When Superintendent Don Austin arrived in the Palo Alto Unified School District last summer, he was surprised to learn that the special-education department was separate from educational services, an atypical structure he now says created silos that hindered communication and progress.
He announced at Tuesday's school board meeting that special education will now be housed within educational services, as most districts do, with a series of reorganized positions. This means special education staff will be part of weekly meetings, professional development planning and other elements of educational services' work.
"Our system, not the people, created division lines between general education and special education," Austin said.
Now, "the connection between general education and special education will be seamless, it will be daily — it will be, for lack of a better term, traditional," he added.
Lana Conaway, the district's assistant superintendent of strategic initiatives, will no longer oversee special education. (She does not even work in the same building as special education yet had been charged with reforming the embattled department, Austin said.) The district plans to hire a special-education director for the secondary schools, a position that has been vacant this year, and that person will join Alma Ellis, who oversees special education for the elementary schools, in leading the day-to-day work of the department. They will report to the chief academic officers of elementary and secondary education, Anne Brown and Sharon Ofek, respectively.
Special education was once run by a single person, but transitioned into co-directors after the mid-year departure of the former director, Chiara Perry, in 2017.
Conaway, who was hired by Austin's predecessor two years ago, will now focus on high-level equity and culture work that was "cut short" in recent years "because the people who were charged to do it lacked the positional authority to carry it through and get it done," Austin said.
She'll be tasked with the work of the former equity coordinator, a district-level position dedicated to the work of closing the achievement gap and better supporting minority and low-income students — including tackling disproportionate suspension and attendance rates, focusing on social-emotional learning and revamping the district's Family Engagement Specialist Program.
Director of Student Services Miriam Stevenson will report directly to Conaway and focus specifically on coordination with guidance counselors for these and other projects, Austin said.
Board members did not comment in detail on the reorganization and said they trust Austin's judgment in making these kinds of decisions.
Kimberly Eng Lee, chair of special- education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee (CAC), said the move makes sense given 70 percent percent of students who receive special-education services in Palo Alto Unified are in general-education classes for the majority of their school day.
"The upside is possibly enhancing communications and improving decision making, because now there’s a single point of accountability for student progress, outcome and well-being," she said. "For this reorganization to work, success lies with leaders and educators being informed, equipped and genuinely supportive of every student, including those with disabilities, in a very pragmatic and hands-on way."
The California Board of Education formally merged special and general education several years ago under a new, unified accountability system, Lee noted.
"Advocates have been trying to unite them and make inclusion work for years, fighting mindset, knowledge, staffing and funding barriers," she said.
Austin made the announcement as part of an agenda item on the operations section of his draft districtwide plan, the "PAUSD Promise." The plan includes the results from a staff survey on areas like accountability, leadership, teamwork and communication. Orgametrics, a Minneapolis group that helps organizations evaluate their "alignment," used the results to create scores for how aligned — or not — the district is in these key areas. The district is considered "mis-aligned" in six out of 10 categories.
Austin attributed the poor scores in part to high turnover in recent years and "structural holes" that have deepened over time.
"We are systems poor. We don't have great systems in a lot of places you would expect a district of this level (to have)," he said.
The reorganization of special education is a first step toward changing that, he said.
In other business Tuesday, the board discussed how the district had misreported more than 200 high school seniors in last year's graduating class as not meeting the A-G graduation requirements, which are required for admission to the University of California and the California State University systems.
No students' college admissions were impacted by the errors, staff said Tuesday.
The district has struggled for years, however, to accurately determine the percentages of students meeting the graduation requirements, making it impossible to hold the district accountable to the purpose of the graduation requirements. Approved in 2010, they were put in place to ensure more students left high school prepared for college and did not fall through the cracks.
Board members estimated Tuesday that the high schools' actual A-G completion rates are around 83 percent. Disproportionate numbers of students of color and with special needs fail to meet the requirements.
"I don't want to understate the accountability importance of having a clear metric that's communicated to the board and the community on how we're doing on this," said Vice President Todd Collins. "I think it's very important that we get this number and get it right and report it consistently and hold ourselves and the senior staff accountable."