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Letter from the Director

Special Education Division
California Department of Education
Heather Calomese

Photo of Heather Calomese

The resilience, creativity, and commitment of California’s educators are on full display in this issue of The Special EDge. Teachers, school administrators, service providers, and other educational leaders have continuously navigated unprecedented uncertainties during the past months. At the same time, these professionals have embraced the opportunities inherent in the moment and carved out ways for students to succeed.

This issue of The Special EDge highlights numerous important efforts: Educators are making technology an integral, effective, and universally available vehicle for instruction. With school site closures contributing to a challenging learning environment, teachers are recognizing the value of authentic instruction and formative assessment as vehicles for ensuring student progress and success. The effects of isolation during the pandemic have sharply raised awareness of the important role that social-emotional health has on learning. Educators are giving social-emotional learning a place of primacy in their instructional considerations. And our school communities continue to provide support and strength for our students and families during this difficult time. 

These communities are working harder than ever.  

The dedication of special education partners, legislators, and policymakers has left California’s schools on the verge of realizing the fruits of their hard work to improve educational systems, especially for students with disabilities. This commitment is reflected in the current proposed state budget, which is a testament of the degree to which California values students with disabilities. Proposed funds would:

  • Expand early learning, early intervention, and early inclusion opportunities
  • Create more coordinated, seamless, and robust transition services between Part C and Part B of IDEA so that our youngest students have the best start possible in their school lives
  • Improve special education funding and oversight systems to be more transparent and better serve students with disabilities
  • Fully fund and expand Family Empowerment Centers to give parents, caregivers, and all family members in every corner of the state the support they need to advocate effectively on behalf of their children.

These initiatives have been in development for years. Their improvements and expansions signal, while not a completion, certainly great progress from determined and persistent effort.

I began my letter in the last issue of The Special EDge with a quote from Helen Keller: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” We still have much to overcome. At the same time, I am privileged to be writing about the promise of so much fulfillment.

— Heather

Restarting and Reinventing Schools 

Image of person sanitizing desks

by Naomi Ondrasek, PhD, Senior Researcher and Policy Advisor, Learning Policy Institute

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted California’s educational system at all levels, forcing students, families, educators, and local and state decisionmakers to shift towards prioritizing health and safety. COVID-19’s health, economic, and educational impacts hit already vulnerable communities particularly hard. Communities of color experienced higher rates of mortality and job loss, and high-need student groups, including students with disabilities, faced disruptions to critical services and supports. But by laying bare the inequities in our systems, the pandemic also provides us with an opportunity to re-envision what schools can be for all students.

At a moment when schools are set to receive unparalleled state and federal investments, local decisionmakers should consider investing in strategies that can improve outcomes for students with disabilities who, even before the pandemic, showed wide achievement gaps on state assessments, higher suspension and chronic absenteeism rates, and lower graduation rates relative to other student groups. Among these strategies should be efforts to support the successful inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms, which research shows can support the academic achievement and social-emotional development of both students with disabilities and their general education peers.

A report from the Learning Policy Institute, Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond, lays out the following framework for restarting and reinventing schools, along with key strategies that should be designed and implemented with the needs of students with disabilities in mind:

  1. Close the digital divide. The COVID-19 crisis made clear that technology-supported learning will be part of the future of education and that all children must be provided with access. Even after the pandemic passes, computing devices and connectivity—which have proven critical for coordinating within special education teams and communicating with families of students with disabilities during school closure—will continue to play an increasingly important role in education. Closing the digital divide also means ensuring that students with disabilities have access to the adaptive equipment, specialized software, and other assistive technologies needed to communicate, access curricula, and engage with learning materials. These types of supports can be used to promote academic, social, and physical inclusion of students with disabilities in general education settings.
  2. Strengthen distance and blended learning. Once all students have access to high-speed internet and to devices adequate for managing schoolwork, the challenge of implementing high-quality distance and blended learning remains. Web-based learning tools can help facilitate continuity of learning by allowing teaching and learning to occur both in person and online. For students with disabilities, these tools also can provide support and scaffolding that help improve outcomes. For example, one study found that elementary students with disabilities who used a web-based program that supports writing (focused on organization and composition) outperformed students who had similar materials in hard copy. When selecting and implementing online learning tools, educators should consider Universal Design for Learning to ensure that students with developmental delays and disabilities can access learning opportunities alongside their general education peers.
  3. Assess what students need. As students return to school, they will be bringing with them a wide range of learning and life experiences. Schools will need to employ tools and assessments to determine where students are in their learning and help tailor social, emotional, and academic supports to their varied experiences and needs. Rather than relying on assessments that focus on identifying deficits for remediation and delivering a set of scores or proficiency levels, schools should prioritize assessments that provide students and teachers with information about student performance relative to learning goals and that provide actionable guidance for how to move students along in their learning progression. High-quality performance assessments, which allow students to show what they know and can do, can serve this purpose and should be designed with Universal Design for Learning principles in mind to ensure that the assessments provide points of entry for all learners, including students with disabilities.
  4. Ensure supports for social and emotional learning. Research shows that adversity impacts learning. The effects of traumatic experiences, however, can be partly mitigated by strong, trusting relationships and opportunities to develop social and emotional learning skills. Schools should create opportunities for all students, including students with disabilities, to learn and practice these skills. They also should provide mental health supports and implement restorative practices, which teach students self-regulation and conflict resolution strategies while creating trust and community.

