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The California Advisory Commission on Special Education Annual Report: 2020–2021


The societal upheaval caused by COVID-19 has highlighted many important realities that pre-date the pandemic. One particularly pernicious reality is the lack of equity in, and access to, a quality education for many of California’s students with disabilities. At the same time, school site closures and remote learning platforms, two important and reasonable responses to the pandemic, have confirmed another, more positive reality: those very things that secure a quality education for students with disabilities—Universal Design for Learning, individualized instruction, social-emotional learning, and coordinated systems of mental health services—contribute to successful school outcomes for all students. In effect, when students with disabilities are well served, all students benefit.

The pandemic and concurrent national calls for social justice have made more evident than ever the need to define and create deliberate policies for achieving educational equity. Important practicalities required the California Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE), during its 2020–2021 meeting year, to address issues related to effective remote learning options and safe in-person learning environments for students with disabilities. As important, however, was the ACSE’s focus on making equity and access two of the governing principles of California’s public schools. 

The ACSE used and will continue to promote the use of its Disability Equity Rubric as a lens for all decisions that influence the educational lives and futures of students with disabilities. This rubric frames all considerations for education-related legislation, policies, and programs around the central tenants of equity, inclusion, and accessibility for all California learners. Among the key strategies in this rubric: inclusive dialogue and discussions in the development of all legislation, policies, and programs; training and technical assistance that supports educators to make programs available and accessible to students; coordination and alignment among all new and existing programs and services; and data-informed accountability strategies that track success and inform continuous quality improvement.

This annual report highlights and promotes the topics and conversations the ACSE believes will help to ensure equity and access, not just for students with disabilities but for all learners. 

— David M. Toston, ACSE Commission Chair

Inclusive Practices

Ensuring a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for students with disabilities is a foundational principle of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and a perennial focus of the ACSE. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, school site closures and the proliferation of remote learning, in many cases the only source of schooling for students, challenged educators and policymakers alike to ensure FAPE and equity for the thousands of  California’s students with disabilities.

The Supporting Inclusive Practices (SIP) Project has helped to guide inclusive efforts in educational programs for these students throughout the state and at all grade levels, with the ultimate goal of ensuring those rights. Research shows that students with disabilities achieve at higher levels when they receive their education in inclusive, general education settings than when they learn in restrictive settings. As the pandemic has brought inequities to light, SIP is seeing its work as more critical than ever to ensure equity and access for all students. Project leaders informed the ACSE at its October meeting about how five SIP programs have adjusted their work to meet the challenges created and highlighted by the pandemic.

While the nearly decade-long efforts to expand inclusion in the Orange Unified School District were challenged by the pandemic, the established commitment to inclusion was not lost as district leaders worked creatively to support and train staff in how to provide distance-learning instruction, with the ultimate goal of safely returning all students with disabilities to in-person schooling. The habits of collaboration that are a requisite of successful inclusive efforts served the district in good stead as it worked with health experts, staff, and parents to devise a safe and successful path toward effective remote instruction and school re-opening. To survive the intervening months, the district directly supported teachers, paraprofessionals, and parents through creative online instruction and connection.

The preschool program in Tuolumne County also addressed the challenges of the pandemic by relying on the skills it had developed while promulgating inclusive practices, creating inclusive settings, and collaborating across agencies. With the resulting cross-agency relationships and working patterns in place, the county has been able to provide online learning opportunities for its preschool students, as well as place online its annual Early Childhood Education Conference—a free virtual training that in the spring of 2021 specifically focused on how Universal Design for Learning applies to early care and education settings.

Staff from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Corona Norco USD, one of the largest high schools in the state, described the challenges and benefits of inclusive and co-teaching classrooms in grades 9 through 12. The school’s greatest challenge was its size, which creates logistical nightmares for planning classroom and teacher assignments. The school has been patiently developing a culture of commitment to inclusion and co-teaching and has been demonstrating the benefits of these practices since 2017. Before COVID-19, the school saw increasing numbers of inclusive classrooms each year. The student results tell a more important story: in co-taught classrooms, the scores of students with disabilities improved significantly in the areas of reading, writing, listening, and research and inquiry when compared to the scores of students in self-contained classrooms. And in 2019, the school recorded a pronounced increase in the number of students who have met state standards.

