Berkeley Unified has taken an unusually ambitious approach to serving students with special needs. Has the district done enough to ensure its success?

In a special two-part series, Berkeleyside is examining BUSD’s special-education model, as the district evaluates its own program and prepares for departmental changes. 

In Part I, we explore what special education is all about in Berkeley, and whether the district has met its impressive goals. In Part II, we take a look at who exactly is “included” in Berkeley’s “full inclusion” model, who feels left out, and why the racial breakdown doesn’t mirror the rest of the district.

Welcome to special education

Each day at the beginning of class, the remedial math teacher gave Eli a list of names.

The sheet noted which students might need help that day, and with what. Eli*, a special-education aide at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, would glance discreetly at the list, then begin floating around the class.

As the teacher lectured, Eli would stoop down to work with certain kids, “making sure comprehension was actually happening…not depending on kids raising their hands.” His path around the class would signal to the teacher who’d need more attention when his lesson concluded.

In another class, Eli was assigned to a student with severe ADD. He’d pull the student out of the room when his energy reached a certain level, ensuring the class could continue at pace, and the kid could reset.

Throughout his years as an aide, or instructional assistant (IA), at King, each experience Eli had looked different from the next. Some classroom dynamics were tough. Eli worked in a science class where his assigned student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) — a plan to accommodate a student with disabilities and lay out goals for academic progress — allowed the student to use a calculator on assignments when his peers were doing mental math. Nevertheless, the teacher said that wouldn’t be acceptable.

Eli’s experience reflects Berkeley Unified’s “full inclusion” approach to special education, where students with disabilities learn alongside their peers in the same classrooms, sometimes with the help of an aide, a digital device, or “pull-out” with speech therapists and other specialists. While there are a few separate classes for students with serious behavioral challenges, in the vast majority of cases, the 1,136 Berkeley students with identified disabilities — from reading disorders to autism to Down syndrome — learn in inclusion settings.

Berkeley Unified was early to adopt full inclusion, now widely considered the most effective and ethical way to deliver special education. And it remains the Bay Area district where it’s implemented most extensively.

But even its fiercest advocates say full inclusion must be executed properly or it can cause harm to those it tries to help. They say full inclusion must be put into practice by coordinated, well-trained and well-paid professionals, and backed by administrators and sufficient funding.

And that is not happening consistently throughout Berkeley Unified, according to many families and educators.

Although in many cases inclusion works beautifully in Berkeley — with dedicated adults collaborating to help all students learn the way they need to, and have a right to — in others, a lack of training, lack of funds, lack of communication and fiscal mismanagement produces results that don’t reflect the program’s ambitions.

A school bus leaves Berkeley High after dropping off special-education students. BUSD provides transportation services to many students whose IEPs require them. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Teachers and staff in Berkeley have been sounding the alarm about the lack of special-ed training in the district for a long time. They say classroom teachers haven’t been sufficiently trained to understand the wildly diverse needs of their students. Aides, who often end up working most closely with their students, don’t need coursework in special education to get hired, and their pay is commensurate with the lack of required experience.

There are other concerns about Berkeley’s special-ed program. Some parents say they’ve fought desperately to get their kids the help they need, and others say students — disproportionately black children — are in special education for behavioral issues resulting from needs that could have been addressed earlier.

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Special-ed costs are rising throughout California and Berkeley, and legal fees and non-public school placements for kids who can’t thrive in Berkeley schools are no small part of the budget.

In examining BUSD’s approach to special education, Berkeleyside spoke with numerous teachers, staff members, parents, elected officials and experts, and looked at data and information provided by the district, and a report recently commissioned by BUSD to assess its special-education spending and effectiveness.

Berkeleyside also asked BUSD to let this reporter observe an elementary-school inclusion classroom, but the district denied the request, citing privacy concerns. When Berkeleyside offered to keep every person in the classroom anonymous, the district still said no, saying the presence of a reporter in the classroom could cause a distraction, even though Berkeleyside only asked to observe a 10-minute lesson.

BUSD and the Berkeley School Board have acknowledged some of the challenges with special education, and declared the program to be a priority this year. A new special-ed director, Jan Hamilton, is coming on board in July, and new community advisory committees — a forceful recommendation in the report — are being assembled.

