing private (and they hoped, damaging) information, before we even decided to go there, and learning about it only later, if anyone genuinely wants to fix things, they'll have to do a lot more to ensure families feel and ARE safe. Hehir is going to have to reach out to them if he wants the real scoop. It's far more likely that the district is using him for more window dressing. Good luck to all the depressed kids then.

Posted by Old but Wise
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 7, 2015 at 7:30 pm

Oh Dear, I am old, but whatever happened to the special ED dept of 90's and 2000's I had 2 kids who went through the whole 9 yards in special ed. They were always part of the group, loved by their "not special ed" friends. They had amazing self confidence and now are holding their own. One is back in college getting that degree after 20 years of hard and creative work, the other has 2 masters and is teaching special ed.....I was a widow, so we had to all pull in. These kids were not mollycoddled, they had to do their part for our family to "go". I do believe that parents have to do a lot at home for their kids and not expect the school to cover all the bases for them, and kids have to know that there are folks out there...teachers, friends and other adults to help them, BUT they have to help themselves.

Posted by Dazed and abused
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2015 at 7:36 pm

@Old but Wise,
Thanks for reminding of what our schools could be like again. I've been at CAC meetings when people expressed that Palo Alto special ed was actually really stellar as recently as ten years ago, but that now it's one of the worst (according to the opinions expressed). I have my own opinions about why it changed, and how easy it would be to fix, but it's not going to happen unless people in power are interested in the truth and the whole truth...

Posted by Dazed and abused
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2015 at 7:57 pm

I do believe in parents being involved, too. What do parents who believe in being involved do when they are repeatedly retaliated against for it? What do parents do when those same people run interference behind the backs of families in a way that makes a normal relationship and working together at the school level impossible? Including between the child and teachers? How do you help a child under those circumstances learn how to trust adults in institutions who are supposed to be helping them ever again?

Posted by Head's up
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 7, 2015 at 11:21 pm

Dr. Thomas Hehir is not an unbiased, third party, independent analyst that is here to provide a fresh outlook on the special ed dept at PAUSD. He is a proponent of full inclusion which is what the district has already chosen. He is here to convince everyone else.

The issue is that the full inclusion model can work pretty well with enough support available in the general education setting. Unfortunately, PAUSD does not provide enough support for this strategy to actually work well across the board. Implementation of the supports in this district are very hit or miss, mostly miss.

Ask parents in the schools that have had this model for an extended timeframe--especially in classrooms that include students with serious behavioral and emotionally disturbed issues.

Ask teachers whether they receive a level of support they need to address the full range of needs in these classrooms so they can be effective at actually teaching all of their students. Ask how much of the time an aide is available to address the needs of these students--not in the showcase classrooms from the last year or two--but from those who have had this model for much longer.

Full inclusion in PAUSD is another way to shift addressing the full range of student needs to general education teachers and by default shifting the energy and focus from engaged learning to classroom management.

Ask experienced parents with well behaved kids who have had to put up with years of being in classrooms where the same couple of kids disrupt the class daily, without any additional support.

Ask Dr. Hehir about what it would take in terms of additional classroom support for students with serious behavioral and emotional issues to be supported well enough in a general education classroom for everyone in the class to be engaged in learning. Then ask whether he found that level of consistent support at PAUSD--or even an effort to accurately identify students with special needs. Ask whether he wondered into random classrooms or was guided to those chosen for him to observe.

Dr. Hehir was hired by the district to serve as an outside expert while supporting the district's chosen special ed strategy of full inclusion. He is not independent and is not unbiased--although probably very well intentioned. He also likely assumes he is working with a special ed dept that is authentic rather than completely dysfunctional.

Posted by sped parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 8, 2015 at 12:36 pm

bottom line: inclusion is cheaper
all else follows from that point of view
student welfare is not taken into account
we have skelly to thank; and the board for
choosing mcgee in his footsteps

Posted by Patty
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 8, 2015 at 1:18 pm

I have a friend who is a special education teacher in Texas. She was astounded when I told her that kids with serious behavior issues were being mainstreamed in the General Ed classrooms. She viewed that as a major disservice to those special ed children. A big part of their education is teaching them how to function as adults in mainstream society. In her school district they spend years working on behavior modification and only mainstream students who are not disruptive to the General Ed learning environment.

As a parent of a special ed child my observation is that special ed students with behavior issues and severe learning disabilities are being placed in mainstream classrooms without providing teachers special ed training or co-teaching support from special ed teachers. It is appropriate and beneficial for all to include these students during art, music, P.E., lunchtime and other extracurricular activities but a whole other thing during a lesson that requires focus from the teacher and the students.

I'm glad to hear the district is reaching out for help on this. I support inclusion but it needs to be done right.