The coordinator of SIP at the Los Angeles Unified School District described the efforts of the state’s largest school district to create ubiquitous inclusive classrooms. After working with SIP leaders to develop a mission statement, committed staff at LAUSD have compiled resources to develop and promote inclusive practices and placed them online. During the pandemic, staff started developing professional development modules for both general and special educators, focusing on inclusion and Universal Design for Learning for students with disabilities.

A representative from the Redwood SEED (Supported Education to Elevate Diversity) Scholars Program Inclusive College at UC Davis discussed the university’s application for a grant to build a model, inclusive, four-year college in California for students with intellectual disabilities. This college would provide students with internships, involve local businesses, train faculty in the principles and practices of UDL, and more. Data show that a college experience can improve outcomes in health, job opportunities, community engagement, and relationships—and go far toward changing the fact that 90 percent of adults with disabilities do not make a living wage.

In the wake of these stories of success and possibility, the director of the SIP Project asked ACSE commissioners to imagine a future of inclusion for all students. She cited UNESCO’s Education 2030, a global commitment to ensuring access to education for all as an essential part of sustainable development. The fourth goal of this initiative constitutes a call to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for everyone. This vision, which has been achieved in other countries, is based on human rights, personal dignity, and cultural and linguistic competence. The ACSE was inspired by this vision and firmly supports any progress that can be made toward realizing it.

California’s System of Support

During the past 15 years, the ACSE has watched the state develop an extensive and coordinated System of Support (SOS) that is designed to help local educational agencies (LEAs) and their schools meet the needs of every student they serve. The California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE), in partnership with the California Department of Education (CDE), has been a key architect of this system. The primary goal of this system is to build the local capacity of LEAs to sustain improvements over time by nurturing local talent and resources through improving data quality and addressing inequities within a tiered structure that responds to the unique needs and context of each LEA.

Fourteen County Offices of Education (COEs) and seven Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs) have been selected to provide important leadership and expertise within the SOS. While some of the support from the SOS is mandated in response to assessment results and accountability requirements, support from the SELPAs is available to all LEAs that choose to seek improvement in specific content areas. Three of the SELPA leaders (or “SELPA Leads”) developing and providing resources, training, and technical assistance described their work to the ACSE and explained how they have adjusted their efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the face of the steadily increasing number of students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the Evidence-Based Practices for Students with Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities Project at the Marin County SELPA is expanding the proven approach and methods of the California Autism Professional Training and Information Network (CAPTAIN), a multi-agency network developed to spread and sustain the understanding and use of evidence-based practices for individuals affected by ASD. In response to COVID-19, the project developed a single online portal to access inexpensive and practical resources for students affected by autism and their parents and teachers. In general, the project’s focus during the pandemic is the same as it has always been—providing supports, strategies, and guidance to effectively serve students with ASD.

The Improving Outcomes for English Language Learners with Disabilities Project at the Imperial County SELPA offers professional development, resources, and collaborative consultation services to other SELPAs, their respective County Offices of Education, and school districts that have identified needs associated with improving outcomes for English language learners with disabilities.

The goal of this work is to ensure accessibility and sound instructional practices for English learners with disabilities. The project conducts needs assessments, facilitates collaborative conversations, provides targeted training, and connects these agencies to the work of other SELPA Leads. Finally, the project designs capacity-building activities that include in-person and virtual trainings. Before the advent of COVID-19 and school site closures, the project had a robust capacity for virtual meetings and conferences. In response to the pandemic, the project made full use of this capacity to work with dozens of SELPAs and COEs, and by the time of this presentation had trained nearly 2,000 professionals across the state. 

The goal of the Open Access Project at the Placer County SELPA is to improve access to quality curriculum and instruction for all students. The project pursues this goal by applying the principles and practices of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in all learning environments, incorporating digital tools or assistive technology into instructional design and assessments, and providing access to augmentative and alternative communication strategies and supports to build the communication competence of students with complex communication needs. In response to the pandemic, the project created a website that offers carefully selected best practices and strategies for how to teach students with disabilities in virtual environments, as well as supports for occupational therapists, physical therapists, and resource specialists to continue their work in online environments.