With these changes on the horizon, and with the light shed on issues that need attention, both in the report and at public meetings, some parents and staff are hoping this is Berkeley’s chance to make a paradigm shift in how some of the district’s most vulnerable students are served.

The state of special education

The landmark federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), first passed in 1975 under a different name, mandates that children with special needs receive a “Free Appropriate Public Education” custom-fitted to their needs. Kids with any of 13 types of disabilities — physical, psychological, learning or intellectual disabilities that affect their learning — qualify for special education and an IEP. Under what’s called the Child Find mandate, districts must proactively identify eligible students.

Educating and caring for children who have a range of complex needs — especially in standard classrooms — is costly.

“Full inclusion is a very difficult model and Berkeley is one of the few that’s really embraced it.”

In California, funding for special education is based on the total number of students, not the population with disabilities, a structure intended to avoid encouraging districts to identify kids for special education. However, the number of students with certain disabilities, such as autism, is growing, as are healthcare costs, and the money has not kept up.

Education leaders across the state feel they’re in a bind, lacking the funds they need to fully serve anyone, let alone students with higher needs.

Data shared in a recent BUSD presentation showed special-ed costs have risen 55% in California since 2005-06, and the portion school districts are responsible for has grown 100%. Two fairly recent reports, from the Statewide Task Force on Special Education (2015) and the Public Policy Institute of California (2016), both found special education is under- and unequally funded.

While the fiscal issues — along with concerns around staffing and identification — are common statewide, Berkeley faces its own challenges.

“Full inclusion is a very difficult model and Berkeley is one of the few that’s really embraced it,” said William Gillaspie, CEO of Educational Strategic Planning, who wrote the BUSD special-ed report and has done more than 100 similar assessments throughout California. “We don’t see it a lot throughout the state for a lot of reasons. It’s a great concept but a lot of difficulties come with it in the area of training and capacity in classrooms. Kids with challenges really need that support.”

The power of inclusion

Berkeley Unified began building its full-inclusion model around 2000. The district closed “special day classes,” where students with disabilities were taught together, separate from others, and began “mainstreaming” those students into the general classrooms.

“That was a really big moment for me as a teacher, and for us as a district, to be able to say any student could go to any school and have access to any services,” said Julie Venuto, a districtwide special-ed teacher who used to work as an “inclusion teacher” supporting classrooms at Sylvia Mendez Elementary (called LeConte at the time).

An aide at King Middle School said his experience was often positive, though he felt undermined in some classrooms. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Much of the current thinking and research on full inclusion comes from the Bay Area, including the prominent work of Ann Halvorsen and Jacki Anderson at Cal State East Bay.

Many studies, since at least the 1990s, have suggested inclusion has academic benefits for students with disabilities. A 2012 study of tens of thousands of students with a range of disabilities by the Massachusetts Department of Education found their English scores were positively correlated with time spent in inclusion classes. In 2013, a study found math and reading achievement increased when students ages 6 to 9 with a range of disabilities were in general-ed classes.

“That was a really big moment for me as a teacher…to be able to say any student could go to any school.”

In Berkeley, like in most districts, students with disabilities do achieve much lower than their “neurotypical” peers by some metrics. According to data reported to the state last year, special-ed students had a 73% graduation rate, compared to the general 90%, and scored “very low” on English and math tests compared to the “high” mark given to the whole district on the California School Dashboard. However, some say those measures might not be reflective of those students’ or the district’s successes, as “special education” encompasses kids with such a wide range of learning styles and cognitive capabilities, who wouldn’t be expected to mirror neurotypical classmates

It’s not just kids with special needs who can benefit from full inclusion. In 2004, a study of six school districts in Indiana found students without disabilities made significant progress in reading and math when taught in inclusive settings, compared to their peers in segregated classes. Other studies have found neutral effects on neurotypical kids. When done right, inclusive teaching includes strategies meant to reach a wide swath of students, whether they have an identified learning disorder or not.

