Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Positive Outcome as Community Works Together for Special Needs Students

What a difference a month makes. The frustrated, angry, and at times hopeless tone at the October 15, 2015 Coronado School Board Meeting regarding Special Education at CUSD was drastically different from the inspirational, positive, and cooperative tone at the November 19, 2015 meeting.  At the November 19 meeting, School Board member Maria Simon expressed what many were feeling: “That you [parents] all stepped up in such a positive way and literally turned things around in a month…it’s truly amazing… it’s one of the most inspirational things I have ever seen.”

It didn’t start out like this. At the October 15, 2015 school board meeting, seven parents of special needs students spoke during the “Comments from the Audience” time about their significant concerns over the Special Education Program at Coronado Village Elementary School. Tears were shed as parents expressed their worries.

These seven parents have children who are currently, or previously were, in the Special Education Program in the Coronado Unified School District. Three of the seven parents have children in the moderate-to-severe classroom. Two parents have daughters who are now older than classroom age, but these daughters had been students, or wanted to be students, in the Coronado Special Education Program.  One parent had a student who functions well in a regular classroom with the help of special education services.

The motivation to voice these concerns at the October 2015 School Board meeting arose from a confluence of staffing events that took place at both the special needs classroom at Crown Preschool and in the moderate-to-severe classroom at Village Elementary School. One parent described these events as “a perfect storm.”

Over the summer, the teacher previously assigned to the moderate-to-severe classroom at Village Elementary School accepted a position at Coronado High School.

By the start of school, a new credentialed teacher, with the required certification to teach the moderate-to-severe students, was hired. Six-weeks into the 2015-2016 school year, this teacher resigned. For privacy issues, the District cannot discuss the reasons for the resignation.

While all concerned wanted a special education certificated substitute while a new teacher was vetted, there simply wasn’t one available. Ms. Whitney DeSantis, Principal of Village Elementary, explained that she pulled her most skilled regular education substitute out of a long-term assignment and placed her in the special education classroom.

It should be noted that this teacher was not certified to teach moderate-to-severe students.  However, when there is not a certified teacher available, the District has thirty days, by law, to find a certified teacher.  In the meantime, a regular teacher can legally teach the class.

Consequently, the special education children in this moderate-to-severe classroom did have days without a special education teacher.  At some point during week two, a fully certificated moderate-to-severe classroom substitute teacher, Ms. Simmons, was hired, and she was ultimately hired for the full time position.

Admittedly, the District was in the unenviable position of having to hire a new teacher six weeks into the semester, in an area of expertise that is not readily available. Parents understand that hiring a special education teacher could not happen overnight.  At the School Board meeting, parent Faith Peterson acknowledged that, “it takes time to fill these positions.”

But Ms. Peterson also expressed the anxiety it created.

In addition to the concern over the lack of a certified moderate-to severe classroom teacher at Village Elementary (while a certified substitute was found and a new full-time certified teacher was hired), there had been other staffing changes in Special Education. During the 2014-2015 school year, two special education preschool teachers had resigned, and some instructional assistant aides in the moderate-to-severe classroom at Village had been reassigned.

Ms. Peterson explained how these personnel changes were experienced by her seven year-old son (who had moved from the Special Education program at the preschool to the Special Education program at the elementary school): “[My child] started [the 2015-2016 school year] with the fourth teacher in three years. …The new teacher [at the elementary school] was hired within days of the new school year starting.”

There was also a concern about turnover in the instructional assistance.  Ms. Peterson called for consistency with the instructional assistance so as to help both teachers and students feel a sense of familiarity. She disagreed with the District’s position that it would be better to not get too dependent on one aide. The pros and cons of having consistency with educational assistants is part of a large national discussion. A New York Times article “A Struggle to Educate the Severely Disabled” offers additional perspective.