The ACSE sees the leadership that these SELPAs provide as a model of exemplary vision, creativity, and flexibility that is responding to the needs of the field. As the SOS continues to evolve and grow, the ACSE looks forward to witnessing continued improvement in building capacity and leveraging skills to support students with disabilities.

Resources for Equity

At the ACSE’s February 2021 meeting, the Inclusion Collaborative at the Santa Clara Office of Education presented information about its Ways 2 Equity Playbook: Navigation Tool for Equitable Schools, which is funded through a grant from the California Department of Education and developed in partnership with the National Equity Project, four California LEAs, and several other child-serving organizations. The playbook is designed to guide schools and districts through a process of (1) reflecting on the various aspects of equity as they are experienced locally, (2) identifying their unique entry point to addressing issues of equity, and then (3) navigating their way through the work of developing an equitable culture through policy and practice.

Part of the state’s System of Support and available in both digital and print formats, the playbook builds on the principles of Universal Design for Learning, culturally relevant pedagogy, and social-emotional learning. The focus of the playbook is on the equity needs of three specific groups—students with disabilities, students of color, and English language learners—with a goal of ensuring that “each student receives what they need, when they need it, to thrive social-emotionally and academically.” Santa Clara provides coaching and professional development on the use of the playbook, particularly with LEAs that are working to address instances of disproportionality in special education.

The ACSE recognizes the value of this playbook as a readily usable and comprehensive guide, and sees the playbook as deserving wide dissemination.

Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grant

In its October 2020 meeting, ACSE learned about and was asked to provide input to the CDE’s Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grant proposal for federal funding to support literacy instruction to children and youth, birth through grade 12. On receipt of this funding, the state’s plan is to align and integrate existing state literacy initiatives, content standards, and state guidance documents to support educators in providing more effective literacy instruction. This plan includes an evaluation of the outcomes of the current system and the development of changes in a process of continuous improvement. Specific to the efforts would be, for example, adding new literacy supports and resources for early childhood education programs and increasing the involvement of parents in pre- and early literacy efforts; building the capacity of teachers in the early grades to provide students with foundational skills in reading, to support students who struggle, and to deliver effective literacy instruction for English learners; building the capacity for teachers in the later grades to provide effective literacy instruction across disciplines; increasing asset-based teaching in schools, including culturally and linguistically responsive and sustaining pedagogy; increasing sustainable high-quality professional learning systems; and more.

ACSE was pleased with the plan’s focus on alignment within California’s System of Support and suggested that the proposal include more specificity about family engagement and teacher preparation. The commission has always viewed reading and literacy as gateway skills to success in learning, adult life, and earning a living wage. Given the high percentage of students with disabilities who have learning disabilities that often compromise their ability to read and write, the commission is eager to see the grant realized and hopeful for the results.

[Subsequent to this meeting, the grant proposal and plan were presented to the California State Board of Education (SBE), approved, and then granted by the federal government. The final state literacy plan will be presented for approval to the SBE in November 2021.]

Social-Emotional Learning and Mental Health

Between 2015 and 2019, the ACSE established a Mental Health Subcommittee that kept commissioners apprised of initiatives and legislation that influenced social-emotional and mental health services for students and their families. The commission reinstated this subcommittee at its April 2021 meeting, as schools prepared to welcome students back to campus in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The collective trauma engendered by the pandemic and school-site shutdowns created a renewed urgency for effective, coordinated, and readily accessible social-emotional and mental health services in schools and communities. The goal of this subcommittee is to study all efforts in the state to strengthen systems that address the social-emotional and mental health of children and to support the commission to effectively advise on these efforts. This subcommittee is particularly interested in efforts to design evidence-based professional training for teachers and social-emotional/mental health providers and evidence-based student assessments within the context of one comprehensive and equitable framework for all preK–12 students.  A Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) can ensure preventive services as well as the appropriate continuum of services for students with disabilities.

The members of the subcommittee plan to meet with stakeholders to map out connections across agencies, with the goal of creating a template for serving the whole child and developing a common vision of shared, cross-system outcomes for the children of California.