Parents and staff told Berkeleyside that inclusion empowers students with disabilities in BUSD, and gives peers a sense of respect and tolerance for differences.

Cheryl Theis, education advocate with Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF), remembered a moment that drove home the power of inclusion for her, and the value of supportive staff. Theis’s son is on the autism spectrum, and struggled socially in school, but had strong tech skills. One day, he was working with his occupational therapist on an engineering task. The therapist asked the whole class, “Who else wants to take apart a computer?” Kids rushed over and the boy got to show off his chops to his impressed classmates, who learned something in the process.

“For the first time this kid has friends and is cool because he’s a programmer,” said Theis, who works with families in the Bay Area. “Now he’s 21 years old and makes six figures. Inclusion worked for him, because thoughtful and caring teachers went the extra mile.”

Artwork by Josh Austin’s BHS students with “moderate to severe” disabilities reminds classmates to “be safe” and “be kind.” Photo: Natalie Orenstein

At King, students treated their classmates with disabilities “almost always amazingly beautifully,” said Eli, who also has a child in Berkeley special education. “This is one of the reasons why I live in Berkeley. It’s the best part of full inclusion.” As an aide, he often assisted many students instead of singling out his charges, to help “make the stigma go away,” he said.

At the high-school level, there are still some special day classes for students with IEPs. Even there, teachers find opportunities for their students to interact with peers.

Special-education teacher Josh Austin is the staff advisor for Best Buddies, the Berkeley chapter of a national club that pairs students with and without disabilities, and teaches academic courses and a life-skills class where his students prepare and sell breakfast to peers and staff.

“Most of the general-education students are really warm and friendly,” Austin said. “They teach a lot of social justice in general-ed classes, so they’re very accepting of differences. Compared to my high school, where we never saw a student with a [severe] disability because they were sequestered.”

A general-ed student in Best Buddies, Mia Jeffrey, 16, stopped by Austin’s class’s cafe between periods on a recent morning, and said hi to her buddy. The buddy is one of the “tons of friends” Jeffrey has made through the “non-judgmental” club, she said, including some special-ed students she’d had classes with in middle school.

Jeffrey had her choice of sugary pick-me-ups that morning, laid out on a table carefully by students during first period. Those teenagers, students with “moderate to severe” disabilities, had spent the busy hour buzzing around the room, completing their respective tasks, after their daily stretching and “quiet time” exercises. Three students said their favorite part of the class was learning about money, “like how much change to give back,” said one boy.

Helping oversee the elaborate program were several staffers, plus Stuart Williams, a 2013 graduate of BHS special education. He had such a good time that he came back to volunteer in Austin’s class and with an administrator, who’s given him the title of “vice director of student activities.” Williams’s goal is to get a permanent position as an aide for students with disabilities.

“I liked the program. I want to be an aide because I want to teach students life skills,” said Williams, who said the staff who worked with him as a student “showed me support.”

Berkeley High students line up to purchase snacks prepared by students in Josh Austin’s (in green shirt) life skills class. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“At least at our school, BUSD does a really good job at making the environment inclusive,” said Vicki Davis, a special-education parent at Malcolm X who’s familiarized herself with the ins and outs of the system and has pushed the district to make improvements. “I think it’s better for the community and the children if they’re integrated, because that’s the world. They’re not going to be in a protected environment when they get out,” but, she noted, “they need the appropriate supports.”

Families like Davis’s are not supposed to only rely on the goodwill of educators to facilitate inclusion. IDEA actually requires districts to let students learn in the “least restrictive environment,” with all their peers at their home school, whenever possible, though many haven’t gotten there.

In BUSD, students with IEPs can be “pulled out” of class for small-group instruction and services like occupational therapy, or get “push-in” from an aide who modifies the lesson so they can follow along with their classmates. There are inclusion teachers at each school who oversee a number of students and meet with their aides and classroom teachers.

“There is significant variance in the amount of time students spend in a comprehensive classroom, and how much they are pulled out to receive specific educational and behavioral supports and other special education services,” according to the district. “Our goal is to provide students the opportunity to learn in the least restrictive educational environment as much as possible while meeting the needs set forth in their IEP.”

