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16 Months Later: Thanks, But No Thanks:

“Staff wishes to acknowledge and thank those members of our parent and education community who helped craft the special education strategic plan”.

Longtime readers of the Mirror may remember the previous seven entries to my “strategic planning journal.” The journal was originally intended as a personal documentation of my participation in the process of creating a strategic plan for the special education department of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

“This plan is aligned with the existing framework of the District’s strategic plan that guides our overall work towards our goal of improving the achievement of all students while simultaneously closing the achievement gap.”

The first installment the series ran in April of 2004, after the SMMUSD Board of Education requested the plan, and directed the special education district advisory committee to form a separate committee to create it. The series became a soap opera of sorts, as the plan was written, submitted, then fell in and out and in and out of favor with the School Board and its staff — and parents of special ed students rode the roller-coaster known as the “public process.”

“…All strategic plans serve as a framework. It is not possible, nor is it the intention, that a strategic plan become a ‘to-do list’ in terms of direction to staff within the District.”

When I last wrote, the strategic plan had been floating in a state of suspended animation, as the “stakeholders” (a.k.a. people who cared) waited to see what would happen in the wake of an administrative shake-up in and subsequent restructuring of the District’s special education department.

It is a general roadmap that is modified given specific financial, legal, economic, and social circumstances facing the district at any given point in a five-year cycle.”

It was a let-down for the strategic planning committee to be sure. Superintendent John Deasy had previously been directed by the Board to collaborate with the committee to prioritize the goals that were spelled out in the Special Education Strategic Plan, and to create a timeline for completing the objectives that would fulfill those goals. The Board even made improvement of the special education department, including collaboration on the strategic plan, one of the “performance targets” on which Deasy’s yearly bonus would ride.

Long story short: Months went by. District special education administrators not only failed to initiate any type of collaboration with the strategic planning committee, they rebuffed several attempts by committee leaders to begin work on the plan. Next thing we knew, our staff liaisons had been fired, and the plan continued to drift.

We never gave up, mind you. In the midst of holding down jobs and caring for our children – many of whom are disabled (hey, I’m just telling it like it is) — we continued to lobby the staff and Board of Education, at public meetings and behind the scenes. We reminded them that many of the plan’s proposals were “high impact/low cost” – and that making small (or – gasp – even large) investments in programs for special education students now could save the District a lot of money over the long term. At the urging of the Board (so long ago it seems), we’d even included “quick wins” – easy, efficient, and, in some cases, no cost ideas that could be implemented right away to provide noticeable improvements to our children’s educations. Why not take a look at the “quick wins” you requested? we asked Board members.

Believe me, I’d like to say that our Board members answered our questions openly and freely, balancing their concerns and reluctance with the understanding that special education students have different, but equally as important, educational needs as general ed students — and that, in order to successfully “close the achievement gap” for special ed students in the District, that gap must be attended to.

I’d love to say that District staff, officially directed twice to collaborate with us, eventually did, even a little bit.

And, please, believe me when I say that we did not expect to “get everything we asked for” in the Strategic Plan, as has been implied, even stated outright by District staff. We live in the real world. We know that the Bush Administration is not fully distributing the Federal monies that fund Special Education. We know that the District is understaffed, and in some cases, the staff is under-trained.

We were (and still are) ready and willing to collaborate – the very essence of which is compromise. Instead, we got the pleasure of reading a “response” to the strategic plan – almost a year after it was first requested by the Board and written without the slightest collaboration of our committee or other stakeholders – in the agenda for the September 22, 2005 Board of Education meeting. In the body of the agenda! It was not distributed to us in any other way.

And it came wrapped in the bow you read in italics at the start of this piece. Staff wishes to acknowledge and thank those members of our parent and education community who helped craft the special education strategic plan. … . It is not possible, nor is it the intention, that a strategic plan become a ‘to-do list’ in terms of direction to staff within the District. It is a general roadmap that is modified … at any given point in a five-year cycle.”

Wow. Talk about the kiss off. And insult to injury! They were the ones who asked for the plan! They were the ones who told us to “be specific!” I don’t remember hearing anything about a “general roadmap.” At the meeting that night (remember I’d just read it), I said that this message to the committee felt like “Indian giving.” But what it really feels like, over a year after “the process” began, is being summarily dumped. “I like you,” the District told us, “but only as a friend.”

Wow. I get it.

And just like when I was a high-school senior and my college-age boyfriend told me over coffee at Zucky’s that he was going back to his old girlfriend now that he was back at the University, I want to know why. For the sake of my son and his peers, I desperately want to know why. But District staff isn’t telling. And neither is the Board of Education.

I’m not proud of it, but that early morning years ago I implored the boy, Why? You told me you loved me. Why did you tell me you loved me when you planned to go back to her all along?

That, he admitted, just a little bit sorry, that was just something I said.Ed. Note: Contributing writer Sturak is a member of the Special Ed Strategic Planning Committee.

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