Community building is integral to Bronxdale High School’s restorative approach. An inclusion school in New York City that serves a disproportionate population of students with disabilities in a low-income community of color, Bronxdale incorporates social-emotional learning in advisory classes (which are held two or three times a week with the same students and their school advisor; these classes also focus on academics, college and career readiness, and community building), student-designed classroom constitutions, and supportive affirmations and community development in all classrooms. The school is now known for its restorative discipline practices, low suspension rate, and strong academic program. Although most students enter Bronxdale performing far below proficiency levels on standardized tests, they leave outperforming their peers in credit accrual, 4- and 6-year graduation rates, and enrollment in postsecondary education.

  1. Redesign schools for stronger relationships. The science of learning and development shows that warm, caring, supportive student-teacher relationships, as well as other child-adult relationships, are linked to better school performance and engagement, greater social competence, and increased ability to take on challenges. Schools should implement structures and practices that foster community building, with a focus on strong relationships among students and between students and adults; collaboration among special and general education teachers; and strong family engagement. For example, Vista High School, a traditional large comprehensive high school located near San Diego, organizes students into “houses,” or smaller learning communities that share a special education teacher and a set of four general education teachers who cover core subjects. This structure is designed to facilitate relationship-building among students, between students and teachers, and among teachers within each house. In Missouri, the Special School District of St. Louis County, which provides special education services to all county students with disabilities, maintains a districtwide focus on family engagement that includes implementing Parent-Teacher Home Visits and family wellness checks.
  2. Emphasize authentic learning. Students engage in learning when they feel respected and valued by their teachers and peers, when they see that they can improve with effort, and when their schoolwork addresses topics that connect to their experiences. On the other hand, identity threat—which occurs when students know that others hold negative views about a group they are associated with—can cause children to feel as if they do not belong, cannot meet expectations, or are not valued for who they are. Identity threat can undermine achievement for many students, including students with disabilities. Schools can support authentic learning for students with disabilities by establishing identity-safe environments, where teaching promotes student voice and responsibility, diversity is cultivated as a teaching resource, and educators maintain high expectations for students with disabilities while ensuring they have the supports needed to access challenging learning opportunities designed with Universal Design for Learning principles.
  3. Provide expanded learning time. A critical approach to restarting and reinventing schooling will be to provide expanded learning time and opportunities for all students, with special attention paid to vulnerable student groups, including students with disabilities. Quality expanded learning time is not simply an add-on program, field trip, or enrichment opportunity; it complements the learning that takes place during the typical school day.

Students with disabilities may have experienced disruptions to special education services and supports during school site closures. Schools should ensure that these students have access to expanded learning opportunities—including high-quality tutoring and after-school and summer learning programs—that build on students’ strengths rather than focusing on perceived deficits.

Kerman Enrichment Summer Adventures, an extended learning program operated through a partnership involving the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, California Teaching Fellows Foundation, and Kerman Unified School District, provides five weeks of full-day summer learning to elementary and middle school students, including students with disabilities, with a focus on literacy, STEM, and physical activity.

  1. Establish community schools and wraparound supports. Integration across systems is particularly important for students with disabilities who may be entitled to receive services from multiple child-serving agencies, including schools, health and behavioral health providers, and the state’s Regional Centers. Local collaboration can be complex, however, and may require partners to overcome multiple barriers, including differences in priorities, funding and reporting requirements, and program eligibility rules. In some areas, local education systems are approaching these challenges by building community school initiatives in partnership with community-based organizations and county agencies. Among their many benefits, community schools provide the infrastructure needed to secure and coordinate wraparound supports. In some cases these initiatives involve a focus on inclusion. For example, in Alameda County, a nonprofit called the Seneca Family of Agencies partners with school districts and other child-serving systems to provide, through tiered intervention, school-based special education and mental health services to students with disabilities and students dealing with the effects of trauma. One of Seneca’s aims in providing these supports, which include in-classroom services and professional development that helps teachers understand and manage student behavior, is to support inclusion for students with disabilities.
  2. Prepare educators for reinventing school. Increasing access to well-prepared special education teachers and general education teachers with training in special education will be critical for closing achievement gaps and ensuring that inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms is done well and leads to improved student outcomes. Even before COVID-19 emerged, California was in the midst of an ongoing and deepening shortage of special education teachers. These shortages may worsen due to the pandemic’s effects on California’s educator workforce. State-level efforts to recruit and retain well-prepared educators include investments in the Golden State Teacher Grant Program, which will award scholarships to teacher candidates who commit to working in a high-need school for four years after receiving their credentials; the Teacher Residency Grant Program; and the Classified School Employee Teacher Credentialing Program. While these investments should help increase the supply of well-prepared teachers, California likely will need to work on special education teacher recruitment and retention over a substantial period to build a sustainable pipeline of special educators. Local decisionmakers can help boost the supply of special education teachers by addressing issues that drive special educators out of the field—such as poor working conditions and inadequate compensation— and investing in building high-retention teacher preparation pathways, such as Grow Your Own programs and teacher residencies, which can be specifically targeted towards producing special education teachers. For example, a teacher residency consortium in Humboldt County recruits special education teacher candidates from paraeducators employed by the county’s districts.
  3. Leverage state and federal funds for equity. Over the next several months, schools will receive historic amounts of much-needed state and federal funding. Local decisionmakers should use these funds to make strategic investments that build local capacity to support all students, especially the most marginalized and vulnerable, in times of crisis and throughout every school year. Capacity-building efforts aimed towards improving outcomes for students with disabilities should include recruiting and retaining a high-quality teacher workforce; building partnerships and implementing the infrastructure needed to coordinate and provide wraparound supports to students and their families; and ensuring that educators have the training, resources, and collaboration time needed to support improved outcomes and successful inclusion for students with disabilities.

