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Los Angeles’ bold move to reform special education

February 23, 2016 at 7:52 PM EST
Public schools in Los Angeles have experienced rapid change in the last decade, and graduation rates for the city’s 80,000 special needs students have nearly doubled since 2003. But greater transitions lie ahead: the district plans to transfer these students from special education centers to neighborhood schools. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Education Week reports.
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GWEN IFILL: It’s been four decades since a groundbreaking law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA, took effect. Today, it helps ensure that more than six million students with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate public education.

But, in many places, it’s been a struggle getting schools to comply with the law, and nearly 100 class-actions have been filed.

Special correspondent John Tulenko, with our partners at Education Week, follows the impact of one such case in California. That’s part of our weekly Tuesday night look at education, Making the Grade.

JOHN TULENKO: Los Angeles, California, is the nation’s second largest school system. And like other big cities across the country, it’s been the site of a pitched legal battle over special education.

The story begins in the early 1990s with a student named Chanda Smith, who was dyslexic and by high school could barely read.

CHANDA SMITH: It’s just like a bunch of words just scribbling on the paper, just everything just scribbling or just — it was very overwhelming. My mom told the teachers and everything. But after the third grade, I never got any help.

JOHN TULENKO: Now 39 and a mother of four, Chanda continues to struggle with a learning disability.

CHANDA SMITH: It’s affected me a lot. It’s hard for me to get a job. And I’m always having big worries, because I have to take care of my family. And it’s kind of sad because, when I have to go up to my 10-year-old, “Can you read this for mommy?” You know, I have a grandson now. I want to be able to read him a story. And that’s something that I can’t do.

I feel like it’s been taken away from me. For what reason? So, you know, it’s really hard and emotional.

DAVID ROSTETTER, Independent Monitor, LA Unified School District: Chanda was lost. They hadn’t identified her. They didn’t know where her records were. And so they weren’t providing adequate — adequate service to her. They were virtually providing no services to her.

JOHN TULENKO: Chanda’s story was a familiar one to David Rostetter. He’s a court-appointed monitor charged with ensuring schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere comply with special education laws.

DAVID ROSTETTER: I have had a lot of superintendents around the country, I will go to them and say, you know, this is really bad over here. I mean, this is a budding lawsuit and it’s patently illegal. And their answer will actually be, literally be: “I will deal with it when we get sued about it. Thanks for your advice, Dave.”

JOHN TULENKO: That was the case for Chanda Smith. Despite repeated requests for help, L.A. Unified did nothing until 1993, when Chanda’s mother took action. A single case of neglect turned into a class-action lawsuit that exposed a woefully broken system.

Thousands of students were not identified or misidentified. Nearly one third of all special education teachers were unlicensed. And procedures for tracking student records were nonexistent. The lawsuit pushed Los Angeles into a settlement agreement, imposing federal court oversight until the problems could be fixed.

That was nearly 20 years ago.

WOMAN: Good morning to you.

JOHN TULENKO: Today, much has changed for the district’s 80,000 students with special needs. Evaluations for services, for example, take less than 90 days.

Most special education teachers are certified. Academic performance for students with disabilities has improved, and the graduation rate is up, although it’s still short of the rate for students with disabilities nationwide.

The biggest change, to Sharyn Howell, who directs special education services here, has been in people’s attitudes.

SHARYN HOWELL, Special Education Director, LA Unified School District: I see a much different conversation than I used to see about our students. And it really is about people wanting them to perform academically and having expectations for them.

What we have been working on for a number of years is to convince people that students with disabilities are all of our responsibility. They don’t belong to the Division of Special Education.

JOHN TULENKO: Most simply need extra help and are already in regular classrooms. Those with greater needs are just beginning to make the transition.

In the last three years, the district’s been moving these students from 18 special education centers into neighborhood schools like Grand View Elementary.

ALFREDO ORTIZ, Principal, Grand View Boulevard Elementary: What used to be two separate communities, now we have become one community, an integrated community.

JOHN TULENKO: Principal Alfredo Ortiz has managed an influx of new students from the school next door.

ALFREDO ORTIZ: We have McBride, which is a special education center.

JOHN TULENKO: McBride was one of the schools exclusively for students with disabilities. It was separated by a chain-link fence.

ALFREDO ORTIZ: And, as you can tell, the fence has come down. So now we’re one campus.

JOHN TULENKO: Eighty-nine students from McBride and other schools moved into Grand View, increasing its special education population by 50 percent.

Most of the new students spend the majority of their day in classes like Maria Ventura’s. She teaches eight students on the autism spectrum. To help develop their social skills, every morning, she invites kindergartners to her classroom for a shared lesson.

MARIA VENTURA, Special Education Teacher: This is circle time. As a kindergarten teacher, I used to do that. And so when becoming special ed, I collaborated with another kinder teacher and said, you know what, bring me your kids, so that my kids can use them as a model.

Now you can’t even tell the difference between my kids and the gen-ed kids, because they have learned by watching their peers, oh, this is how I need to sit in a class.

JOHN TULENKO: Looking around the room, I noticed that nearly half the students with autism weren’t participating.

You’re bringing them together, but maybe they’re still staying apart.

MARIA VENTURA: Well, I can’t force it on them. It’s basically their demeanor and how they do it. For example, Sean and Austin and Marigold, they’re much more open to change. Depending on David’s temperament, if he’s not having a good day, I don’t want to force it. We slowly bring them in when they’re ready, because, if we rush them, then it actually goes against what we’re trying to do. We wanted to make a good experience for them.

JOHN TULENKO: Right.

MARIA VENTURA: Yes.

JOHN TULENKO: So it takes time.

MARIA VENTURA: Exactly. It does take time.

JOHN TULENKO: However, Grand View’s elective classes are fully integrated, including physical education, gardening and cooking. All this has been a huge transition for teachers.

ROSALIND BERGSTROM, Kindergarten Teacher: To meet everyone’s need, you know, it is — it’s a lot of work. But we have a physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist. And I work with the resource teacher to meet their needs.

JOHN TULENKO: But it seemed some teachers were having to spend most of their time focusing on the students with disabilities.

DAVID ROSTETTER: Yes, there are kids who demand extraordinary instructional time. And one of the problems that L.A. is experiencing is a lot of these regular education teachers and special education teachers are just learning how you do integration.

JOHN TULENKO: It’s still a work in progress, but principal Ortiz says he’s seeing the benefits.

ALFREDO ORTIZ: It’s amazing how the kids, their interactions have evolved. If a child needs help, we have gen-ed kids who say, hey I will take you, I will go with you. It’s creating leadership.

JOHN TULENKO: Seeing all these children playing together was undeniably unique.

I have never seen anything like that.

DAVID ROSTETTER: That is a fundamental statement. You never saw anything like that because you didn’t grow up and go to a school where that occurred. Socially, people with disabilities, particularly people with physical disabilities have been erased from our environment.

And so now these kids are going to grow up with each other. And they’re going to make friends with each other. And, hopefully, we will end up with a group of kids as they go into middle school and high school expect to be with each other.

JOHN TULENKO: But not everyone’s happy with the changes.

Brandon, can tell me whether you understand me?

Brandon Buschini is one of the few students still attending dedicated special education centers. His mother is fighting any plans to move him.

LINDA HILTON, Brandon Buschini’s Mother: The district tells parents that this is still a gift for their child and that they should be included, and that this is — socializing them is important. And they really hang their hat on that, vs. educating them and providing what they really need.

JOHN TULENKO: In our next report, fears about including students with the greatest needs and the unfinished business of fixing special education in Los Angeles.

I’m John Tulenko of Education Week, reporting for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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