Washington Elementary School fourth grade teacher Dawn Bail instructs her class on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

A disproportionate number of Black and Latino students are enrolled in special education at Berkeley Unified, and over the last five years, those numbers have increased, according to data the school district submitted to the California Department of Education.

This spring, the board approved a plan to address the “significant disproportionality” of Black students in certain special education categories, a requirement for all school districts with racial disparities in their special education enrollment at least three years in a row. BUSD submitted a similar plan to the state during the 2019-20 school year. 

In 2017, a quarter of the Black students in the district were in special education. By 2021, that number increased to 28%, ticking upward by about 1% per year. The share of Latino students in special education also rose from 13.8% to 16.3% over the same period. By comparison, the overall percentage of students in special ed is much lower, though it also increased, from 11.3% to 12.2% of the student body. 

Parents and advocates say the plan — and the data included in it — should be a wake-up call for the district, which has had disproportionate numbers of Black students in special education for years and could soon face the same problem for Latino students.

“I am completely in awe of this district’s complacency around such results, and it is not acceptable,” Laura Babbitt, vice president of the school board, said at an April 13 meeting. “We must work towards real systemic change and dispense with the window dressing.” 

From 2011 to 2016, the state identified BUSD as having too many Black students classified as “emotionally disturbed.”

In 2019-20, BUSD had disproportionate numbers of Black students in special education overall and in certain categories, specifically learning disabilities like dyslexia, intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome, and other health impairments like ADHD. Disparities in the same special education categories are reflected in this year’s plan. 

Read the full 2021 plan Berkeley Unified was required to submit to the state.

The topic is a wrought one in Berkeley schools, where some parents fight to get special education services for their children, while others feel their kids have been unnecessarily placed in the program

“On the one hand, it can be a good thing if we provide the resources to empower these individuals. But the other side of the disability idea is that it can also be used to exclude and stratify,” said Alfredo Artiles, a professor at Stanford University specializing in special education. 

Shawn Mansager, the director of special education at Berkeley Unified, wrote in an email to Berkeleyside that the data reveals “problems with the fairness and effectiveness of the overall educational system that need to be addressed.” 

But however hard a school district works to address disproportionality, factors outside of its control — things like intergenerational poverty and the demographic makeup of its schools — will continue to play a significant role. 

“School systems have their hands tied because they have no way of addressing those broader, troubling effects,” Artiles said.

A plan to address disproportionality

The school board approved the latest Comprehensive Coordinated Early Intervening Services, or CCEIS, plan in April, sharing what the district will do in the coming three years and some data about how the interventions worked this year. 

The latest plan identifies students who are more likely to be referred to special education — who are struggling academically, miss a lot of school, come from low-income families, or have been referred to the office multiple times —  but do not receive special ed services. The idea is to see if schools can help students without putting them in special education. 

It targets a small sample of struggling students in Berkeley schools. There are 173 students included in Berkeley’s 2021-22 plan, 60% of whom are Black, and 36% are Latino. They come from Longfellow Middle School, Berkeley Arts Magnet, Malcolm X Elementary, Oxford Elementary, Washington Elementary and a handful of preschools. 

According to the plan, the students’ test scores, as well as their behavior and attendance, are closely monitored for improvement over the next three years. They should receive a host of support, including tutoring, instructional coaching for their teachers, regular family meetings, and an attendance team looking out for them. 

Instead of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which outlines the services students with disabilities are legally entitled to receive, the chosen students — called “vision scholars” — get Individualized Learning Plans (ILP). 

BUSD allotted $340,000 for its most recent plan, though much more money is devoted to other programs designed to raise achievement and belonging for Black and Latino students such as the STEM Steps Program, Bridge and Umoja.

The government requires that districts spend 15% of their special education dollars on CCEIS. 

Overall, it’s not clear to what extent the 2019-20 plan has helped support Black students without resorting to special education, partly because the pandemic has made the program harder to implement, and enrollment declines make the data harder to understand. 

Over the next two years, the number of Black and Latino students in special education increased, more than students of other races or ethnicities. The total number of students in special education — 12% — held about constant. Since BUSD lost about 900 students over the course of the pandemic, the actual number of students receiving services fell overall, including the number of Black and Latino students.

At the April school board meeting, Ruth Steele-Brown, the district’s director of data and research, shared data on how students in the CCEIS program were faring this year. The data, which shows how students’ test scores changed over the course of the first semester, were somewhat positive for reading but dismal for math. 

The most positive outcome of the program so far is that this year the students receiving support are not falling further behind their peers in reading. Students in the program at Longfellow have made particularly strong gains in reading compared to their peers. It’s a different story in math, where the gap in student outcomes grew larger.

Overall, student outcomes fluctuated between grades, suggesting that standout teachers might be making a big difference in student outcomes. However, the results, which are only for one semester, are tentative. 

The district is expected to give the school board quarterly updates on the progress of the CCEIS program.

The trend is not new: Historically, Black and Latino students have been overrepresented in special education, though the trends vary on the local level.

After the Brown v. Board of Education decision required schools to desegregate in 1954, some Black students were assigned to special education to separate them from white students. Two years after the ruling, the number of students in Washington, D.C.’s special education program doubled. By 1956, 77% of students in the program were Black.