In this work the subcommittee intends to examine efforts in the state to accomplish the following:

  • Break down the barriers and eliminate the roadblocks that prevent students and families from receiving the social-emotional and mental health services they need.
  • Build up effective services that address the social-emotional and behavioral needs of all children and youth.
  • Create systems of support that are seamlessly integrated to serve the whole child. To this end, the subcommittee will study and support all efforts to connect state interagency/cross-disciplinary initiatives and local implementation efforts to better serve students with disabilities, including:
  • Community schools to strengthen them as models of fully integrated mental health services
  • MTSS as a means to develop an integrated system for social-emotional and mental health services for children and youth in California
  • MediCal maximization as a critical component for California’s children and youth to realize entitlements across systems
  • System of Care as a shared governance structure for fully integrated service delivery
  • Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative to elevate and support the state’s investment in uniting agencies and resources to realize a comprehensive integrated continuum of services
  • Early Care and After Care to ensure inclusive settings and practices in the state’s continuum of services
  • Institute cross-training among all relevant systems so that the following are created and established:
  • A shared understanding of children’s and families’ rights and entitlements to services
  • A shared language
  • Shared implementation (including shared goals, shared governance, shared data, shared financing, and a commitment to a shared community)
  • Compose and disseminate a Bill of Rights for social-emotional and behavioral health for all students so stakeholders across systems understand those rights and use them as a guide for practice.

The subcommittee is also committed to partnering with youth with disabilities to learn from them how to create social-emotional and mental health services and systems that are effective and readily accessible to them and their families.

The re-instatement of this subcommittee reflects the ACSE’s ongoing belief that, with accurate information and supports, the many disparate agencies and services in the state can work together as a coordinated whole. With the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting the primacy of social-emotional and mental health as a first requirement for learning, the ACSE re-commits to this vision of a comprehensive system of quality social-emotional and mental health care that is easily accessible to all children and their families.

Special Education Workgroups

At its April 2021 meeting, the ACSE heard reports of the progress of two important Special Education Workgroups: the IEP [Individualized Education Program] Workgroup and the Alternate Pathways to High School Diplomas Workgroup. The first represents the backbone of special education, the IEP; the second embodies the ultimate goal: high school graduation.

The IEP Workgroup

The IEP Workgroup, led by the Sacramento County Office of Education, was charged through state legislation with the tasks of (1) strengthening the IEP review processes so that all IEPs effectively capture student strengths, address student needs, and inform learning strategies that support instruction aligned to state standards; (2) designing a standardized state IEP template that secures the above; (3) supporting transition planning with early learning and postsecondary options; (4) assessing the feasibility of a web-based statewide IEP system; and (5) offering best-practice recommendations for distance learning modifications and adaptations to the IEP when necessary in a state or local emergency—all to ensure that IEPs are child-focused, strengths-based, aligned to standards, and backwards mapped from long-term goals, including gainful employment.

In support of these goals, the workgroup envisions the following:

  • General education teachers who are part of the IEP process in meaningful ways and who are using the IEP template as a valuable tool for teaching and inclusion
  • Teachers and service providers who develop IEPs that include information about student strengths, needs, and learning strategies and who make student-led and student-driven IEPs possible by empowering their students
  • Families and students who have ready access to information on the comprehensive services available to them throughout the student’s life, including integrated school supports (outside of special education) aimed at long-term positive experiences and outcomes.

To date, the workgroup has made progress in developing forms for an IEP template that collects the necessary data and provides the child’s plan; the system (including the technology mechanisms) to complete the IEP template; and the training, resources, and tools to support teachers and service providers in the IEP process.

As the workgroup continues its regular monthly meetings and “deep-dive” sessions, it will continue to develop and refine the template, devise an IEP addendum for distance learning, assess the feasibility of implementing a statewide online IEP system, and submit a report.

The commission welcomes the opportunity to provide input and guidance on the efforts of this workgroup, and recommends a stronger focus in the IEP process on the social-emotional needs of students.