Posted by sped parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 8, 2015 at 1:40 pm

sped parents should be wary of those who have a vested interest in inclusion, for instance those who have done their dissertations on it, written papers on it, or for whom it is their major field of research. Perhaps this consultant falls into one of these categories. One only needs to do an internet search on the person they are meeting with to figure that out. I have not researched Wade's topic because am not dealing with her but it merits investigation for some. Being right is all that an academic has in life so they will fight to the death to be right.

Posted by An altogether different story
a resident of El Carmelo School
on Oct 8, 2015 at 7:05 pm

As Patty noted, inclusion in the General Ed classrooms can work in certain circumstances, depending on the student and the disability, of which there are a huge variety. But when you place 2 or 3 profoundly challenged students into a general ed classroom with one or two untrained aides and no co-teacher, it's a recipe for disaster. There is NO way a single general ed classroom teacher can give those kids the one-to-one assistance they MUST have, yet that is the picture of inclusion that is happening in some schools. It's very uneven and erratic. It should be noted that this is a RESOURCE issue. If we really want full inclusion to work, we need to PAY for it, and it is NOT going to be cheap. You need trained, credentialed SpEd co-teachers who actually know what they are doing, and you need enough of them. That is going to cost some serious money. If you don't put the money where the mouth is, it's just more spin.

Posted by Hehir's Presentations
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Oct 9, 2015 at 2:55 pm

I was wondering if any of the above posters attended either of the two talks by Dr. Hehir and what did you think? I attended one and thought he was genuine. He did not strike me as merely a shill for the district but he actually admitted that some of what he saw on his tours of the schools was not so good and needed to be improved. To those of you anti-inclusionists, he never said anything about sticking students with serious behavior issues in all gen Ed classes, but discussed his method of inclusion and how it would work in the classroom. He was not endorsing the district's current model, but discussed how his own model could be implemented. Of course based on the wide variety of issues parents brought up, I feel Dr. Hehir has a lot of work to do if he is going to improve things for our students. There are also some huge systemic issues affecting the district, namely the homework policy. Beginning in middle school, homework becomes relentless for general ed students, and if a student has an IEP the homework is that much harder. In order for Dr. Hehir's model to work, homework would have to be reduced. Another issue that goes hand in hand with homework is the idea that pausd is so elite, that it can afford to be as rigorous as it wants. The problem is that students think only the top colleges are worth applying to and that raises the standards of excellence, leaving many students in the middle, let alone the bottom, feeling helpless. I was surprised I didn't hear any if this addressed at the talk I attended and I was not called on so couldn't bring it up myself. I agree with Hehir's model but the culture and policies of the schools would have to be changed drastically in order for the model to work and I have a feeling things would change at the usual glacial pace but I hope I'm wrong. What do people who actually attended one of the talks think?

Posted by Dazed and abused
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2015 at 8:25 pm

@Hehir's Presentation,

The people Hehir most needs to hear from would never go to the district now, for feeling unsafe and for fear of retaliation. Some have moved away or put their kids in private school. His seeming "genuine" is small comfort. Some of the worst actors in all this get away with it because they, too, seem oh so "genuine". I'm not saying Dr. Hehir isn't, I'm saying what he hears and evaluates will be a subset, and he's unlikely to see the worst that really needs dealing with.

Posted by Hehir's Presentation
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Oct 10, 2015 at 12:28 pm

You're so right! We may also not be sticking around here long enough to see if anything improves!

Posted by Eileen 1
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 10, 2015 at 5:06 pm

Eileen 1 is a registered user.

To the comments regarding the difference between special ed in the district now and special ed here in the late 90's and early to mid 2000's: I would say that a big difference was the personnel in the district. At some point in the late 1990's the district hired Carol Zepecki to be Head of Special Ed. While not every parent in the district had a good experience with special ed under Zepecki, it is my observation that the majority of special ed families felt they were treated with respect and listened to. This was a big change from the previous Head of Special Ed. (I don't remember her name.) and those of us who experienced the difference between these two women were, in general, very pleased with how Ms. Zepecki interacted with families who needed assistance. The transition from Ms. Zepecki to Holly Ward, appears to have sent the district back to a philosophy of providing as few services, accommodations, and supports as possible. It is sad that in a district that has so much money and so many parents willing to go the extra mile to help educate their children (tutoring, help at home, etc...) that the district itself can not manage to be in a partnership with families rather than creating such an adversarial relationship with so many of them.

Posted by Rethink Inclusion Model
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 10, 2015 at 8:52 pm

I have just gotten 1 child out of an elementary school with the "inclusion model". My daughter now has a lot of catchup work in all subject areas, even though she had an excellent, caring, teacher who differentiated instruction and gave her lots of personal attention. HOWEVER, her classroom was saddled with 1 child with serious behavior issues, I think he had an IEP and some aide time in the class. I don't know if the aide was a Special Ed. aide, and she was not there in the afternoons where some VERY bad behaviors/actions were exhibited. My daughter and a few other students were very much aware of some unsettling stuff that happened, with the teacher having to "suck up a lot of this behavior" while trying to teach the class. My sympathies went out to the teacher and the classroom dynamics he had to deal with, but feel my daughter had to pay the price. Now, we are struggling, hiring tutors and just trying to stay afloat with other kids from other schools that didn't have the "inclusion model".
I think cost cutting was the reason for the inclusion model, and there was not enough work put into the trial schools. Homework and assignments really need to be modified for middle school, so all keeps at all academic levels can succeed and have self-esteem to hold onto their dreams and aspirations.

