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LA’s special ed challenge: Integrating students at younger ages without putting special education centers at risk

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | January 16, 2017

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Scott M. Schmerelson, Chair of the Special Ed Ad Hoc Committee during last Tuesday's meeting.

Scott Schmerelson is chair of the Special Ed Ad Hoc Committee.

As LA Unified struggles to right its financial ship, the high costs of educating children with special needs have come under a microscope.

One strategy being used is identifying children in the infant and preschool years to help integrate them sooner into the general education population, which then cuts back on referrals to expensive special education centers. But that may lead to another problem: Parents may be left with fewer options for their children with more severe special needs.

LA Unified’s use of special education funds has been the target of both a lawsuit and a state ruling, and a tightening state budget may also put pressure on the district.

Administrators from the Early Childhood Special Education Division have come up with a plan, presented in late November at a Special Education committee meeting, to increase early referrals and therefore early inclusion of these young special education students with the general education population. The goal is to reduce the need for long-term special education services among the more than 7,000 students that the district is currently serving under the early childhood special education programs.

“We get kids in early ed to analyze them, treat them and help them so they don’t have to enter as special ed students when they come into first grade. We will try to do everything we can to help them get into general ed classes,” Scott Schmerelson, the committee’s chairman, said during that last meeting. On Tuesday, the committee will resume their work holding their first meeting of 2017. Schmerelson made clear to LA School Report why he supports inclusion, but also that keeping the special education centers is his top priority for this year.

“Saving the special education centers is my main goal. I have a problem with the closure of the special ed centers and then the parents not having the ability to choose the best for their kids. That’s my main concern,” he said Friday. “Inclusion is great, I encourage it, but it shouldn’t be the only option to parents.”

LA Unified special education administrators highlighted early identification and intervention before the child’s third birthday as crucial to preventing the need for long-term special education when they reach school age. The students in the infant and preschool programs represent 8.4 percent of the total 84,000 special education students in LA Unified.

“I absolutely believe in schools having inclusion. If a parent says to me, ‘I think that my child will be better educated at a general education public school,’ I’d said I support that parent a hundred percent. But if that doesn’t work out and the parent finds the services at a general ed public school are not sufficient, we can always fall back on our special educations centers,” he said, adding he was concerned about the closure of some of those centers in the last few years.

“This is why I got involved with the special ed issue, because that was the road that we were heading down, and that’s a very bad road to go down.”

During the 2011-12 school year, the district operated 17 special education centers. As of last school year, only 12 remained open. The cost to operate these centers in the 2014-15 school year was just over $96 million per year with an average cost per student of $46,649.

Schmerelson is not the only one worried about more closings. Darrell Jones, a special education representative for UTLA, expressed his concern also about those centers “shrinking.” According to Jones, Sophia T. Salvin Special Education Center, for example, used to serve more than 300 students a couple of years ago and now has fewer than 100. However, he said the center will be receiving more students in the next school year and the following year, because students will be transferring from Lanterman Special Education Center when it closes.

On the other hand, Theresa Martin, Early Childhood Special Education director, said that reaching their goal of inclusion has nothing to do with reducing or even closing any of the special education centers, since the children served by that division are not yet attending any of those centers. But reducing costs could be one of the reasons why the district is trying to provide intervention as early as possible.

“At this time we don’t have any children enrolled in special education centers. Our children are enrolled at our local elementary schools or enrolled in the community schools as much as possible,” Martin said. “We want more opportunities for our children to be fully included. Last year we started collaborating with the general education population so that we could open extended transitional kindergarten collaborative classrooms so our 4-years-olds have a greater opportunity to be enrolled with typical peers while sharing with typical peers.”

However, Jones believes that the different levels of needs these children have must be taken into consideration when they are assigned services.

“I get a lot of calls from kinder teachers, and even general ed teachers with those students in the class, that they don’t know what to do because there’s no support for them. It seems like all of the sudden they’re healed. Yes, they’ve been re-designated but that doesn’t mean that their problems are gone at all,” he said.

“I would like the district not to look at the monetary factor. If they’re not offering Salvin or the other 11 centers as a choice to parents, whose students may benefit from that, then nothing is going to change,” Jones said. “You’re just going to enforce them into a general education setting and calling it special ed setting segregated, but you have to continue to have that option available.”