As the pandemic lingers, we all look to re-envision what schools can be and how resources can be leveraged to make that vision a reality. Decisionmakers, working in partnerships with families, must consider the needs of all California students—regardless of their ability or disability, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status—and help them not only recover but thrive in the coming months and years. The following articles in this issue of The Special EDge capture efforts in California to do just that.

Technology-Supported Learning and Students with Disabilities

Photo of kids reading tabletby Jennifer Strom, MA, Assistive Technology Professional

The importance of closing the digital divide is not news, but the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has strengthened arguments in favor of every effort to do so. In fact, closing this divide is the first priority listed in Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond, a report issued by the Learning Policy Institute and co-authored by California State Board of Education President, Linda Darling-Hammond.

The digital divide is commonly defined as “the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not.” In schools, those most often disadvantaged by the digital divide are students who are poor, students who live in rural and remote areas, and many students who have a disability.

In the last few years much has been done to correct this disparity by, for example, providing more extensive broadband and computer access to all students. Much more, however, is needed, especially for those students with disabilities who do not have ready access to technology. Appropriate technological support is fundamental for many, as it gives them basic access to education. Carefully selected and appropriately used technology increases their participation in the general education environment to the greatest extent possible.

The Learning Policy Institute’s report recommends ensuring that students with disabilities have access to necessary:

  • adaptive equipment,
  • specialized software,
  • other assistive technologies (AT) such as those needed to communicate, access curricula, and engage with learning materials.

That is a start. But simply making the equipment and technology available to those whose Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) require them is not enough. Making many of these tools available to all students would be better, enabling many more students to achieve beyond what they could otherwise achieve, as these tools can serve as scaffolds to meeting learning standards and even to enrichment opportunities. Universal access to technological tools, however, promises even more.

Why and How

I have worked for years in the field of assistive technology, supporting students and educators as they’ve transitioned from in-person learning to online learning and back again. Through this experience I’ve seen that how we integrate student-specific technology is critical for the school success of students with disabilities.

Many of the tools that students liked to use when they attended class remotely—and the tools that benefitted them the most—were widely available: text-to-speech or Voice Typing, notetaking, and digital organizer supports. Students were willing to dictate their writing, for example, and listen to their textbooks on their own time in their own homes. In fact, during the height of online learning, I saw an increase in tech proficiency overall among my students, including improved typing skills. I was optimistic about these students returning to in-person learning and hopeful for their continued independent use of technology.

But new challenges emerged. A return to the classroom meant for many students a return to textbooks and hard-copy worksheets. Students with disabilities became reluctant to use the tools they had relied on at home because they didn’t want to use tools that differed from those their peers used. They didn’t want to stand out.

A few of the tools that students began avoiding included text-to-speech applications that make it possible for them to listen to textbooks and that support comprehension, and the type options that support legibility on scanned PDF worksheets and reduce fine-motor demands and fatigue. The work output for my students started to decline, and their ability to complete tasks reverted from an independent use of AT, which I had seen when physical classrooms were closed, to a dependence on the promptings of teachers.

I’ve concluded that the most consistent and effective use of AT takes place in classrooms where the tools are already integrated as options for all students in the class. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provides a framework for making this happen.

Using UDL to Close the Divide

Fundamental to a universally designed classroom are multiple avenues of access, engagement, and expression that are available to all students. By seeking to meet the needs of the widest range of learners, a teacher committed to UDL creates a physical classroom and instructional approaches that are designed to accommodate individuals with a wide range of abilities—an ideal learning environment for students with disabilities. UDL normalizes the use of AT by proactively embedding all tools among the multiple options for access.

While AT supports the individual needs of students by serving as a bridge that makes it possible for the student to perform a task or absorb information, UDL builds bridges of access within the curriculum. This universal design thus supports all students, especially those who use assistive technology, who are English learners, and whose disabilities might be undiagnosed.

