Sonoma Valley Unified’s special education department lacks cohesive curriculum, report says

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The Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s special-education department is in for some changes – that was one take away from the April 9 meeting of the district board of trustees. Exactly what those changes will look like remains to be seen, but district officials said Tuesday they are committed to making improvements to the department – and formally apologized for any missteps the district has made along the way in its service to students with special-ed needs.

The board’s atonement came in the wake of a recently released report, which was highly critical of the district’s special-education services. (Read the report here).

“I want to take a moment to publicly apologize to every single parent, whether you’re in this room or watching (the televised board meeting), and every single student who’s ever been missed because of us,” said board trustee Melanie Blake. “Those of you who know me know I spent many, many years in special education in this district. It hits my heart as well as my head, and we have got to get this right.”

Other board members apologized, too, promising that now that the “new staff” has identified concerns and problems, and is working on solutions, things will get better.

Last July, the district was flagged by the state for special education performance underachievement; other assessment concerns were identified through the California School Dashboard, an online tool that tracks a school’s progress.

There was a sea change in Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s top administrators last year, leading the new cohort to commission an independent report on the district’s special-education services, which was released in March.

“Because we were all new (to the district) we thought it would be helpful to have somebody objective come in and give us kind of a state of affairs, where we stand today,” said Vanessa Riggs, director of special education and student services, who presented the report at the April 9 meeting.

The three-month review began in November 2018 and was conducted by Maureen Burness, a special education expert and consultant. Her study found the department lacking in several key areas, including having inconsistencies in curriculum, low graduation and high dropout rates, low performance in English language and math, and the need for a professional development plan for teachers and staff.

Mindy Luby, a parent of a special needs student, started by making points that were not included in Riggs’ presentation but were in Burness’s report, such as the data on English learners “shows only 10 percent” of students are “at grade level or above, with high percentages of students not achieving standards.”

Luby said another “important piece that was in the report” was what the report described as a “de facto segregation that has occurred due to the intra-district transfer policy.” Luby said the district should acknowledge that there is a need for “protocols, curriculum, training and counseling.”

As the district moves forward in developing new curricula Luby said she hoped it wouldn’t be determined just by teachers and that parents and other stakeholders would be included in the process.

Luby and other parents of special needs students in the district attending Tuesday’s meeting didn’t hold back in launching fire at the district for not paying attention to what they say has been an ongoing problem for years, and for a lack of transparency.

“This district has not practiced transparency,” Luby said. “What has happened is we have paid somebody to do an independent review, and then the district sifted through the information, and the district created the report. So our intentions for obtaining this report are not for any reason other than transparency which we have not had to date in our district.”

She said she has “faith” that Elizabeth Kaufman, associate superintendent, educational services, will be able to “manage many of the issues” that came up in the report.

“I appreciate that we found out that we are in a district that hasn’t had a consistent curriculum nor have we trained our dedicated teachers for over 10 years. I appreciate that the district now officially has the problems in a report even if they wrote it themselves. I appreciate that parents know that they are not crazy for saying all the things that they said, and now it has been proven that the district has literally been lying to parents and not serving children,” Luby said.

Parent Celeste Winders, who has three children in the district with IEPs (Individualized Education Program) with various disabilities such as dyslexia, autism and ADHD, read a note from her teenage son whose anxiety, she said, made it difficult for him to appear in person. In the message he said he and others like him had been “failed” by the district and he urged the “adults” to “really step up.”

Winders said that “for years” parents of special needs students have addressed the district saying, “Houston, we have a problem. There is no curriculum. Our children are failing. They are struggling. They are gasping for air in the classrooms,” she said. Winders said the response from district officials was that there was no problem.

“There are things in that report that I was saying in my child’s IEP (meetings) discussing intervention curriculums – we don’t have one – and I was told to my face in IEP (meetings) … ‘we have one’ … no we don’t. That was a lie,” she said.

Winders went on to express disdain that attention hasn’t been paid to the poor performance occurring in the special education students.

“There are people here who have sat here for years, for a decade, looking the other way while these things were happening. As trustees you have a responsibility to make sure there is a curriculum,” she said. “You have a responsibility to make sure when these scores drop, you find out why.”

Cameron McKesson, who has one child with an IEP, said she appreciated Riggs’ position in moving forward looking for clarity.

“I think that Vanessa is taking a great power position in looking at this report, but I want you as the board to understand that as we take these steps together, it’s really important to listen to the stories and experiences of these families, that this report is their story,” McKesson said. “This is our story, we were reading it and we’ve been saying it.”

McKesson added that she feels the new district administration understands special needs students better than the previous administration. They “saw” her daughter and helped place her in a school where she is getting the support she needs and where she is happy now.

“I think that would not have necessarily happened before and I feel so blessed that it’s happening, and that needs to be the expected rule and not the exception.”

Blake thanked those in the administration who “identified the need” for an outside review.

“I know it’s not easy walking in to a new district with so many new things and I appreciate you taking a step back and taking a look,” she said.

Blake said she was not impressed with the report, in part because of its narrative form, and she had “too many questions” about the identified purposes and recommendations in the report than what the meeting time would allow.

“We’re going to need to have a lot of clarity… around prioritizing what needs to be done first,” she said. “I’m asking, as we move forward, we find a way to identify the continuum of services so kids don’t fall through.”

Trustee Cathy Coleman thanked everyone who provided input into the report.

“Things that are bureaucratic like this, they don’t move fast and it can be frustrating… I know this is a really serious issue and a lot of our precious children in the Valley are affected and I know we can do better,” she said.

Britta Johnson expressed gratitude to the “new staff” for allowing someone else to come in and interview and observe the department and follow up by letting the board know about what is going on.

“This is a first step… I’ve been on the board since 2015 and I have to apologize to any students that haven’t been served historically and I’m grateful to the new staff – it’s hard to be new, it’s hard to be new with no documentation about what’s happened before and how we got here,” Johnson said.

Nicole Abate Ducarroz, president of the board of trustees, also thanked the new staff and said she looks forward to what the staff and the report have already outlined to improve the department. Ducarroz has a child and nieces and nephews with disabilities, too, she said.

“I want to apologize to any family, any student, any parent that has had to fight, because we shouldn’t have to fight,” she said. “Luckily for your students, you do speak up, you do come forward. I also feel strongly for those students who don’t have a parent that can be here tonight, that can’t speak up.”

No action was taken at the meeting; the board expects to receive plans from the administration about how it is taking steps to make improvements.

Email Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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