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 explored 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.

When parents become advocates

Preschool treated Vicki Davis’s daughter well.

The child was diagnosed with Fragile X syndrome at birth, and by age 3 was still nonverbal. She spent most of her early years in an “integrated” class at Franklin, a Berkeley Unified preschool, where half the kids had special needs and half were “neurotypical,” and the teacher had special-education credentials.

During that time, Davis’s daughter started taking experimental medication and, to the family’s delight, it worked.

“Her condition’s never going to go away, but she started talking, she potty-trained. But she still needed a lot of services,” Davis said. When she began kindergarten at Malcolm X Elementary, the district begged to differ. Administrators saw how well she’d been doing in preschool and didn’t believe she needed heavy accommodations, Davis said.

The mother tried to explain, yes, “she looks like she’s thriving in this moment — because of this support structure.” The child’s diagnosis includes anxiety and ADHD, which “really affect her ability to learn.” She also has an executive functioning deficit, meaning she has trouble figuring out how things work or inferring instructions that aren’t explicitly spelled out.

“When you observe her in the spring in a classroom, she looks often like everybody else,” Davis said. By the second half of the year, “she learned the routine and knows what she’s supposed to be doing. She’s an accommodating, good student, and she tries really hard, but if you put her in an environment she’s unfamiliar with, and she can’t figure out what to do or how to behave, she freaks out and has a meltdown.”

The mother pleaded for a classroom aide, and the district finally agreed to a 30-day trial. When BUSD tried to remove the support at the month’s end, “the teacher’s like, ‘Absolutely not, she needs the aide in class,'” Davis recalled.

“That year was when I really learned a lot about BUSD. To fight to get the support my child really needed to do well,” Davis said. “But once we had additional services and the team [at Malcolm X] really recognized her needs, it was a fairly conflict-free relationship.”

When speaking to Berkeleyside, parents, staff and special-education experts largely praised Berkeley Unified’s full-inclusion approach to special education, where nearly all students learn in the same classrooms. But some asked who, exactly, is “included”? Are there kids who are denied resources, kids who get identified for special education inappropriately, or kids who keep struggling even when they get all the help available?

Many special-education parents told Berkeleyside they, like Davis, had taken on advocacy roles for their kids and had been disturbed to find some School Board members and administrators seemed unfamiliar with special-ed pedagogy and law.

“Most parents — regardless of race, income, whatever — just want to send their kids to school and know they’re doing well,” said Cheryl Theis, education advocate with Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. “They don’t want to hear: Welcome to special ed, you have a part-time job.”

A middle-school special-education mother, Ari Fellows-Mannion, said her family’s experience in Berkeley schools started off rough. She described a “learning curve so steep I was falling over backwards.” She was initially told her son wasn’t eligible for an early-childhood program, then later learned she was never given a legally required list of parents’ rights, she said.

She’s considering pursuing a non-public school placement for him, where he’ll be in a smaller, calmer setting, with staff trained to serve students like him. She’s grateful to many Berkeley educators, but said systemic failures and a lack of funding together fostered an inhospitable environment for her son.

Racial disparities in special education

A contentious piece of a a recent district-commissioned report on BUSD special education, by William Gillaspie of Educational Strategic Planning, said special-ed students are slightly over-identified in Berkeley — 11% are eligible for services compared to the state average of 10%.

“Most parents… don’t want to hear: Welcome to special ed, you have a part-time job.”

To the many parents who’ve begged the district for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) — an accommodation and academic plan for a student with disabilities — that stung. Parents told Berkeleyside they’ve had to push and pull with the district to get help they and medical professionals felt their children were entitled to.

“For a parent who’s had to fight for an IEP for a kid who has a medical diagnosis that is not going away, [I can tell you] there are not just parents who are magically getting IEPs, who don’t have any needs,” Davis said.

The topic of over- or under-identification is sensitive, in Berkeley and beyond. While some families get fed-up begging for special services and pull their kids out of the district, some others, and particularly parents of black students, say their children were inappropriately identified for special education.

According to data provided by BUSD, 418, or 37%, of students with IEPs are African-American this academic year. Yet the overall African-American population, which has been shrinking yearly, made up only 16% of the BUSD student body in 2016-17.  White students had grown to make up 40% of BUSD by last year, but are only 22% of the students with IEPs this year. Latino and Asian students are reflected more proportionally.

Rosa Bay, the director of the Education Advocacy Clinic at the East Bay Community Law Center, represents many families of black students in Berkeley special education. Her clients, she said, are often placed in special day classes or sent to non-public schools, which are publicly-funded but privately-run.

“The model is wonderful — including students with disabilities in general education classrooms as much as appropriate,” said Bay. But “from my vantage point, black students are often falling outside of what we think about when we think about full inclusion.”

While the district racks up legal fees settling with parents who want out, BUSD also litigates against families, including with the intention of getting them to let BUSD send their children to outside schools, according to Bay.