Creating a UDL Classroom

Assistive technology in a universally designed classroom becomes an organic component. With the primary focus on the lesson’s goal, each student can choose the tools needed to meet that goal. As a result, all students can be accessing the content or expressing their learning in different ways using different tools. Doing things differently no longer stands out when variability is built into the lessons. Even making augmentative alternative communication (AAC) available in the UDL classroom can be seamless—and is shown to positively benefit all students.

In a universally designed classroom, teachers offer students choices for how to access information. Research shows that when students are given choice and some control over their learning, their engagement levels increase. The range of choices can include such options as multiple methods of accessing content or breaking up the amount of information presented at any one time. These kinds of options can be especially important for students with learning or developmental disabilities who may be overwhelmed by long passages of text, for example. Building a classroom designed to meet students at their level of development and knowledge supports a learning environment where students can grow.

Teachers can then eliminate barriers to comprehension by including visual supports or enhancements to the steps of a lesson when reviewing materials with the class. Closed-captioning, for example, is shown to support many students, not just those with hearing-related disabilities. Text masking (which involves making only select portions of a body of text visible at a time) can be particularly useful for students with attention difficulties or who struggle to visually track larger sections of text. A third tool that removes barriers to learning is a text-to-speech playback of information.

Finally, the universally designed classroom makes available multiple options for completing assignments—for example, typing, dictating, drawing, creating videos, or verbally presenting an understanding—as long as the goal of the lesson is met. Multiple means of action and expression are made available to all students, and students have choices in how they will show their mastery of the content. Once students realize success in one mode, they are more likely to experiment with another. 

Educator Allison Posey’s step-by-step UDL Lesson Design Planner is a practical tool that teachers can use to explore ways to remove barriers for students at every step in their learning process.

Including Everyone

In classrooms where variety and difference are expected and encouraged, one student’s AT choice doesn’t stand out. The use of any one tool blends into the use of all the various tools that students can use to access information, engage in learning, and express new knowledge and competence.

Anticipating and planning ways to remove all barriers to student participation and to support full participation require more than just making alternate keyboards and switches available. The effort depends upon an organic approach to incorporating all technology.

Normalizing the use of AT and ACC in schools and weaving a wide range of learning tools into the fabric of classrooms and curricula certainly will benefit students with disabilities. Integrating these technologies proactively through a UDL framework ensures benefit for all.

Additional Resources

Distance Learning—Approaches and Successes

Photo of kid at computer raising handsIf there is one word that educators use to describe their response to COVID-19, that word is “pivot.”

Again and again, teachers and administrators talk of how they had to pivot from classroom learning to distance learning when school sites abruptly closed in March 2020. They had to master new technology, plan lessons that could be delivered online, and establish new relationships with families, while continuing to provide supports for students with disabilities.

Most students are back in the classroom now, but much of what transpired in the realm of virtual education remains. By making the pivot to create and strengthen distance learning for all students, educators also found new ways to serve students with disabilities—and to bring those practices back to the classroom. A few examples:

  • Distance learning meant more teamwork and more collaborative time for general and special education teachers, reinforcing the goal of one system of education for all students.
  • Staff, especially special education staff, developed a greater proficiency with technology.
  • There was a renewed acceptance of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a teaching model that could support all students by offering options for accessing lessons and demonstrating what they learned.
  • The convenience of a virtual Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting led several districts to continue the practice when school sites re-opened.
  • And in one district, an innovative staff member created videos for parents of visually impaired students so they could help their children learn the life skills usually taught in class. The parents’ response: Keep the videos coming.

For many districts, the pivot began with strategies, resources, and support from Open Access, a project of the California Statewide System of Support based at the Placer County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA).  

How to Do It

“There wasn’t a lot of guidance on what a distance learning school day should look like,” says Jillian King, coordinator of Open Access. “But we had the resources and the people to make the pivot.” Soon after school sites closed, the project posted best practices for distance learning, practices that would be applicable should there be future closures.

The starting point for school districts involved examining all of their communication platforms and determining a single, central place online where everyone—faculty, service providers, families, students—could go for information. Other technical questions followed: What tool would be used for meetings with multiple participants? For IEP meetings? How would confidentiality be maintained? Can videos be uploaded? Can resources be downloaded? And, of course, how would every student access lessons from home?

With these questions answered and basic communication tools in place, the next step was setting expectations for students. And that, says King, meant starting with expectations for all students while ensuring that students with disabilities had the accommodations and modifications they needed to participate in online general education classes whenever possible.

Recognizing that distance learning can be physically and cognitively challenging,

Open Access recommended balancing on- and off-screen activities, mixing active and passive learning, and providing students with options for demonstrating what they have learned. Making staff readily available to parents and caregivers was another pillar of the program.  

Putting It Into Practice

Distance learning, “was overwhelming at the beginning,” says Helena Johnson, program specialist in the Eureka Union School District. “But we followed all the Open Access guidelines” for students with disabilities.

