When Cindy Loleng-Perez arrived in Palo Alto Unified as the new director of secondary special education this school year, she found the number of students in outside placements — 103 — unusually high for a district of this size.
She came from the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, which is three times the size of Palo Alto Unified but had fewer students placed outside district schools, she said.
"I needed to do my evaluation of what's going on? Why do we have so many kids placed outside in such a small district?" she said in an interview with the Weekly.
As part of this evaluation, Loleng-Perez visited schools, observed classrooms, reviewed individualized education plans and settlement agreements for outside placements and spoke with administrators, staff and parents of both students still in the district and those who had been moved elsewhere. She found the district was "lacking" in services for students with special needs, she said, including insufficient therapeutic programs and a lack of support for students with "intense" behavioral needs and those who need multi-sensory instruction. The district is now working to fill those gaps — and bring students back to the district — by expanding the services provided to students with special needs at neighborhood schools.
"It always breaks my heart if I have to send somebody out," Loleng-Perez said. "We really should be sending kids out (only) if we've done everything we can and we truly cannot support the student."
This year, the cost of placing special-ed students at nonpublic schools, private placements (unilateral placements made by parents rather than the district), independent study or private schools is $5.9 million, according to a district staff report. The most costly subset ($2.4 million) is for students placed at nonpublic schools through their individualized education plans, having been referred by the district rather than through a settlement agreement or unilateral placement. The majority of the 103 students are in the secondary grades, Loleng-Perez said.
At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, the district is planning to have in place three new programs. A school refusal team, made up of a mental health therapist, behaviorist, credentialed teacher, psychologist and school site representative, will help students who are refusing to attend school due to high anxiety, depression, behavioral concerns and other challenges. There is a "dire need" for such a team, particularly at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools, Loleng-Perez said.
"We have a lot of kids with anxiety and depression. They don't want to go to school because ... the school environment is too big," she said.
The district will also offer a new hybrid academic program for middle and high school students. Students will have access to customized curriculum both in person at their neighborhood schools (required at a minimum once a week) and through online independent study, with participation based on "personalized schedules that reflect their distinct strengths, needs and learning preferences," a staff report states. There will be one-on-one as well as group instruction.
Starting this fall, the district plans to reconfigure its elementary-level learning centers for students with moderate to severe disabilities. Rather than the current model — one education specialist serving all kindergarten through fifth-grade students in one classroom — there will be two separate classrooms, one for kindergarten through second grade and another for third through fifth. The district hopes this will allow education specialists to give more targeted support to students, provide students with a more appropriate age span of classmates and provide more opportunity for collaboration between general and special education teachers.
Two other additions, an intensive therapeutic program and intensive behavioral program, won't happen until later in the next school year or the 2021-22 year, Loleng-Perez said. The first will provide some of the same services that nonpublic schools do for students with serious mental health and behavioral difficulties, such as individual, group and family therapy; crisis intervention and behavior management. These are students for whom emotional difficulties "have become increasingly disabling over time, requiring frequent, supportive, and intensive interventions" and "seriously" compromising their ability to attend a traditional school.
The district's current therapeutic programs, Loleng-Perez said, are geared toward "full inclusion," by which students are in the program only part of the school day to ensure they're also included in mainstream classes. That doesn't serve all students well, she said.
The new intensive behavioral program will provide a structured environment, on a short-term basis, focused on "stabilizing high intensity behaviors" to help students return to general education classes, with the support of behavior specialists. The program will also provide training and strategies to classroom teachers and staff, including including methodologies from the National Autism Center, the district stated.
Part of the planning for the new services will include developing a process for evaluating when it's appropriate to bring a student back to the district from an outside placement. Loleng-Perez, a former nonpublic school principal, said she'll replicate some of the intake and exit criteria she used in that setting.
Special-education parents have expressed both hope and apprehension about the district's plan. They've asked for more detail about how the new programs will be implemented and supported.
"We are all concerned about the growing number of NPS students and the expense to educate in more restrictive and costly settings outside PAUSD. But students do not just wake up one day and head to an outside placement," Kimberly Eng Lee, co-chair for special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee (CAC) said at the Dec. 10 school board meeting when the special-education department presented its plans. "There is a long trail that precedes such an outcome — some particular and personal to the student, and others attributable to district services and supports."
Current middle and high schoolers with special needs have experienced the district's push toward full inclusion, which resulted in the reduction of segregated special-day classes, Eng-Lee noted. The district moved special-needs students into mainstream classes with aides but not always with sufficient support for teachers, she said.
"For students and teachers to be successful, they need resources. We'd like to see a fuller implementation plan detailing these five service options — one that includes embedded supports (like educator coaching and co-teaching) and an explicit discussion of budget, timeline, use of aides, enrollment by age and disability, and expected program size," she said.
Christina Schmidt, a special-educaition advocate and parent of a nonpublic school student, said the district lacks the data necessary to evaluate nonpublic students' experiences.
"The biggest problem we face is a lack of data," she said. "Who is tracking the students sent outside the district? How do we know what the success rates are for the students? Do any of them come back to the district? What is the impact of NPS on families?"
Loleng-Perez said the district doesn't yet track the rate of students who return from nonpublic schools. Four students came back last semester and two are pending for this semester, she said. Currently, 100% of Palo Alto Unified nonpublic school students graduate from high school, according to the district.
The district should also create protocols for more consistent transitions out of and back to the district and do more to support often-isolated nonpublic school parents, such as including them on advisory committees and communicating about parent-education events and other district activities, Schmidt said.
Many parents of nonpublic schools students who struggled to get the right support for their children live in a constant state of anxiety, fearing the placement could be taken away — particularly if they speak out publicly about their experiences, Schmidt said. (Several parents were unwilling to speak on the record for this story for that reason.)
"The first reaction for families like mine with kids in special ed is are we going to maybe lose the services we've advocated or waited for for years?" Vaibhav Vaish, the Palo Alto Council of PTA's special-education representative for Fairmeadow Elementary School, told the school board in December.
Loleng-Perez acknowledged that trust continues to be an issue for the special education community in Palo Alto Unified.
"My message is not, 'Guess what? We're bringing everybody back.' My message is, 'We're building a program so that we can support our kids,'" she said. "Not all of those kids will be able to come back because there are good reasons why we put kids out to nonpublic schools. But if we can support them early enough or if they really are ready to come back, I want to build a program to support them."
In December, board members were largely supportive of the intent to reduce the growing number of outside placements.
"I don't hear this as a cost-saving mechanism. I think we have an envelope within which we can do some things that are probably more effective and less restrictive," board member Ken Dauber said. "That's what's really driving this change as I see it and I'm very supportive of it."
This article is part of a larger story on "How nonpublic schools serve the education system's neediest students," which can be found here.