English learners are also more likely to be placed in special education and misdiagnosed with learning disabilities without being tested in their native language

Academics have written about the problem of disproportionality in special education for decades, establishing extensive research on the topic. More recently, the federal government required school districts to do something about it through the CCEIS plans. 

This year, 109 school districts in California were required to submit a CCEIS plan. Of those districts, 29, including Berkeley, had disproportionate numbers of Black students in certain special education categories. Twenty-eight had disproportionate numbers of white students — many were for emotional disturbance — and 48 had disproportionate numbers of Latino students.

In theory, disabilities would be equally distributed across all demographic groups. But in reality, “chronic intergenerational exposure to poverty” impacts child development and increases the likelihood that someone will be diagnosed with a disability, Artiles, the Stanford professor, explained.

Because race and poverty are deeply entwined in the United States, we shouldn’t expect students of different races to be enrolled in special education at the same rates. 

Research by Paul Morgan, who directs the Center for Educational Disparities Research at Pennsylvania State, has called into question long-standing beliefs about race and special education.

In an analysis that gained national media attention, Morgan and other researchers found that Black and Latino students are actually underrepresented in special education when compared to “otherwise similar White, English-speaking children.” Morgan’s findings cast doubt on the federally mandated initiatives to reduce racialized disproportionality. 

Other scholars disagreed, pointing out flaws in Morgan’s research. In a response paper, Artiles and other researchers countered that Morgan’s data shows no evidence that poverty fully accounts for racial disproportionality and that his report ignores the impact of local factors that shape special education enrollment by race, including state, district size, district demographics and disability. For example, Black and Latino students are more commonly overrepresented in special education in districts with more high-income students.

Why is it happening in Berkeley?

The Berkeley school district, advocates, and parents tend to agree on the underlying reasons that there are more Black and Latino students in special education: A failure of the school district to meet the students’ needs in the general education classroom. 

The district’s CCEIS plan lists four “root causes” to explain the persistent racial disproportionality in special education. The reasons included in the plan were developed from interviews with teachers, as well as Black parents and students:

  • The educational community “lacks the political will and focus to make sustained and evidence-based change to improve the outcomes” for Black students
  • The district fails to share data about students’ academic progress
  • The district does not implement culturally responsive instruction or consistent interventions, nor does not discipline students fairly
  • Black students lack caring relationships with adults that could help them succeed.

“To be honest, there has always been a concerted effort to appear to address the problem, which is different from a concerted effort to actually address the problem,” said Jennifer Obidah, a parent who holds a doctorate in education from UC Berkeley and whose daughter just graduated from Berkeley High.” 

To some parents, the plan and the numbers included in it tell a story of a school district repeatedly failing to meet the needs of many Black and Latino students and, instead of addressing that failure, depositing students in special education, raising the issue of misdiagnoses. 

“I get worried when I look at all these English language learners that get placed in special education,” said Gladys Ocampo Stout, a parent involved in Latinos Unidos de Berkeley, a parent advocacy group for Latino students. “It’s hard not to assume” that students are getting placed in special education unnecessarily. There’s such a history of that.” 

Some disabilities are relatively clear cut, like Down syndrome, while others are more subjective, requiring judgment calls from people assessing the child. This is where many fear that bias filters in and lead to misdiagnosis.

“You would think that if a child is placed in special education, they will be placed there because they need it, and not because they’re just lacking in a little area where they can get the extra help,” said La’Shonda, whose son will be in fourth grade next year. (She declined to use her last name.)

La’Shonda’s son isn’t in special education, but he gets extra support in math and reading. With some one-on-one attention, she says her son has succeeded. When La’Shonda learned about how many Black students were in special education, she said it motivated her to get involved with the issue.

One of those alternate resources is a 504 Plan. A step down from an IEP offered to students in special education, the 504 plan affords students tailored support but doesn’t come with the label. Students with a wider range of disabilities are eligible for a 504 plan. The 2019-20 CCEIS plan listed that Black students may be less likely to be offered 504 plans than their peers.

When you look at 504 plans, that racial disproportionality vanishes. From 2017-2020, white students made up 47% of students with 504 plans, while Black students were 12%, Latino students were 18%, and Asian students 7%. 

Tatiana Guerreiro Ramos, a special education advocate, believes the problem isn’t so much that more Black and Latino students are getting Individualized Education Plans (IEPs); rather, schools are failing Black and Latino students in general education and using special education as a band-aid. 

In her job as an advocate, she fights for students to get more special education resources, not less. Though, she agrees that some students are being misdiagnosed. 

“It’s a lack of creativity,” Guerreiro Ramos said. “Sometimes kids don’t need an IEP. What they need is a space where they’re made to feel good about themselves as learners.”

Gaps in student outcomes have persisted for decades, but during the pandemic, many students faced additional challenges, from isolation to financial instability, that set them behind further. 

In 2019, 57% of Black students met UC and CSU course requirements, compared with only 24% of Black students in 2021. The share of white and Latino students who met UC and CSU requirements also plummeted, dropping from 91% to 73% for white students, and 70% to 50% for Latino students, respectively. Asian students meeting UC requirements declined slightly from 78% to 74%.

BUSD has implemented a host of programs over the years to improve outcomes for Black and Latino students. In the last two years, the school board has passed two resolutions specifically dedicated to the academic achievement and belonging of Black and Latino students — the Black Lives Matter and the Latinx resolutions. 

Those resolutions have led to the development of plans over the last year, but it remains to be seen how they will be implemented.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...