After a year of mounting complaints from special education teachers and parents, the Oakland Unified School District has overhauled the department, giving it more priority by creating an associate superintendent position and investing in more staff, training, curriculum and technology.
Sheilagh Andujar this summer was named OUSD Associate Superintendent for Programs for Exceptional Children, moving there after 10 years as principal of Oakland Technical High School, which was transformed under her leadership to become a science and academic showcase among Oakland’s high schools.
Now, she is charged with turning around OUSD’s special education from a situation of short-lived directors, staff shortages, unhappy teachers and reports of inappropriate placements of students and out-of-control classrooms.
The Programs for Exceptional Children department serves about 5,000 students who have disabilities ranging from hearing and speech impairments to autism to emotional disturbances, according to department records. A category of having specific learning disabilities accounts for 1,900 of the students.
Parents and teachers showed up at OUSD board of education meetings last year and complained about classrooms that were short-staffed and sometimes out of control and students not appropriately placed and thus not having their needs met.
“I know that I am walking into a department that – while there’s an amazing amount of good work that has been done by amazing staff and good parents – has also been a lot of disruption and the continuity of the department has not been what we need in order to have a fully operating department,” Andujar said at a recent meeting of parents and teachers in the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. “When I started at Tech 10 years ago, there also had been quite a big of change in leadership, with about 10 principals in 14 years.” She taught special education classes for many years before becoming an administrator, she said.
Andujar said a common mission should drive the academic preparation of all children throughout the district.
“We want to make sure all of our students are prepared for life beyond high school,” she said. To that end, she wants to make the curriculum of special education intertwined with that of the education in mainstream classrooms.
The Programs for Exceptional Children department serves about 5,000 students with a range of needs from hearing and speech therapy to assistance with learning disabilities and emotional disturbances.
“My vision,” she said is creating a plan around, “how can we do a better job of integrating special education and general education.”
The OUSD Board of Education apparently agreed because the department revamp included creating a new position to coordinate curriculum of Programs for Exceptional Children with general education curriculum or the Common Core.
Last year, the situation in special education had gotten so bad that OUSD commissioned a review of the department. The review found “instructional materials are lacking” and that “the special education curriculum is not consistently implemented,” and that there was no accountability for that implementation.
The review also said staff caseloads were sometimes too high and sometimes too low. Over-staffing of social workers in Counseling Enriched program was costing the district huge sums of money. Also, “Professional learning is virtually non-existent for the PEC staff.”
One of the first actions of the revamp was to provide professional development training to staff before the new year began. The district also invested in new software for lesson planning and curriculum in special education as well as a program for general education teachers to learn about common behavioral warning signs of kids at risk.
A key complaint last year was staff shortages. Teachers pleaded with the board of education for classroom aides in their classrooms. Some teachers said they feared for the safety of their students and themselves in classrooms where too few adults had to work with severely-needed students.
As of the beginning of summer there were 63 vacancies in the Special education department. Most of those have been filled.
Teachers were also provided with professional development classes before school began.
But according to teachers who spoke at the Community Advisory Committee on special ed, the staff shortages still exists.
“I appreciate the work that’s been done but we still need more staff. I know people worked really hard on staffing but i had someone quit two weeks before school,” said a special education teacher from Howard Elementary school who didn’t disclose her name.
Parents, too, spoke of continuing to worry about staff shortages.
“Staffing, at this stage is my biggest concern. I feel a lot of confidence in and support from his teacher but staffing is still a concern,” a parent said of her son’s class.
Department officials said there were 63 vacancies at the beginning of the summer. And in a massive recruitment effort over the summer, most of those vacancies have been filled.
“We are not at 100 percent yet with staffing,” Andujar said. “It was a goal to be 100 percent staffed by the beginning of year but too many pieces of the machine were not all working together. It is something that is on our radar.”
“We are hearing often that work in teh PEC is done by very committed folks but there are not enough folks. We are a department of over 5,000 students.”