With the turnover of staff and a perceived lack of staffing consistency, various parents expressed concern over the physical safety of their children. Rita Alipour’s son had a broken finger last year and received a bite wound this year. Both incidents occurred while he was in the classroom with teachers and aides present.  While extremely disconcerting and never acceptable, Richard Erhard, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services, explained that some unexpected physical contact is part of the reality of any moderate-to-severe classroom across the nation.

Another issue that was raised at the October School Board meeting was the fact that the District, at times, places students outside of the District in either other school districts’ programs or in non-public school’s programs. This reflects CUSD’s responsibility to provide the best means of education possible.  Conflict can arise when parents and CUSD differ as to what satisfies the requirement of a “fair and free appropriate” education. If a child is a Coronado resident and is given a placement outside of CUSD, CUSD has the financial responsibility for the transportation of these students.

Veleria Fabiszak spoke about her frustration that her daughter was not accommodated at Village Elementary and was bused to a school that the District believed had better services for her daughter.

Ms. Fabiszak disagreed, arguing that it was better for her daughter (who was twenty at the time but by law may receive school district services until she was twenty-two) to remain in her community. Ms. Fabiszak lost that argument and was very disappointed.

Rebecca and Sam Bryant’s son Max was also placed in a program outside of the Coronado School District. The Bryants however, have confidence that the District did was what best for their son.  Mr. Bryant said via email: “CUSD could not service our son’s needs, and was really great about placing him in a school … that was perfect for him, and provided transportation. Davilla Day School for the Deaf is an ideal learning environment for our deaf son’s educational needs, and he is making great strides. Thank you Coronado Schools!”

Even parents who are generally very positive about the special education program at CUSD have suggested that they have had to be more assertive than they thought they should have to be, and that they must really know their legal rights in order for them to get services for their children.

School districts are filled with good human beings who have to balance the needs of all students, all budgets, and all laws.

It is important to remember that there were parents who did not speak at the School Board meeting because they have been pleased with their experience in the Village Elementary Special Education Program.

Between October 15, 2015 and November 19, 2015, goodwill, open communication, and hard work transformed the framework for communication. Luckily, the vehicle for the communication already existed.  It just had, as Mr. Erhard described it at the November 19th School Board meeting, “lain fallow.”

sepacThis vehicle is the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC). Per the bylaws, the purpose [of SEPAC] is to assist the CUSD by coordinating resources and input to contribute to the operation of the District’s plan for special education.  Until the hiring of Mr. Erhard, SEPAC was a formal meeting without much parent input – mostly informational in nature, and administered with a distinctly top-down approach.

Mr. Erhard was hired to the District in July 2007 as Director of Pupil Personnel Services, and then promoted to Assistant Superintendent of Student Services at CUSD in 2010.  He did, by accounts of all the stakeholders (parents, administrators, and Board Members), transform the committee from a formal, information distributing organization to a dynamic, robust, family-centered committee.

In January 2008, the District Board of Education recognized the newly formed SEPAC and officers.

At the recent November 19, 2015 School Board meeting, Mr. Erhard publicly thanked Nancy Parret, the former SEPAC President, for her strong role and assistance with the original SEPAC. He noted that under her leadership, in 2008, the SEPAC was instrumental in changing District Board policy for the parent visitations in our classrooms. He specifically pointed out that it was because of Ms. Parret’s efforts, that parents of students with disabilities could now observe their children in the classroom and as they transition to various services such as speech-language and occupational therapy.

In 2009-2010, SEPAC member Lina Douglas became the vice-president, then in May 2010 was elected as president where she remained in the consecutive school years 2010-2013.

Under Ms. Douglas’ leadership, SEPAC continued to gain momentum. Guest speakers at the meetings provided useful information and discussion. In 2012, Carlee Chiate, Educationally-Related Mental Services (ERMS) Officer, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and Sophia Frost, LMFT, the ERMS Case Worker, spoke to the group on “Developing a Resilient Child through Effective Communication.” The district provided Alexander’s Pizza and beverages. Parents had a place to share concerns, successes, and organize community activities.