Alternate Pathways to High School Diplomas Workgroup

The Alternate Pathways to High School Diplomas Workgroup has been charged with studying and recommending alternate pathways to earning a high school diploma for students with disabilities. This group, also created through a legislative mandate, is studying the existing pathways for students with disabilities and working to devise graduation and diploma options that make it possible for all students with disabilities in California to enter high school knowing what is available to and possible for them; with all students, their families, and their teachers understanding the requirements that each student must meet to earn a diploma; and with all students having a clear plan in place for how to meet the requirements of their chosen pathway.

The taskforce is very mindful of how the outcomes of its work must align with the two principal federal laws that govern education: the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The group is also mindful that high school diplomas are sometimes contradictorily treated by accountability systems (e.g., only students who graduate from high school within four years are counted in a school’s graduation rate, yet students with disabilities can stay in the public school system and receive educational and related services until they are 22.) The taskforce is working to suggest changes that would reconcile these kinds of contradictions.

The ACSE supports the efforts of this workgroup to determine new high school diploma pathways for students with disabilities. A valid diploma is one key to success in the adult world, and leaving high school without one often creates long-lasting and detrimental effects on the economic future of the student. The ACSE welcomes the opportunity to provide feedback on the workgroup’s efforts, understands many of the challenges the group faces, and looks forward to learning about the next iteration of its  efforts.

Special Education Studies

WestEd conducted two studies for the California Department of Education in an effort to improve services for students with disabilities. One study focused on special education governance and accountability, the second on the distribution of special education finances. Both studies examined how these two aspects of special education influence student outcomes.

In June 2020, the ACSE was updated on the work of the California Special Education Governance and Accountability Study, which examines the connection between school outcomes for students with disabilities and the state’s governance and accountability structures. This study is charged with delivering recommendations that will strengthen transparency in decision-making; ensure input from families and communities in local decisions; provide an equitable distribution of special education supports and services to LEAs; and create alignment between special and general education accountability systems—with the ultimate goal of improving student outcomes and supporting the best delivery of special education services and supports in the least restrictive environment in general education as well as in special education settings.

The researchers conducting this study are reviewing state and federal law and policy, and examining pertinent research literature to find common barriers to improving local innovation and decision-making related to the following: how training and technical assistance are provided, how resources are allocated, how data is collected, and how the efforts and results of schools and LEAs are monitored.

The study is looking specifically at data about least restrictive environment and has found further confirmation that students with disabilities who spend more time in general education classrooms and receive greater exposure to the core curriculum show more academic growth than their counterparts who receive the preponderance of their education in more restrictive settings.

In addition to looking at the research, the study is examining a variety of schools and districts in California whose students with disabilities have realized exceptional success. From these places the researchers are gathering information about what contributes to the high performance. Preliminary conclusions point to a number of factors: a shared vision and mission, a mindset of putting students first, systems of strong communication and collaboration in both instruction and finance, a culture of respect and appreciation, longevity among teachers and administrators, useful data, a belief that all kids can learn, and a sense of empowerment and family among staff.

ACSE appreciates the fact that the identified conditions for promoting success for students with disabilities represent established best practices that deserve to be promulgated in every LEA in the state; and that the study in its preliminary findings is suggesting that what is needed is not a new initiative but effective local control and empowerment with these known best practices. The ACSE is particularly supportive of any effort to spread these practices, create incentives for their use, and hold educators and administrators accountable for student results.

Another team of researchers from WestEd studied the financial systems that distribute funding to special education in the state. Team members presented their findings to the ACSE in October 2020.

The California Special Education Finance System Study was formed to help all stakeholders understand how special education dollars are distributed in the state (not whether those dollars are adequate) and to make recommendations for how the system could be revised or improved to better serve students with disabilities.

Conclusions from the report include the following (among others):

  • While special education funding in California was designed to be based on the census of students overall, not all of the funding streams that pay for services are census based.
  • Special education and general education funding are parallel and separate, even though students with disabilities are, by law, considered general education students first.
  • California’s Education Code and policies are not clear about which educational entity is responsible for the IDEA requirement of a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE).
  • California’s funding allotments for students whose disabilities require the most expensive services and supports are among the lowest in the nation.
  • Many of California’s students with disabilities carry multiple funding labels: in addition to being students with disabilities, many are also English language learners, students who live in poverty, and/or students who come from minority ethnic backgrounds/students of color.
  • Students who are placed in nonpublic schools are not achieving better results than their peers in public schools.
  • The cost of programs that lead to student growth in elementary and middle school is less than the cost of commensurate programs in junior high and high school.