Even with guidelines, there is another word that pops up repeatedly in conversations about distance learning: flexibility. “We had to think of different ways students can learn, new ways to meet IEP goals, especially social goals,” says Sue Samuel, a behavior analyst in Eureka. “And we tried to make learning—both synchronous and asynchronous—available when [students and families] could do it.“ Adds Johnson, “There was a constant ebb and flow to our work. We couldn’t get too attached to any process; we have to be flexible whether in class or online.”

It wasn’t only teachers who became more technologically savvy during distance learning. In the West Contra Costa Unified School District, paraprofessionals received extensive training, too. “Their tech learning really blossomed,” says Rachel Avanessian, director of elementary special education. “Now when they are helping in the classroom, they can use those skills.”

Students, too, “are now more comfortable with technology,” says Samuel. The pandemic reinforced the importance of access to technology in the home. King says Placer SELPA used grant money to purchase specialized technology for students. “Whatever the students had at school they had to have at home. Now they can work on goals, do activities at home, too.”

With more flexibility in their schedules, less peer pressure, and almost no possibility of in-person bullying, some students actually thrived during distance learning. West Contra Costa now offers a Virtual Independent Study option for students to continue attending school online. “Parents can submit a request” on behalf of their student, says Avanessian; approval rests with the IEP team. “The student has to be able to work independently and access the core curriculum with accommodations and modifications.”

Then there were students for whom distance learning was not a good fit. West Contra Costa was one of several districts that established in-person “learning hubs” to offer support. The hubs, located on school campuses and staffed by teachers and administrators, followed strict health and safety protocols. “They were offered to all our families, with priority for students who were not responding online,” says Sonja Neely-Johnson, director of secondary special education.

Distance learning required almost constant communication between school and family, leading to stronger relationships and emotional connections that continued once schools reopened. “There is more empathy for parents and families among staff and a deeper understanding of what home life is like,” says Avanessian. “The pandemic,” says Neely-Johnson, “made us listen more, and we have a more positive rapport now.” Parents, she says, “can call any time and feel comfortable talking to us.”

Supporting Special Populations

As special education coordinator at the Placer County Office of Education, Bryce Lauritzen oversees programs for students with autism, emotional-behavioral challenges, and profound/multiple disabilities. Many of the students, he says, are “not self-directed,” and those with significant developmental disabilities often “can’t care for personal needs or log on to a laptop. We knew students would need support from parents and caregivers” when classes moved online.

Teachers, service providers, and parents worked together to develop individualized distance learning plans, which, Lauritzen says, “were 100 percent driven by the students’ IEPs.” Where possible, he says, “the plans embedded learning in family routines, like practicing communication skills at dinner,” routines that could be continued at home even after the student returned to school.

Like most faculty who are trained to support students with moderate to severe disabilities, the teachers had been using little technology in class. “The pandemic helped our teachers become more tech savvy because there was no option not to be,” Lauritzen says. As Jillian King notes, “General ed folks had more proficiency in educational technology. For special ed, it was a steeper learning curve, and they had the most challenging students to engage, as well.”

As in many districts, students with disabilities, especially those with moderate to severe disabilities, were the first to return to their classrooms in Placer County. Lauritzen’s students were back on campus in the fall of 2020. “Because they were only out of school 12 to 14 weeks, we did not see substantial learning loss,” Laurtizen says. “For some, coming back would be a challenge behaviorally while others enjoyed the structure of school.”

Open Access urged districts to consult with low-incidence specialists in order to coordinate online access for students who are blind/have visual impairments or those who are deaf/have hearing impairments and to provide needed assistive technology and augmentative and alternative communication technology as soon as possible.

Jim Perondi went beyond those suggestions. An orientation and mobility instructor, Perondi works with students with visual impairments at the San Diego County Office of Education. When he was no longer able to teach life skills in person, he made videos so that parents could work with their children at home. The videos, initially used out of necessity, were so successful that they now are used all the time.

Support for English Learners

The nearly 1.2 million English language learners in California and their families faced unique challenges during distance learning. That was especially true for the nearly 17 percent who are also students with disabilities.

For this dual-classified population, King says, “One of the most impactful things we can do in designing an effective IEP is to leverage digital tools and assistive technology and make sure that these resources and supports are available to them.” She touts UDL as an instructional model that “takes all learning differences into account and is uniquely designed to support the needs of all learners, including English learners.” And King says the Open Access website will soon be updated to “make more explicit connections to content that supports our English learners.”

In West Contra Costa, Avanessian and Neely-Johnson say the district tries to “recruit and retain as many staff who are bilingual as possible” to support its English learners. To address the challenges of distance learning, they used interpreters and translation devices, provided professional development for all staff, and offered parent education classes.

Sharing best practices for serving linguistically and culturally diverse students is one of the roles played by the Center for Equity for English Learners (CEEL) at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “Schools need to meet the academic, social, and language needs of English learners from an asset-based approach,” says Executive Director Magaly Lavadenz. CEEL offers resources “on how to teach English language learners online and how to communicate with parents to create a bridge between home and school.” The CEEL website suggests that songs and chants can help build vocabulary in a virtual environment and that students be grouped in breakout rooms based on their language proficiency.

