Spotlight on special education: Who’s included in Berkeley’s ‘full inclusion’ program?

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Berkeleyside – By Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley Unified has taken an unusually ambitious approach to serving students with special needs. Has the district done enough to ensure its success?

In a special two-part series, Berkeleyside is examining BUSD’s special-education model, as the district evaluates its own program and prepares for departmental changes. 

In Part I, we explored what special education is all about in Berkeley, and whether the district has met its impressive goals. In Part II, we take a look at who exactly is “included” in Berkeley’s “full inclusion” model, who feels left out, and why the racial breakdown doesn’t mirror the rest of the district.

When parents become advocates

Preschool treated Vicki Davis’s daughter well.

The child was diagnosed with Fragile X syndrome at birth, and by age 3 was still nonverbal. She spent most of her early years in an “integrated” class at Franklin, a Berkeley Unified preschool, where half the kids had special needs and half were “neurotypical,” and the teacher had special-education credentials.

During that time, Davis’s daughter started taking experimental medication and, to the family’s delight, it worked.

“Her condition’s never going to go away, but she started talking, she potty-trained. But she still needed a lot of services,” Davis said. When she began kindergarten at Malcolm X, the district begged to differ. Administrators saw how well she’d been doing in preschool and didn’t believe she needed heavy accommodations, Davis said.

The mother tried to explain, yes, “she looks like she’s thriving in this moment — because of this support structure.” The child’s diagnosis includes anxiety and ADHD, which “really affect her ability to learn.” She also has an executive functioning deficit, meaning she has trouble figuring out how things work or inferring instructions that aren’t explicitly spelled out.

“When you observe her in the spring in a classroom, she looks often like everybody else,” Davis said. By the second half of the year, “she learned the routine and knows what she’s supposed to be doing. She’s an accommodating, good student, and she tries really hard, but if you put her in an environment she’s unfamiliar with, and she can’t figure out what to do or how to behave, she freaks out and has a meltdown.”

The mother pleaded for a classroom aide, and the district finally agreed to a 30-day trial. When BUSD tried to remove the support at the month’s end, “the teacher’s like, ‘Absolutely not, she needs the aide in class,’” Davis recalled.

“That year was when I really learned a lot about BUSD. To fight to get the support my child really needed to do well,” Davis said. “But once we had additional services and the team [at Malcolm X] really recognized her needs, it was a fairly conflict-free relationship.”

When speaking to Berkeleyside, parents, staff and special-education experts largely praised Berkeley Unified’s full-inclusion approach to special education, where nearly all students learn in the same classrooms. But some asked who, exactly, is “included”? Are there kids who are denied resources, kids who get identified for special education inappropriately, or kids who keep struggling even when they get all the help available?

Many special-education parents told Berkeleyside they, like Davis, had taken on advocacy roles for their kids and had been disturbed to find some School Board members and administrators seemed unfamiliar with special-ed pedagogy and law.

“Most parents — regardless of race, income, whatever — just want to send their kids to school and know they’re doing well,” said Cheryl Theis, education advocate with Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. “They don’t want to hear: Welcome to special ed, you have a part-time job.”

A middle-school special-education mother, Ari Fellows-Mannion, said her family’s experience in Berkeley schools started off rough. She described a “learning curve so steep I was falling over backwards.” She was initially told her son wasn’t eligible for an early-childhood program, then later learned she was never given a legally required list of parents’ rights, she said.

She’s considering pursuing a non-public school placement for him, where he’ll be in a smaller, calmer setting, with staff trained to serve students like him. She’s grateful to many Berkeley educators, but said systemic failures and a lack of funding together fostered an inhospitable environment for her son.

Racial disparities in special education

A contentious piece of a a recent district-commissioned report on BUSD special education, by William Gillaspie of Educational Strategic Planning, said special-ed students are slightly over-identified in Berkeley — 11% are eligible for services compared to the state average of 10%.

To the many parents who’ve begged the district for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) — an accommodation and academic plan for a student with disabilities — that stung. Parents told Berkeleyside they’ve had to push and pull with the district to get help they and medical professionals felt their children were entitled to.

“For a parent who’s had to fight for an IEP for a kid who has a medical diagnosis that is not going away, [I can tell you] there are not just parents who are magically getting IEPs, who don’t have any needs,” Davis said.

The topic of over- or under-identification is sensitive, in Berkeley and beyond. While some families get fed-up begging for special services and pull their kids out of the district, some others, and particularly parents of black students, say their children were inappropriately identified for special education.

According to data provided by BUSD, 418, or 37%, of students with IEPs are African-American this academic year. Yet the overall African-American population, which has been shrinking yearly, made up only 16% of the BUSD student body in 2016-17.  White students had grown to make up 40% of BUSD by last year, but are only 22% of the students with IEPs this year. Latino and Asian students are reflected more proportionally.

Rosa Bay, the director of the Education Advocacy Clinic at the East Bay Community Law Center, represents many families of black students in Berkeley special education. Her clients, she said, are often placed in special day classes or sent to non-public schools, which are publicly-funded but privately-run.

“The model is wonderful — including students with disabilities in general education classrooms as much as appropriate,” said Bay. But “from my vantage point, black students are often falling outside of what we think about when we think about full inclusion.”

While the district racks up legal fees settling with parents who want out, BUSD also litigates against families, including with the intention of getting them to let BUSD send their children to outside schools, according to Bay.

“The district can be pretty heavy-handed in using their resources to get families to go along with the plan,” she said. Often parents come to her “not represented and totally stressed out.”

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