Lisa Graham, the current director of special education who is moving out of state next year, declined to speak with Berkeleyside, citing pending litigation, but district administrators sent thorough written responses to a list of questions.

The remaining special day classes in Berkeley, called “counseling-enriched classes,” are often taught by staff from the private agency Seneca. King and Longfellow middle schools each have one such class, and Berkeley High has three. One at Cragmont was abruptly shut down this year, but BUSD plans to open a new elementary special day class in 2018-19.

Some students struggle in full inclusion — at a cost to them and the district

While most everyone agrees inclusion is a good goal, some say, realistically, not all students can thrive in those settings.

“When I went to SF State, there was a political movement to bring about inclusion,” said Austin. “The disabled community demanded access to general education, and I understand where that came from. But it’s not always appropriate” to put all students in inclusion classes. “I think at higher grade levels, the [academic] gap widens. If my students were included in core academic classes, you’d have to give an alternative curriculum. They would be in the same room but not experiencing the same thing.”

There’s a line in IDEA about mainstreaming kids to “the maximum extent appropriate” — and unsurprisingly, there are different interpretations of what “appropriate” means.

Ari Fellows-Mannion is a middle-school parent who feels she’s exhausted her options in BUSD.

“My son has multiple disabilities and super-high anxiety. It’s starting to manifest like pre-psychosis,” she said. “He’s basically getting all the services he could,” yet “he’s overwhelmed by his environment” and doesn’t have friends.

“I tried to work within the system, and my kid is falling off a cliff.”

Some teachers haven’t known how to address his needs, and others have tried to but had limited time or training.

“I think it’s possible that if he’d gotten the kind of early-intervention services we thought he needed and were written into his IEP, he may well be in a different situation,” Fellows-Mannion said. “But it’s also true that there is a certain small number of kids for whom inclusion just won’t work.”

“It’s a big systemic problem and it all has to do with money,” she said. “I don’t blame anybody, and I tried to work within the system, and my kid is falling off a cliff…I think what’s going to benefit him is a smaller-size classroom, a slower pace,” and teachers trained to reach students like him.

“While inclusion is certainly what we all strive for, there are certainly cases where it just might not be appropriate for all children,” Davis said. “There used to be a special day class for autism at Rosa Parks [Elementary]…for kids who really needed it, they had a place to go. Now parents have to go to litigation or a non-public school if they’re not getting their needs met in the district.”

According to Gillaspie’s report, BUSD spent more than $1.4 million in 2016-17 sending kids to “non-public schools” — privately-run institutions for kids with certain disabilities. There are currently 35 students in those placements, according to the district, and they cost BUSD upwards of $40,000 each on average, or twice as much as it costs to serve a special-education student in the district, according to Gillaspie.

In a presentation to the School Board in May, district staff said 58 students were served by 17 different agencies total this year. In one (unusual) case, it cost BUSD $200,000 to serve one student at another school.

William Gillaspie, of Educational Strategic Planning, presented the findings of his BUSD special education evaluation at the School Board meeting Dec. 6, 2017. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Gillaspie wrote that the district asserted those students could not be served in BUSD, “but data was unavailable to indicate what the district needs to retain those students.”

“Every effort should be made to return students to the least restrictive environment, their home district,” the report said. Gillaspie found schools were not consistently aware of the written procedure for transferring a student to a non-public school.

Often the non-public placements are results of expensive and bitter litigation brought by families who feel unserved by BUSD.

“Many families are in conflict with the district on meeting their child’s individual needs, and consequently, due process and parent complaints are common. The legal expense to settle agreements between parents and school are costly and create a sense of mistrust,” the report said.

Legal settlements in Berkeley totaled more than $1 million in 2016-17, much higher than most districts’ costs, Gillaspie said.

Theis, the advocate with Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, called these fees “the hidden cost of not doing this right.” Without investing more in special education from the outset, BUSD might end up paying more to fix things, she said. (DREDF is currently engaged in a lawsuit against BUSD.)

Legal settlements in Berkeley totaled more than $1 million in 2016-17.

“The lawyers have caught on — you can catch them not doing something right. Then the settlements are confidential and no precedent is set,” Theis said.