CEEL recently received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to improve language and literacy outcomes for English learners in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The Virtual IEP

Lauritzen noted the high parent participation rates in online IEP meetings in Placer County. When classes resumed, “We sent out a survey and asked, ‘Would you like to continue online?’ and 70 percent said to keep the meeting online.”

While parents in West Contra Costa County can request in-person meetings, many there preferred online IEPs, too. “Virtual IEPs offered more flexibility and became more efficient,” says Neely-Johnson. “It was easier to use visuals, show examples and progress on goals.” Eureka Union also has kept IEP meetings online. “Parents who haven’t been able to attend conferences are now active members of their IEP teams,” says Johnson.

Research analysts and educators in California and beyond are recognizing the many advantages of placing IEPs online. The United States Department of Education has developed tip sheets and protocols for virtual IEP meetings, expressing the hope that “these tip sheets will. . . continue to be useful and relevant after the pandemic passes.”  Some districts have struggled to make virtual IEP meetings successful. But where they do work, they may be here to stay.

A Successful Pivot

 “The pandemic moved education toward a more collaborative model because it forced us to work together,” says Lauritzen. “I’ve been impressed with the resiliency of our staff, parents, and especially our students. We had to work as a team.”

Teachers in Eureka now have two weeks of Google lesson plans ready. “We don’t know what comes next,” says Johnson. “But we’ve had to have a shift in mindset as far as how students learn. There can’t be one way. Learning now has to be flexible, whether in class or online.”

It hasn’t been easy. “We’re all struggling here,” says King. “But we’re all in this together. We all want our kids to succeed.”

Additional Resources

The Promise of Formative Assessment

Teacher helping student readWhat is missing? Where do we go next? How do we get there?

These kinds of questions guide Jennifer Soto’s use of student assessments. Soto is a special education teacher in the Upland Unified School District and a committed advocate of formative assessment—an approach to assessing students that may be more essential now than ever before.

Prior to the pandemic, most teachers could reasonably assume that the majority of their students started the school year with a common set of skills. Teachers would have to differentiate for a few students, of course, but most were working at closely similar levels. The pandemic disrupted the reliability of this assumption, among many others, and created unprecedented learning gaps—while widening existing ones.

To respond effectively, schools need tools that determine where students are, what challenges they are ready for, and what supports they need. Formative assessment offers a research-based answer to this need.

The Process

Formative assessment is an ongoing process, not a single test. Examples of assessments that might be part of a formative assessment process include:

  • Conversations with students
  • Co-created rubrics that students use to review their own work
  • Curriculum-based measurement (e.g., quizzes, worksheets, and self-checks embedded in a published curriculum)
  • Formal diagnostic assessments that align to curriculum or grade-level domains and standards

Each of these practices can serve as a summative assessment, a static score that reflects what a student knows and doesn’t know. The process becomes formative when educators use the results to inform and shape their instructional next steps.

Integrating instruction with assessment is foundational to the formative process, creating a cycle of continuous improvement for both teacher and students. In essence, formative assessment involves “gathering evidence of and judging student learning; providing feedback to students about their learning; and using assessment data to adjust subsequent instruction as needed,” according to Focusing Formative Assessment on the Needs of English Language Learners, a WestEd publication. The Council of Chief State School Officers promotes formative assessment as having “powerful potential to increase learning for all students, including students with disabilities.”

Educators also can extract from formative assessments nuanced information about students—what they may have learned but not quite fully understood, for example. This kind of information allows teachers to plan not only effective individualized instruction but also targeted remediation when necessary.

While formative assessment is more complex and time-consuming than a single summative assessment of mastery, it works. Research shows that students in classes where “formative assessment practices were performed had significantly higher academic achievement levels and better attitudes toward the class than the students” who were in classrooms where formative assessments were not used.

The Application

Esmerelda Veik uses multiple formative assessment tools to meet the needs of Riverside County’s diverse population of students with disabilities. Veik is an instructional specialist with the County Office of Education’s Division of Student Programs and Services. In her department, she says, “We use diagnostic assessment tools that are aligned to grade-level standards. The results of these measures allow teachers to set clear learning goals.”

According to Veik, different assessments are appropriate for different groups of students. Currently, students who are diploma-bound and learning with the standard core curriculum will use formative (and summative) assessments that differ from those used by students who are learning with an alternate curriculum and core content connectors. (CDE is currently revising diploma options.)

“We administer them three times a year,” says Veik, “at the beginning, middle, and end. The purpose of that first assessment is to get a baseline. Then we continue to assess to see where we can begin instruction.” She also uses curriculum-based measures to adjust both instructional content and teaching strategies to support student growth.