“The district can be pretty heavy-handed in using their resources to get families to go along with the plan,” she said. Often parents come to her “not represented and totally stressed out.”

The Berkeley School Board has declared special education a priority for the district this year. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On the other side of the equation, one Cragmont parent told the School Board recently that her son had been thriving in the school’s separate “special day class,” until he was mainstreamed when it closed. The mother had quit her job to help out in her son’s fifth-grade class and help him not act out. She spoke alongside other parents, and a girl who told disturbing stories about being bullied by some classmates. All pleaded with the board for more support in an inclusion class where a single teacher was not equipped to manage numerous conflicts that had arisen between kids with and without behavioral challenges.

“There’s a lot of kids in that classroom that need support immediately,” the mother of the fifth-grade boy said. “This is my child, he’s a baby, a little black boy….Being black alone is hard, being black with a disability is even harder. Then you add behaviors on top of that, which are a result of the disability.”

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District leaders acknowledge the racial gap, which is seen in many other districts too, and have said they’re exploring how 504 Plans might be used to reach more students, and especially students of color who might be misidentified for special education. Like IEPs, 504s lay out plans for accommodations, but the criteria to qualify for a 504 is more expansive, including attention and learning issues that would not make a student eligible for special education.

Currently, of the 345 students with 504s, 186, or 53%, are white. Eighteen percent are Latino, 14% multiracial, 12% African American and 1% Asian.

Like many facets of special education, the 504 Plan is nuanced and double-edged. While the district has said 504s could be used to provide services to students who shouldn’t be in special education, Gillaspie’s report said BUSD sometimes uses 504s to “circumvent the special education process.”

What causes the racial disproportionality in Berkeley and other districts in the first place? Some say it’s a systemic failure to reach black students — who are more likely to live in poverty and may have higher needs early on, or who may be less understood by or trusting of white educators — during the foundational early years when a child’s brain is still developing rapidly.

African-American students make up 37% of special education, but 16% of BUSD.

Karen Hemphill, the only black School Board member, said she believes African-American students are too often misidentified in Berkeley.

“If a child is now in third grade and is not reading, or is behind in math, and is getting frustrated…and at age 8 or 9 is embarrassed, humiliated, and having self-esteem issues — I’m not an educator in that way, but that’s special ed?” Hemphill said in an interview.

If a parent is offered special services for a struggling child, of course they’ll embrace it, Hemphill said, but she said the district should take a closer look at the root cause of the disproportionality.

“Either you believe that inherently that many more black children than white children are born with developmental issues that require them to receive education only through special-ed services — that’s kind of racist — or you understand it to be a failure of general ed,” Hemphill said.

The long-time School Board member said low expectations of black students are often to blame, in her view.

She recalled attending a conference with her son’s science teacher at Longfellow Middle School years ago. A bright student and the son of two highly educated and involved parents, it was no surprise to Hemphill that her child had an A in the class. The teacher was more impressed.

“Did it ever occur to you that he might be college material?” the teacher asked.

“I was so in shock and so was my husband,” Hemphill said. If that’s how the teacher responded to a high-achiever, “what is he thinking about that black kid who’s barely passing?” she wondered.

Nearly all Berkeley classrooms are “inclusion” classrooms, meaning students with disabilities learn alongside their “neurotypical” peers. Photo: BUSD

Other times students are exhibiting serious behavior problems, but educators without “cultural competency” training — which many teachers in Berkeley want more of — might not understand why, Hemphill said. “They tried to label me as ’emotionally disturbed’ [one of the disabilities recognized by federal special-ed law] when I was 7,” she said. And no wonder — she had kicked the principal in the shin and was getting into regular fights. But Hemphill was also the only black child in her Maryland school in 1963, and was teased mercilessly, told by the principal to comb her hair, and followed home by kids who called her “the n-word,” she said.

“Children are emotional beings. Sometimes they don’t have words, but behavior,” she said.

These days there is a movement to instate “trauma-informed” teaching practices, designed to reach kids who come into school scared, distracted and otherwise ill-prepared to learn at the pace of their peers.

There are many structures already in place in BUSD intended to redirect students who show signs of academic difficulty.

At each K-8 school, students are identified for Response to Instruction and Intervention. The “multi-tiered system of supports” ranges from “the use of best instructional practices by the classroom teachers designed to differentiate the curriculum…to small group instruction…to very specific one-on-one interventions,” BUSD said.

“Children are emotional beings. Sometimes they don’t have words, but behavior.”

That can prove more challenging at BHS, due to the sheer size and complexity of the academic program, the district said, but educators hope the new “universal ninth grade” program, which includes an extra academic support class and more attention from teachers, will address the issue. Lower-level schools have literacy coaches as well.

However, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund sued BUSD last year on behalf of families claiming the district failed to identify kids with dyslexia or provide them with legally-mandated accommodations. The ongoing class-action case highlights a conversation that’s happened around the country and has resurged lately. Dyslexia, affecting one in five people, according to researchers, has been called a “civil rights issue of our time” by Yale University. Many districts use a teaching approach determined by research to be inappropriate for kids with dyslexia, who experts say learn best through phonics.

The School Board will consider adopting a phonics-based curriculum for K-3 at its next meeting.

“I feel like he’s being punished for being autistic”

Parents have also expressed concern that students, and particularly students of color, are being disciplined for behavior that’s out of their control or a manifestation of a disability — another issue that is not unique to Berkeley.

As of late April, there had been 51 suspensions, mostly in middle and high school, in 2017-18, according to BUSD. Half of those were for students with IEPs.

“Berkeley has one of the most progressive school discipline policies I’ve ever seen. They’re really trying,” said Bay, who represents families from Oakland and Hayward too. But she said there’s still work to be done, and black students are vulnerable to “the biases we carry.” The students she’s seen in special day classes are subject to “hyper-surveillance” in her view, where their every move is written down and their behavior “pathologized.”

When those students are sent to non-public placements, they’re sometimes turned away because they have discipline records, Bay said.

Kids check out books at the Washington Elementary library. The district has been sued over its treatment of dyslexia, but is implementing curricular changes next year. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Some special-ed parents said their kids’ disabilities are misunderstood and inappropriately punished.

One mother, who asked not to be named, said her elementary-aged son was diagnosed with autism in kindergarten. His social and communication challenges manifested in violent behavior that year — “hitting, hands around necks…He would refuse to do classwork in class, and crawled around on the floor making animal noises,” she said.

Sometimes when he’s refused to do work — common among kids with autism, the mother said — his recess has been restricted, or he’s been put out in the hallway unsupervised to take a break and reset. (Berkeleyside reviewed communications confirming this happened.) The behaviors were inappropriate, the mother said, but she believes the particular responses were too.

BUSD policy says, “Recess restriction should not be imposed for behavior, actions, or incomplete work that are a result of a child’s disability.”

“I feel like he’s being punished for being autistic — which is what an IEP at its heart is supposed to prevent,” the mother said.

Where to go from here

The issues raised around Berkeley special education — from racial disparities and identification woes to staffing challenges and training deficits — are par for the course in this country’s chronically under-funded special-ed systems, some say. (Read more about the state of special education and difficulties of the job in Part I.)

The district’s recognition of some of the challenges, and the educators who have managed to provide stellar schooling for many children in spite of systemic barriers, should be celebrated, said some people who spoke with Berkeleyside.

“I still believe Berkeley is doing a hard job fairly well,” said one employee at Willard Middle School, which has been held up as a model inclusion school.

For almost every assertion — positive or negative — made about BUSD special education in numerous interviews, a counter-example was provided by someone else.

That inconsistency is a primary source of the problem, according to consultant Gillaspie.

“The district’s director of special education has inherited a…delivery system without policy, procedure and systems,” read the first line of his introduction. Now, with that director leaving, a new one will be tasked with implementing whichever of Gillaspie’s many recommendations BUSD chooses to adopt.

“Berkeley is doing a hard job fairly well.”

Despite the harsh evaluation, Gillaspie told Berkeleyside, “it’s all fixable,” and praised the district for taking on the challenge.

“We agree there’s work to be done to ensure all staff are familiar with the district’s practices and policies,” BUSD said. “We engaged in this evaluation process willingly as part of ongoing efforts to improve our programs and services to students and are working on prioritizing the recommendations that will be most effective.”

The priorities are professional development, better integrating special and general education, and boosting principals’ roles in the system, said Associate Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi at a School Board meeting.

Superintendents in Berkeley’s Special Education Local Plan Area — the group of districts that comes up with a regional special-ed model and receives state funds — are also working to adopt a “common blueprint that includes agreed upon best practices, policies and procedure,” which will “help us contain the cost of our special education programs and be more consistent,” BUSD said

Others said a more radical makeover is in order.

“Berkeley was on the cutting edge when they established full inclusion,” said Eli*, a former King Middle School special-ed aide. But “I have not seen places where it’s been done effectively, really, other than in the amazing three Berkeley preschools. My opinion is it’s time to take another leap of faith.”

Still others questioned how much can really change within the confines of a school district reliant on limited state support.

In an ideal and well-funded education system, Malcolm X aide Simone* fantasized, all children — those who do well in conventional classrooms and those who learn and behave differently — would receive an education custom-fitted to their personal needs.

“No two people learn the same,” she said.

*Some names have been changed by request.

Ed. note: This story previously referred to special-ed students being sent to private schools. Instead, the district sometimes pays for students to learn at “non-public schools,” which are privately-run but funded by public institutions. 

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Natalie Orenstein

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,...