Recommendations from the study include the following (among others):

  • Create one system for planning and coordinating special education and other supplemental services, to include combining planning and reporting requirements related to accountability, eliminating any duplication that exists between the Local Control and Accountability Plan and Special Education Plan, and identifying and promoting best practices to coordinate instructional supports for student groups likely to be identified as having disabilities.
  • Transition over time from the exclusive distribution of state special education funds to SELPAs toward a mixed-distribution system that would include LEAs and a regional entity (e.g., COEs and SELPAs).
  • Differentiate funding in a way that responds to the occurrence of disability among students, especially low-incidence, high-cost disabilities.

While commissioners would like to see greater attention to the financial needs of small SELPAs, a more explicit focus on creating authentic school-family partnerships, and a clear financial commitment to creating and strengthening inclusive settings for students at every age, the ACSE appreciates the study’s (1) acknowledgement of funding inequities across the state, (2) recognition of the need for services between general education and special education to be better coordinated, and (3) apparent commitment to creating a funding system that is designed to find the most effective set of services for each child.

CDE’s Director’s Report

The director of the California Department of Education, Special Education division, or her representatives report on division activities at every ACSE meeting. Because this past meeting year was heavily influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the division gave regular updates on policies and practices for educating and providing educationally related services to students with disabilities during school site closures, working with federal and state health guidelines to create safe learning environments for all students while addressing issues of equity, ensuring access, and maintaining the requirements of special education law. During the height of site closures, the division issued guidance documents on how to conduct reliable virtual assessments for special education and how to conduct effective Individualized Education Programs remotely. Ensuring quality distance learning and equitable access to education were additional key topics the division addressed, along with such topics as mask protocols when schools started their transition back to in-person or hybrid settings. The commission also received updates on the evolution of learning and attendance plans for schools during and after the pandemic.

Through these reports, ACSE learned of the governor’s commitment to special education as seen in a state budget that is funding, among other things, mitigation efforts to ameliorate the effects of learning loss during the pandemic.

The ACSE especially appreciated the challenges the division faced in meeting its reporting requirements to the federal government through its Annual Performance Report and State Systemic Improvement Plan (SSIP) to the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), especially the collection of school and student data while sites are closed. Such data categories as suspension and disproportionality were particularly compromised with children learning from home. Despite these many pandemic-related challenges, the division continued to monitor school districts for compliance with special education requirements, using self-study and distance learning models. 

In its October meeting, the ACSE welcomed Heather Calomese to her new role as director of the Special Education Division. The commission acknowledged the unusual and challenging circumstances under which she assumed this position and looks forward to working with her during the pandemic and beyond.

Calomese updated the commission on the progress of initiatives that were established pre-pandemic and that continue to evolve. Aware of the importance of early intervention and a seamless transition between IDEA Parts C and B services, the commissioners welcomed the news of a workgroup that is addressing the challenges that continue to face children, families, and service providers as they navigate that transition. Given its commitment to improving mental health services, the ACSE was also pleased to learn of the continued efforts of an established workgroup that is carving out strategies, protocols, and model practices for schools to be reimbursed by MediCal for mental health services they provide to students with disabilities and their families.

Calomese reported on the increased attention being given to nonpublic schools that serve students with disabilities, especially those out-of-state schools that serve California students. The commission looks forward to reports of the relative effectiveness of these schools and the educational outcomes they produce.

With the many school site closures during the past year, late assessments and late IEPs were to be expected. The ACSE appreciates the division’s efforts to maintain high expectations for all LEAs related to these two critical aspects of special education services, and to support LEAs in observing all special education requirements despite the challenges.

As the division coordinates its efforts with other divisions—especially those that govern general education, data and accountability, support for English learners, and early childhood education—the ACSE looks forward to increasing coherence within CDE and in the System of Supports to create efficient and coordinated supports for students, teachers, and families.

The GOAL Award

The GOAL (Grazer Outstanding Achievements in Learning) Award, created by ACSE in 2005 in collaboration with film producer Brian Grazer, was designed to recognize innovative programs in the state that benefit students with disabilities, to honor the people who make these programs possible, and to share the practices of these programs with parents, educators, and policymakers.