“Having multiple measures of students’ skills and knowledge,” says Veik, “enables teachers to more effectively remediate gaps and plan for individualized enhancement or support, small-group skill development, and whole-group access to curriculum.” The assessment process she uses also “gives us data on students that have like needs,” making clear to teachers which “students they can group together [to] teach those skills. The great thing is, while [teachers] are analyzing the data, they’re also identifying individual student needs. They can use this to develop IEP goals and instruction, and to determine support needed to increase learning opportunities.

“Looking at performance on standards-aligned skills really does translate into everything teachers do—instructional planning, grouping, IEP writing—all of it.”

Ongoing Evaluation

Both Veik and Soto view student baselines as only the beginning step of formative assessment. “There is a need for consistent monitoring of progress, via projects, quizzes, and data on classroom participation, for example, throughout the year so teachers can check in on what was learned and, again, use that to plan,” says Veik.

For example, when looking at assessments, Soto noticed that a lack of familiarity with domain-specific vocabulary words (e.g., words primarily used in certain fields, such as science, social studies, or math) kept some students from accessing grade-level content. Now she pre-teaches vocabulary and frequently checks in with students to review the important words that continue to challenge them. She uses pictures and videos to clarify meanings.

Some of her students were having a hard time understanding the words “acceleration” and “thrilling” in a recent unit. They were able to memorize the definitions, but student discussions showed that they were not able to use or understand the words in unscripted conversations. To support deeper learning, she took the class on a virtual trip to Disneyland where “they ‘rode’ the rides and heard the ‘click, click, click’ of the rollercoaster going up the track and then swishing down.” They came away with a working understanding of “acceleration” and “thrilling.” She describes this as “approaching the lesson from the students’ point of view,” while using formative assessments to identify exactly where she needed to focus her instruction.

Professional Learning Communities

Once students take the first assessment to establish their baseline, Veik says, teachers dedicate the following day to data analysis as a professional learning community. “Teachers meet in groups and plan together using the assessment results as a starting point for instruction.” From their analysis, they identify goals—for large groups, small groups, and individual students—and develop lessons for reaching these goals.

Then teachers “go to their class, teach these skills,” says Veik, “and when the assessment happens again, they come back together and see how they did as a group and talk about challenges and solutions together. They bounce ideas off each other, get ideas of what worked for one and what worked for someone else.” This type of data analysis and collaboration reflects the district’s commitment to the formative assessment process and belief in its positive effects on student outcomes.

Student Involvement

While assessment helps teachers define clear learning goals for students, those goals must also be “shared with and understood by the students” themselves, says Veik. Including students at every part of the assessment process is foundational to formative assessment—and to learning. Research shows that students who understand what they are learning and why they are learning it will be more engaged, which then contributes to higher levels of achievement. The value of this approach is confirmed by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which reported in 2018 that, for students to be engaged and involved in their learning, teachers and students both must know what the goals are, plan together how to reach them, and use assessment evidence along the way to chart the course. In addition, writes Heidi Andrade and Margaret Heritage in Using Formative Assessment to Enhance Learning, Achievement, and Academic Self-Regulation, “there is convincing evidence that carefully applied classroom assessments can actually promote student learning and self-regulation” (2018, p.1).

Formative assessments especially help lower-achieving students because students are directly involved in planning their own goals and managing their progress. These kinds of activities help all students, particularly those who have challenges with executive functions. Using formative assessment provides explicit instruction in, and opportunities to practice, these skills as well as academic ones, which in turn builds self-esteem and self-regulation.

The benchmark assessment that Riverside uses with diploma-bound students supports this kind of engagement; it includes a “data chat worksheet,” which is designed for teachers to use when conferencing with students. “They can sit with the student, look at their [assessment] results on the computer, fill out the worksheets, and help students set goals for themselves,” says Veik. “It’s important to talk to students and reward them for their successes but also talk about the challenges they had, and the patterns we saw—to let students have buy-in on how they can improve.”

Veik encourages teachers to talk to all of their students about their performance on assignments, regardless of a student’s disability or level of performance. While she acknowledges that this conversation will look different for every student, “we can use graphs, we can use charts, there’s a lot of data” that can be used to make visuals, which can be especially helpful for students who take alternate assessments.

Extra Effort, Extra Benefit

Veik admits that implementing a formative assessment process with fidelity can be a lot of work. To encourage teachers, she tells them, “Don’t assess just for the sake of assessing. Assess for instruction and progress.”

Soto agrees that ongoing progress monitoring takes time and effort, but it’s work that helps her identify where students are struggling. And ongoing, formative assessments make it possible for her to provide immediate support and allow her to become a better teacher for all students.

Building the Future

Veik says that the teachers she works with see the value of formative assessment, especially as it strengthens and builds on what they learn each year. “At the end of the year. . . each teacher develops a presentation on the goals that they developed throughout the year and how it went, what tools they used, what evidence-based practices they implemented, and shows how students did with the goals that they developed.” This information informs the next year’s process as teachers identify highly effective practices and pass along strategies and scaffolds that were successful for each child.

