Concerns regarding the special education program in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District have plagued the schools for year, but it appears that things are starting to finally improve.
An independent audit of the program was done by Lou Barber and Associates in 2008. This audit was prompted when Santa Monica’s City Council withheld $530,000 of City money from the District because of concerns raised by special education parents during the City’s annual budget process in May of 2007. Concerns included a lack of transparency and accountability because of the District’s increasing use of settlement agreements (with confidentially clauses) for providing special education services.
The auditors found that the district was using these settlement agreements much more frequently than surrounding districts and that this approach causes student services and placements not to be determined by the student’s school site’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). The IEP is a roadmap designed by the district to provide services to a student with disabilities to help them meet their educational goals. The report also made recommendations on how the district could minimize the use of settlement agreements and improve their program.
During 2008 the district convened a working group that consisted of special education parents, community members, district staff, and school board members to examine the issues brought up by the Barber report and explore further how to improve the special education program.
At the April 6 school board meeting the district’s Director of Special Education, Sara Woolverton, gave a presentation on what her department has been working on in terms of curricula and instructional programs. She demonstrated how computer programs could improve students reading and math capabilities because these programs can be geared to each student’s individual needs. In addition, some of these programs can be accessed from a student’s home computer.
Another demonstration shown by Woolverton was how technology can be utilized to help non-verbal students communicate what they need and how they feel at school and at home.
The special education department is also working on improving their students’ social skills through a pilot program at several school sites. They hope to expand this program to more sites next year.
Lastly, Woolverton discussed the district’s efforts to partner with parents. This included the work of a Special Education Parent Teachers Association which has parent resources networks at each school site for parents to contact with concerns. She also noted that the Special Education District Advisory Committee (SEDAC) has invited McKinley Elementary School and John Adams Middle School to give presentations to them about their special education programs. The district has also held a Spanish language IEP night and has had more collaboration on IEPs.
Special education parents spoke after the presentation. Christy Hobart whose child attends Lincoln Middle School stated that before she had been abused by the special education staff but “now there is a true collaboration between parents and the administration. The district wants to hear from us. They don’t close us off.”
Another parent Kelly Siegel noted, “there was such a climate of fear before – the only way we were ever heard was through legal representation.”
The board also heard from a member of SEDAC, Debra Shepard. She pointed out that the district has a number of children that are not severely impaired who are falling through the cracks. “These types of innovations [discussed during Woolverton’s presentation] are not made available to them. We need a program for our high functioning kids that want to go to college … we can’t ignore them … the culture needs to change.”
Board members reacted positively to the presentation. “What we’ve heard [tonight] is very different than what we’re heard in the past so I’m very hopeful, said Board member Oscar de la Torre. “ I vow to never go back in our history to a culture that was very adversarial. The board wants continual feedback on the special education culture and collaboration.”
Board member Maria Leon-Vasquez noted that she “still hears from parents [with complaints] but not as much as before.”
Board member Ben Allen weighed in by stating, “we have a long way to go but a lot of progress has been made.”
There was also board discussion about a survey that is distributed after an IEP meeting to get feedback that was designed by the district’s Chief Academic Officer, Sally Chou. Use of the survey began in 2008 but not all the parents are receiving one. The board requested that this survey be given out on a more consistent basis.
There are currently about 1,400 special education students in the district.