Some have cautioned against comparing Berkeley’s spending with state averages, as was done throughout the report, which noted that BUSD’s cost per student is higher than average in California, as is the portion of the general fund spent on special education.

Many people who spoke with Berkeleyside noted California spends much less per student than many other states — and less than the national average — and special-ed students cost more to educate. When you attempt full inclusion, costs — of staffing, services and materials — are going to spike as well.

“To have a high-quality program we’re trying to have here, we should look at best practices and not necessarily statewide averages or Ed Code maximums,” Austin said.

Can the district do more to make inclusion successful?

Some parents and educators say the students who fall through the cracks can be served by full inclusion — if the program achieves more of its goals. They say there are steps the district can take to support more of those kids.

Ask anyone dissatisfied with Berkeley’s full-inclusion system what could help improve it — short of a benevolent gift from a wealthy donor or a major state policy overhaul — and they’ll uniformly call for more training for staff and classroom teachers.

A current job listing for a BUSD instructional assistant says candidates must have completed high school and have some experience working with students with special needs. Current aides said they were required to take written and oral exams, but did not need any relevant coursework or licenses. And they’re paid accordingly.

“I take home under $2,000 a month,” said Malcolm X aide Simone*, who works around 30 hours a week, and doesn’t get paid in the summer. She noted she receives excellent benefits, but said many of her coworkers have second jobs. “People do whatever they have to,” she said.

“I cannot stress enough that we have no training. What am I supposed to do when another kid is at risk?”

Inclusion teachers do need special-education credentials, and there are two at each school, one licensed to teach students with “mild to moderate” disabilities and one for “moderate to severe” needs. Classroom teachers do not need additional special-education training, and in many teacher training programs, candidates take just one course on teaching kids with special needs.

“In a full inclusion model, it is very important teachers be trained and skilled at differentiation and providing effective behavioral supports as well as having an understanding of the learning challenges of special education students,” BUSD told Berkeleyside. “That’s why teacher leaders, principals and other educational leaders provide workshops and training opportunities for teachers and staff that are woven throughout the year, and in particular on the two district-wide staff development days.”

Staff said that’s not enough.

“I cannot stress enough that we have no training,” said Simone, who’s worked at other schools too. “It’s hard for me to fathom. We get thrown into some really difficult situations.”

Simone recalled a student she worked with who had aggressive tendencies and struggled during recess.

“A couple times I caught him basically choking a kid — and I’m not supposed to touch him,” Simone said, because she hadn’t been trained to handle such situations.

“What am I supposed to do when another kid is at risk? I have to stand there and wait for the Crisis Prevention Intervention team to come help me,” she said. Typically a few adults, including the principal, are trained to respond to crises. Simone said there’s 10 hours of training needed for those situations. She’d received the first six hours during the two-day district trainings — twice.

“If you have an aggressive kid, you need that last part. You need to know how to safely restrain and remove a kid from a situation that isn’t safe for them and others,” she said.

An instructional assistant told Berkeleyside it’s challenging to keep all students safe during recess with the level of training she’s received. Photo of Washington Elementary: Natalie Orenstein

Some schools have figured out how to create formal and informal training opportunities for all staff. In 2013, Willard was selected by the Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation as a model inclusive school, and staff said inclusion is ingrained in the school’s culture.

“That’s the spillover of good inclusion program, as opposed to a special-education program that’s sequestered, where staff are all stuck out in a bungalow by the football field,” said a Willard employee who asked not to be named. “If you have them embedded in the curriculum of a school, and they’re at the staff meetings, sharing specific skills around behavior and modifying curriculum up and down  — the Universal Design For Learning idea — that gets spread out to all the staff.”

But, the employee said, “unfortunately we don’t control what the district mandates.”

District staff say they’re committed to carving out more time for training, but say it’s hard to find.

“We don’t have an expansive amount of professional development time relative to the huge amount we want to build capacity in,” said Associate Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi at a School Board meeting.

Paula Phillips, president of the classified staff union, said there have been ongoing talks about expanding training, but so far nothing geared specifically to aides.

Additionally, she said, aides are often left out of IEP meetings and conversations about kids’ needs.