Although the 2019–20 GOAL award was suspended due to the pandemic, the award committee received an unusually large and impressive pool of applications to review this year, making the decision of selecting just one program very difficult.

Each of the nine programs that applied were scored on how well they demonstrated success for students with disabilities considering the following criteria: innovation or highly effective design elements, how replicable and sustainable the program is, the program’s connections with districts, counties, families and other community stakeholders, and its overall effectiveness in serving students with disabilities.

After careful consideration, Orange Unified School District’s Orange Pre-K (OPK) program was selected as the 2020–21 ACSE GOAL Award winner.

Photo of OPH Program

Now in its ninth year, OPK serves students zero to five years old and is a shining example of how both students with and without disabilities benefit from a high-quality, universally designed, data-driven, and culturally responsive program.  Considered the flagship of the district’s early intervention program for preschool students, OPK is based on five decades of research showing that students with disabilities must be given consistent, structured, and equitable opportunities to work with general education students in academic and nonacademic activities in order to achieve growth and meet their full potential.

A few of the unique features of the OPK program design include Peer Mediated Intervention engaging typically developing peers with their classmates who have disabilities. This engagement helps to build any delayed skills of that latter group. Innovation also lies in a community awareness campaign that currently has parents of typically developing students eagerly enrolling or getting on the OPK waiting list. This fully inclusive setting allows the typically developing peers enrolled from the local community to gain more awareness, acceptance, and appreciation of students with disabilities. And OPK uses evidence-based practices, including the Early Childhood Inclusive Education Checklist—A Self-Assessment of Best Practices as a guide to implementing inclusive education and the district’s Inclusive Learning Coaching Team, which provides ongoing training and monitors the fidelity of least restrictive environment (LRE) inclusive practices at OPK. 

A Look Forward

During its 2020–2021 meeting year, the ACSE heard numerous stories of the resilience and determination of educators, students, and family members as they navigated educational challenges and re-created schooling options in response to the coronavirus pandemic. These accounts have renewed the ACSE’s commitment to working in support of improved school outcomes for students with disabilities. The pandemic has also confirmed in the minds of commissioners the imperatives of creating authentic school-family-community partnerships and increasing supports for all of the adults who contribute to the educational success of students with disabilities in order to improve those school outcomes.

As ACSE commissioners look forward to their work in 2021–2022, they remain acutely aware of the fact that the majority of students identified for special education services also belong to other marginalized and historically under-served student groups. This fact and its equity implications will continue to inform the ACSE’s positions on policy, funding, and educational practice. The ACSE also will continue to adhere to the belief that no label begins to fully describe the complexity and potential of any child and that each child deserves to be educated and supported in response to his or her unique constellation of strengths and needs. This past year’s pandemic has delivered an unexpected and potent opportunity to imagine what that kind of education might look like.

Finally, the ACSE is committed to supporting the right of all students to a quality education, a right that is interrelated with every other human right. The commission consequently joins in UNESCO’s global call to strengthen inclusive and equitable quality education, along with efforts to address the corollary challenges of working to eliminate any form of exclusion and marginalization in our schools and communities, addressing all instances of disparity and inequality in access, and promoting participation and rigorous learning outcomes for all students with disabilities. By fulfilling this agenda, every student succeeds, and no child is left behind.

ACSE Commissioners 2021–2022

Stacey Adler
While I became a general education teacher, I always felt a deep connection with our students who had challenges. When I became the parent of a daughter with special needs, I learned what it is like to be on that side of the table. I have seen the struggles that parents and students go through in trying to navigate the system. I am hoping through my role in ACSE to be an advocate for parents, students, and teachers and to provide support to all those who engage in and with special education.

Photo of Marie Alvarado-GilMarie Alvarado-Gil
I am a parent of a child with special needs, and have dedicated over 25 years of public service in pursuit of social justice and education equity. I serve as a thought partner to healthcare and education systems and a champion for all students. I serve as a commissioner because I am passionate about people, my community, and families.