During 2015-16, 3,107 children were referred for early education special ed services. Of those, 44 percent were referred by the regional centers, 27 percent by parents, followed by Head Start programs, physicians and others. The central Early Childhood Special Education contact number receives more than 500 inquiries a month from parents and community partners.

Children who are presenting mild to moderate risk levels are often seen at the prevention and intervention clinics hosted at some district schools. On average, 150 assessments total are done weekly at Mark Twain Middle School in West Los Angeles and nine other locations. Once children have been assessed, they are placed in the Preschool Comprehensive (PSC) for children with severe levels of need or Preschool for All Learners (PAL) programs for those within a range of both moderate and severe levels of need.

Administrators explained that the state requires them to monitor and report the percentage of kids with individualized education programs, or IEP’s, and to demonstrate improvement. Special ed teachers have to provide the state with results from the Desired Results Developmental Profile, an assessment tool used with preschool students.

“We need to make sure they’re meeting those goals, so we report to the state twice a year. We are responsible for two important transitions, we need to be sure that 2- and 3-year-olds are eligible to enter school when they enter the district, before turning 3, and then when they leave the program to get into kindergarten,” Martin said.

Carl Petersen, who has two autistic children in the district and is running for the District 2 board seat, said at the November meeting that he feels that “if administrators are given greater latitude in crafting the IEP, then they need to be held accountable when students do not make progress toward their established goals. They need to check on the student between IEP’s and make sure that the teacher’s evaluations of the student are correct,” said Petersen in a statement related to his own experience as a parent. “The administrator should have the power to make the appropriate changes if they find that a teacher is not meeting the needs of the child.”

On Monday, he referred to issue again. “Any time a kid can be mainstreamed, they should, but it’s just not feasible for all kids,” said Petersen, who pointed out that he is running for school board in part to bring special ed issues to the forefront.

Petersen is a supporter of the special education centers and would like to see general education students brought into the special education centers, to integrate the students, rather than forcing some of the students with more severe cases into general education classrooms that weren’t designed for those students’ needs.

Petersen also supports establishing magnet schools on the campuses of special education centers for students who are interested in careers in special ed.

Special ed teacher Valonda Theus commented at the November meeting that as much as she likes the curriculum used under these programs, teachers are in need of more support. “It’s a wonderful curriculum, but sometimes I don’t get an assistant. If I don’t get it, it totally messes up with the program, it makes it very difficult to run the program, sometimes we need to change almost everything.”

Despite the teacher shortage persisting in California, in which more than 80 percent of school districts reported shortages and that they’ve gotten worse compared with three years ago, according to a new statewide survey by the Learning Policy Institute and the California School Boards Association, Martin affirmed that LA Unified has enough credentialed special ed teachers to run their programs.

“In early childhood ed, we’re not having a problem finding teachers,” said Karen Krische, a district Early Ed Specialist. “This is our third year in which we hired approximately 85 new teachers. Teachers are coming to us in a variety of ways. I think teachers are really excited about early intervention, really being there when you make the most difference in a child’s life.”

Another special ed parent who attended the committee meeting, Ivey Steinberg, applauded the intention of the district to move toward creating a more inclusive environment for special ed kids. She said she is pleased that the district is “replicating” a model used by WISH Charter, where her 8th-grade son found a full inclusion experience in which he not only learned but thrived, reaching a 4.0 grade-point average.

“That’s the whole purpose of charters, to provide innovative models to share with traditional schools. In my opinion, reopening the segregated special ed centers is not the answer and can rob special ed students from becoming everything they can be,” said Steinberg, whose son attended preschool at James J. McBride Special Education Center.

“Since the second week there, one of the teachers saw the potential in my son and suggested we look for a full inclusion kindergarten,” she said. “I had no idea of this program and I wish this model can be replicated in all LAUSD.”

While LA Unified is not replicating a specific model, Krische said the district has been using its inclusive program at preschools for many years, and it’s not modeled after charter schools’ programs.

“Our prevention clinics respond to family concerns without labeling children. All early child special education classrooms have credentialed teachers, 47 percent of children served are fully included in our Head Start and district programs,” she stated at the meeting.

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