Aides said they wished they could see their students’ IEPs before they met the kids. Sometimes that happens, but often they don’t see the accommodation plan — of the student they’re supposed to be accommodating — until long after the school year’s begun. Sometimes they just get a cursory glance, but don’t get to see the students’ stated learning and behavioral goals, staff said.

“It’s interesting because we’re the ones who work closest to students. We can give more information,” Phillips said.

And although there is no district policy prohibiting instructional assistants from talking to parents, many said they’ve been told not to.

Simone said she can most effectively help students when she’s in communication with their families — to share what’s going on with the child day-to-day, and to learn what’s happening at home that might affect behavior. As is, the inclusion teacher is supposed to be the intermediary, but they’re often swamped with dozens of cases.

“The law says an aide only can provide instruction if they’re working under close supervision,” Theis said. “Berkeley has taken that to mean a once-a-week check-in” between the inclusion teacher and staffer. (It differs between schools. Some aides told Berkeleyside they meet with their case manager daily, and others hardly ever.)

Gillaspie’s report said the department is actually overstaffed, with positions like inclusion teachers, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists working with caseloads smaller than the state average and legal maximum.

Parents and educators both said those calculations were made out of context.

“The number of special education teachers needed to serve students with IEPs is much higher in a full inclusion model like ours,” BUSD told Berkeleyside. “This is because a full inclusion teacher who pushes into the general education classroom to serve students with IEPs cannot always serve as many students in one day as one might be able to do in a more restrictive environment.”

Willard Middle School has been recognized as a model inclusion school, where staff and teachers collaborate to serve all students. Photo: Nancy Rubin

There are debates around the staffing structure and distribution of students within schools, too. Some advocate for “clustering” — grouping kids with disabilities together so they feel less isolated and so schools can invest in training a few teachers to work with that population. Others say that can look like segregation, especially since kids of color are disproportionately represented in special education. The Berkeley teachers union contract also requires that students with learning needs be distributed as evenly as possible among classrooms.

As for the dynamic between the aide and the classroom teacher, many staffers said they had mostly experienced supportive “co-teaching” relationships, while in other cases they felt they took on the bulk of the work.

“Full inclusion is the IA giving direct service hours to the students because the teachers don’t have either the skillset, the training or the time to include our children at the level they need,” BHS aide Linnette Robinson said. “That is no fault of their own — that is the district hiding under an umbrella of ‘full inclusion.’”

What Theis calls “education by aide” is, she said, “a national crisis.” She said it’s “particularly true in Berkeley, that general-ed teachers rely on these aides.”

However, Simone cautioned against dismissing the positive role classroom teachers play in all students’ lives and learning.

“From the outside, and even as an aide, it’s easy to say the classroom teacher is not doing enough for special-needs kids,” she said. “Sometimes that’s true, from lack of training. But being a gen-ed teacher is really important and valuable. [They’ve learned] what it takes to manage a classroom” and often know each students’ learning style intimately.

When Venuto was an inclusion teacher at LeConte, she said it was hard to come by time to collaborate with classroom teachers, but she nevertheless loved the partnership and “gained so much in that relationship.”

“I felt comfortable walking into any classroom, stepping in to support any student,” she said.

Some staff and teachers told Berkeleyside that, regardless of the challenges, they love their jobs.

One aide lit up while describing how her non-verbal student with Down syndrome just learned to communicate using a “talker,” or a digital communication device, after the pair had tried many different approaches.

Andrew Herrera, an aide with a private agency, was hired by a student’s family years ago and has gone class-to-class with the student though middle and high school.

“When I met him, we just built this relationship right away,” Herrera said. Now the student is in Austin’s life skills class, and proudly wheels around a coffee cart, selling goods to staff across campus. On a recent morning he got a tip, for meeting expectations that a staffer had set earlier in the week.

Herrera said the student loved learning in the inclusion setting when he was younger.

Even when it meant working on sentences when his peers were learning paragraphs, “he always wanted to do what everybody else is doing.”

*Some names have been changed by request.

Don’t miss Part II of “Spotlight on Special Education” tomorrow. 

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...