Photo of Michele AndrusMichele Andrus
With 20 years of experience at both the elementary and high school levels, I am currently the Special Education Coordinator for Granada Hills Charter High School. My areas of interest include literacy instruction at all grade levels, and the development of meaningful transition supports and services for students with IEPs.

Photo of Elizabeth A. EstesElizabeth A. Estes
As a career California attorney with a practice dedicated to children and families in California and the education system that supports them, I am proud to be a new member of the ACSE. I am committed to championing education for the whole child and to uniting the multiple agencies and parties that serve children around that collective goal. I look forward to dedicating my time to continued improvements of the state’s systems of support for California’s children and those who serve them.

Photo of Dawn HamiltonDawn Hamilton
As the mother of a 10-year-old daughter with significant disabilities who is thriving both socially and academically in a fully inclusive school, I’ve become a passionate advocate for fully inclusive education for all students with disabilities. I was honored to be appointed to ACSE in 2020 to help increase and improve opportunities for inclusion, equity, and better outcomes for all students with and without disabilities, as I believe students of all abilities benefit from learning together.

Havaughnia Hayes-White
As a commissioner on the California Advisory Commission on Special Education, my personal mission is to ensure every child, regardless of their disability, has access to a high-quality, multi-interdisciplinary, inclusive, public education ensuring equal opportunities to achieve academic, behavioral, and social success.

Photo of April LopezApril Lopez
I am the mother of a child with a disability who attends a public high school. I know first-hand the challenges the parents of children with disabilities face every day. I am an advocate for our kids and their amazing teachers. And I collaborate with state leaders to improve the quality of special education.

Photo of Sarah NotchSarah Notch
In my almost twenty years in the field of Special Education, I have dedicated my life to serving students with disabilities. I am also a parent of a child with a disability, who provides me an expanded perspective. Passionate about advocacy, access, and improving outcomes, I joined the ACSE to contribute to the advancement of innovative and inclusive policies and practices on behalf of all students, families, and educators across the state.

Photo of Christine OyakawaChristine Oyakawa
As a parent of a child with disabilities, I have been privileged to serve on ACSE.  I hope to contribute to the important discussions and recommendations ACSE makes regarding research, programs, and policy, with the ultimate goal of improving educational and life opportunities for all children with disabilities in California.

Photo of Gloria RuizGloria Ruiz
I am committed to supporting students and their families to access appropriate, valuable, and meaningful experiences in education. As a parent of two sons, one with an Individualized Educational Plan and one without, I assert that all students must be surrounded by exciting opportunities to be successful, engaged, and fulfilled by their education. The Commission is a stand to ensure parents and caregivers can work together in partnership with educators, administrators, and peers to cause greatness through communication for all.

Photo of Kimberly SalomonsonKimberly Salomonson
While I have supported students in California for over 20 years at the school-district level, it is my passion to influence perspectives, policy, and change by collaborating with state, regional, and local educators to better align systems, build collaboration, and achieve equity and inclusion in education. My years on the ACSE have made it possible for me to follow this passion and to work for the respect, dignity and the civil right of students to be included and thrive in our learning communities as we prepare them to thrive as adults.

Photo of Jeannine TopalianJeannine Topalian
I serve as an ACSE commissioner because I believe in the importance of collaborating with stakeholders to ensure all students have access to social, emotional, behavioral, and academic supports/services to thrive in an inclusive educational setting.

Photo of David M. TostonDavid M. Toston
My background includes 20 years of special education leadership and administration along with my childhood experiences as a member of several vulnerable student groups. I am passionate about finding solutions to eliminate educational inequities and ensuring that ALL students are prepared to earn a living wage so they may experience the incredible opportunities of our dynamic and vibrant state.

Photo of Steve WinlockSteve Winlock
Serving on the ACSE has provided the opportunity to enhance one of my guiding principles of education: every student can learn. The Commission supports this principle through assuring equity and access for all students. The special needs and support to each student to assure that all students will learn has been the on-going work of the Commission. This work—of reviewing policies, legislation, and practices and of building partners to meet the needs of special education—has been very professionally rewarding.



Contact information for ACSE commissioners can be found at

Meeting dates, agendas, and archived webcasts for ACSE meetings are at  

To view ACSE meetings via live webcast, go to