Regular reports were made to the School Board, and members of the faculty, staff, and School Board might attend SEPAC meetings. School Board President, Dawn Ovrom, had this to say about SEPAC: “It was a very vital, positive group. I always appreciated their reports at the School Board Meetings.”

Ms. Douglas was a dynamic and active leader of SEPAC. Under Ms. Douglas’ leadership, SEPAC sponsored resource fairs, and invited non-public agencies and vendors, a variety of therapists and the like to attend.  Ms. Douglas also maintained the SEPAC blog and Facebook page. In addition, she brought in a number of quality presenters that spoke on a wide variety of meaningful topics. At one of the meetings, Coronado local Mr. Steve Wampler, came and spoke about living a rich, fulfilling life.

During this time, SEPAC also invited the special education teachers to generate wish lists for educational items that the district wasn’t able to provide.  Through donations to SEPAC, equipment that was especially valuable to special education classrooms such as books on tape, puzzles, calculators with large button, sensory toys and larger head phones were provided to the special education classrooms. Ms. Douglas remembered the biggest item they ever provided was a Wii Fit system for the adaptive physical education teacher, that previously the teachers would have purchased with their own money.

Ms. Douglas described SEPAC in the following manner: “It was a positive collaboration where there was an ability and opportunity to shape the school district policy as well as connect parents, provide support and and bring resources… and this group exemplified inclusion for all of Coronado.”

In a phone interview, Ms. Douglas explained that Mr. Erhard, special education teachers, and school board members were often at SEPAC meetings. Therefore, parents were able to speak with these professionals in a more informal setting.  In conclusion, Ms. Douglas had this to say: “I’ve never seen a district so passionate about helping special education students….  The district did a very good job.”

The emotions at the October 19 School Board meeting demonstrated to many parents and administrators that a rebooted and revitalized SEPAC is the way forward. Parents and administrators agree that SEPAC was a vital part of the communication process and was a perfect vehicle for a parent agency.

Mr. Erhard said in a phone interview: “I would whole-heartedly support a rich, robust SEPAC again,” and his recent actions have supported this sentiment.

Parent Roanna Canete said that she had heard of SEPAC and “would like to see it start up again.”

At the November 19, 2015 School Board meeting, a revitalized SEPAC was introduced along with the new officers: parents Rita Alipour (Co-President), Faith Peterson (Co-President), and Heather Barnett (Vice-President). Community member and of the Wampler Foundation, Elizabeth Wampler, will serve as corresponding secretary. The new officers have met with Richard Erhard many times to re-initiate the SEPAC, specifically discussing bylaws and organizational structure. Ms. Alipour spoke very positively about Mr. Erhard’s enthusiasm in rebooting the SEPAC.

Elizabeth Wampler said at the November School Board meeting that she believes SEPAC will now “dazzle the community.” She added, “I’m here to help. I want to tell the community about the spectacular kids. I look forward to great strides. I have a profound amount of hope. I have the knowledge that everyone in…this community wants to know about these precious kids….They belong to all of us. It’s a new day. We should move forward to make this phenomenal. Let’s get to the good stuff.”

The goal of this rebooted SEPAC will be to include all parents whose children have any form of an IEP (Individualized Instructional Plan), as well as members of the community who want to be involved, even if they do not have a special needs child.  At the November School Board meeting, Mr. Erhard invited Ms. Parrett and her parent group to join SEPAC or attend meetings. Ms. Alipour also expressed her hope that all members of the Coronado community who are interested, feel most welcome at SEPAC.  An informal mixer is being planned for January 2016.

SEPAC Co-President, Rita Alipour, explained that Coronado should be the gold standard in education for all Coronado children. It is clear that the CUSD Governing Board, Richard Erhard, and Village Principal Whitney DeSantis feel the same way.

What a difference a month makes!


Ann Marie Bryan
Ann Marie Bryan
When not writing, Ann Marie teaches World History and Western Civilization at Grossmont College. A job she loves as much as she loves "island life".Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: [email protected]