Berkeley Unified School District begins path to better special education services

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Anne Maguire/File

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Berkeley Unified School District is making its special education programs more cost-efficient and suitable to the needs of its students.

In December 2017, after conducting a review of BUSD’s special education programs, Educational Strategic Planning LLC released a summary of its findings with recommendations. The evaluation found that a lack of procedures for special education led to an over-identification of students as requiring special needs services. It also identified a need to review the district’s “full-inclusion model” and further train general education and special education staff.

At the BUSD board meeting March 14, board members discussed the ways in which the district could take action to alleviate some of these issues in the midst of a leadership transition as BUSD seeks a new executive director of special education.

To improve consistency with special education procedures in other East Bay school districts, BUSD is revising its procedural manual by considering adopting a modified version of the North Region Special Education Local Plan Areas procedural manual. BUSD is also drafting revisions to manuals and policies of its Coordination of Services and Student Success teams.

“We would like to start developing a singular set of practices and guidelines for how those teams look at kids, the frequency with which they look at data and the type of data,” said Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Pasquale Scuderi while presenting on the recommendations to the board at the March 14 BUSD board meeting.

About 66 percent of BUSD’s special education spending came from the general fund in 2017-18, compared to the state average of 51 percent. To address high spending, the report recommends that the district request reimbursements from Medi-Cal for transportation costs and review the costs of the district’s extended school year program.

BUSD board member Karen Hemphill directly related high district spending to over-identification of students as having special needs.

“One out of every 10 white students in this district has been identified as having special education needs, but it’s one out of four for every Black child,” Hemphill said at the March 14 BUSD board meeting. “If we look at disproportionality, that’s going to solve a lot of the costs.”

Discussions at the meeting often related back to the district’s full-inclusion model, which integrates special education students into general education classes. BUSD Board President Josh Daniels emphasized that the full-inclusion model is beneficial for students despite “costs and challenges” the district faces.

The BUSD board is also planning to establish a districtwide parent and community advisory committee, which will consist of parents of students with special needs, general education teachers and special education teachers. The entity will have bylaws and be open to the public.

During Scuderi’s presentation to the board, he affirmed that BUSD’s search for an executive director of special education is ongoing. Special education teachers, school psychologists and parents gave input on the search process in February, and the job posting closes April 18.

One parent at the March 14 meeting said the report does not evaluate whether BUSD’s special education delivery model is “actually working” for the students it is supposed to be serving. She added that there is a “critical need” for general education instructor training given the district’s full-inclusion model.

“What we’re talking about is systems change,” Daniels said at the March 14 board meeting.  “We operate as a system, and that is a really complex and challenging thing to move. … While we should maintain our urgency to fix the issues that have been in the report, I want to urge us to be patient and persistent around how we approach this.”

Cade Johnson is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @cadejohnson98.