Posted by Hehir's Presentation
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Oct 11, 2015 at 10:05 am

Rethink, you say your own daughter now has to catch up because of the kid in her class who had behavior issues but don't say whether or not she had an IEP or 504. Are you saying inclusion doesn't work at all or just for those kids who disrupt the class? My own kid is well behaved, highly creative, smart and is in and definitely belongs in general ed, but he has significant LD. But he is completely neurotypicsl in every way except how his brain processes in some academic areas. Why should he be placed in a special class? That's partly the issue. Not all students with IEPs are out of place in general Ed; in fact most of them are not. Thus inclusion should used here for them. For those with severe behavior issues I can't comment because I don't have enough experience with that but I know some parents of kids like that prefer they are in their own classes at least until they learn enough skills to join more general Ed classes. But everyone is different. There's no such thing as one size fits all which is what the district too often wants to do.

Posted by Pull Back
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Oct 12, 2015 at 9:53 pm

The District needs to pull back. This contract if for the District only if it has already decided it is using the model Hehir is selling. We don't know that. It is not a fact, and not something parents and taxpayers decided upon.

@Hehir's Presentations - Regarding problem of not attending presentations: that is just the problem. There were very limited opportunities to attend or hear the presentations or provide input. It is very closely controlled by Administrators who are being evaluated and who also choose and hired the evaluate-er.

Families asked for a task force, a public body to be transparent to review the entire situation and publicly report. A consultant evaluating how well a department is implementing the consultant's own model makes no sense. With all the heartache and problems from the attorney contracts, the District does not need any more of these contracts right now.

Can we really believe Hehir will report how badly this District does in responding to families? How much dissatisfaction there is? The violent children who cannot get help? How rude the Administrators are? Will he really report the parent discomfort with the re-organization, the control given to one person with little to no Board oversight? The same Board members who never showed up to a CAC meeting because they said they never knew when they were held? (Yet members of the public knew, and even attend these meetings.) These are the Board members who said full inclusion is a total success and all students have all the supports they need. If so, why do we need this evaluation now?

This Administration allowed bullying of the disabled and gave us the OCR. In June, the public was told promotions had to come with employees own personal lawyer and retaining the same law firm originally hired with no competitive bidding, the same firm behind the problems with the current sexual harassment cases. Is the Board certain this firm was so outstanding, so needed, and so wonderful to it's families, disabled children, taxpayers and community? Can the Board say with certainty the other contractors the Administration is now hiring are right for the District? Let's pull back and think this out as a community.

Please pull back on these contractors. Put some time in oversight, listen and find out what we really need before making a huge financial and time commitment we can't stop.

Posted by Shocked in PA
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 26, 2016 at 4:55 pm

@Dazed and abused
I agree with you that the PAUD Special Ed system is broken.We have been battling with PAUSD over our child's Special Ed needs for more than seven years. All the while, we have watched our bright, happy kid become more and more anxious, depressed and left behind. During a time of crisis we were not treated any differently in regards to our Special Ed situation.

Because of our negative Special Ed experience and a number of other experiences by non-Special Ed staff, I do not believe that PAUSD (as a whole) is serious about helping kids who are distressed -- at least not in any meaningful way. Yoga classes on the quad and guards at train crossings are not going to do it.

Perhaps parents that have experienced major problems with the Special Ed system should form a group and try to find ways to make change... or at least form a support group.

Posted by parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 23, 2016 at 8:58 pm

Yes, special ed families who have had bad experiences should form a support group. How do we do that? Who knows, together we may have a bigger voice and may even be able to effect some significant change.

Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of Los Altos
on Apr 24, 2016 at 7:32 am

Sarah1000 is a registered user.

The SELPA 1 CAC (which represents Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos) hosts two, free support groups: Let's Talk and Parent Chat. Let's Talk is designed for parents/caregivers of children who have special ed issues and need support. The next Let's Talk is Monday, May 8th at 7 pm at the Los Altos Library. Parent Chat is for parents/caregivers of youth who have behavioral, emotional or mental health issues, including teens who may be on an IEP or 504 with an ED diagnosis. Although it is a peer-to-peer group, Monique Kane, the former director of CHAC, provides therapeutic support. The next Parent Chat is this Tuesday at 7 pm at the Los Altos Library. See our Instagram @mentalhealthSELPA1 for details.

Posted by R Alvarez
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 25, 2017 at 6:18 am

Hire special education teachers that work the magic you desire. Regular education teachers signed on for exactly that; regular education.

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