A formative assessment process helps teachers modify their instructional approaches to meet the needs of each learner. At the same time, because they personalize learning and engage students, these assessments offer an authentic vehicle for collaborating with students in their own learning.

Resources

  • California’s Department of Education features assessment resources with a state-approved list of assessment resources tied to the Smarter Balanced Assessment. This list identifies interim assessment tools designed to support teaching and learning throughout the year and Tools for Teachers designed to support classroom-based formative assessment processes.
  • The Formative Assessment, a video from Measured Progress, explains and shows what formative assessment can look like in the classroom.
  • “Supporting Student Knowledge Using Formative Assessment and Universal Design for Learning Expression,” September 2019, by L. A. Finnegan, K. M. Miller, K. M. Randolph, & K. D. Bielskus-Barone, can be found in The Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship.
  • Yale’s Poorvu Center on Teaching and Learning provides explanations and examples of formative and summative assessments, along with recommendations for using formative assessments.

Social-Emotional Learning

By Jacky Lau, School Counselor, Garvey School District

Mindfulness, social and emotional learning, and wellness centers are fast becoming common topics of conversation across California as ways to mitigate the negative effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the mental health of nearly everyone, but especially students. Reports of increased levels of anxiety, depressions, drug usage, and thoughts of suicide are now common.

To help combat this epidemic of mental health concerns, California has passed Senate Bill 224 to ensure that schools provide age-appropriate social-emotional learning (SEL).

Definition

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

SEL in schools can help students understand the importance of their mental health, identify the symptoms of mental health challenges and, most importantly, know how to seek help if they need it—all while learning how to manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as they affect themselves and those around them.

Student Engagement

Systematically providing SEL in schools requires, of course, the practical first steps of securing staff buy-in, selecting an SEL curriculum, and coordinating SEL with instruction. Research shows significant “improvements in overall mental health and reductions in externalizing behaviors when combining SEL and PBIS” (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support)—which is what California is doing through its Multi-Tiered System of Supports.

Yet even with resources, systems, and encouragements in place, mental health service providers (e.g., school counselors and psychologists) and classroom teachers face barriers to making SEL effective. One significant challenge is decreased levels of student engagement, which the pandemic has only made worse. Yearly trends compiled from the California Healthy Kids Survey report alarmingly low rates of student connectedness—the belief on the part of students that the adults and their peers at school care about them and their learning. One of the best ways to remedy this disengagement and successfully introduce and maintain SEL in schools may involve simply including students as essential partners in the effort. This is what the counseling team at my school did.

Students as Partners

The counseling team at Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School began the school year introducing the basics of SEL to every class of students. Team members also met with each student individually to conduct a mental wellness check and ask how they felt about school reopening, what they thought would help them most at school, and what changes they would like to see.

Not surprisingly, the team heard the standard requests for “less homework” and “better lunch.” Other students requested “more school events” and “fun activities,” reflecting their hunger for a social life, much of which they’d lost during school site closures. And we learned that the majority of our students felt ready to return to school and were “excited to see friends again.”

But we also learned that about 25 percent of the student population had feelings of uncertainty, sadness, or anxiety about school reopening. Some students wanted to increase awareness of LGBTQ issues and racism. One of my favorite answers came from a student with a disability who noticed a lack of “positive thinking” in the school. When asked to elaborate, he explained that he wanted the school to have more messages reminding students that “things will get better.”

After the interviews, the counseling team went to work with the rest of the school staff to turn the student’s interests, requests, and concerns into something tangible. Since it was clear that, after so many months at home, the students didn’t know each other, the first thing we all wanted to do was create community. In response we staged a fall festival and then organized a winter cinema. In another event that was inspired by the SEL interviews, students were invited to draw during lunch and ended up creating a “Hope Board” that offers positive messages and helpful mantras.

Students also formed an Inclusivity, Diversity, and Equity Action (IDEA) group with the specific mission of working to develop a healthy school culture based on tolerance and acceptance. The students in this group explore ways that schools can be inclusive even when public health guidelines place constraints.  

Working within a tiered model, we grouped those students who were struggling and supported them in their efforts to make friends and feel connected to school. The few students with the most serious problems were referred for individual services.

By meeting with students one-to-one and creating events and activities in response to their interests and concerns, the school accomplished the following:

  1. Modeling a tone of openness and candor for students. By asking direct questions and requesting honest answers, we demonstrated to students that they are free to discuss their feelings and that mental health is not a restricted topic.
  2. Fostering relationships. Getting to know students and inviting them to know us created a familiarity, one of the many important building blocks for developing trusting, personalized relationships.
  3. Supporting students to build agency. When given the chance to take an active role in their own education, students build positive attitudes, become invested in the process, and strengthen their self-advocacy skills.

SEL requires an awareness of personal feelings. Speaking about them often requires courage. Ultimately what we created was a safe space for courageous conversations that reflected students’ true interests and concerns. And then we responded as best we could.

These conversations with students also help them discover the landscape of their own emotional lives, the strength their feelings afford them, and the internal and external resources they can rely on to remain healthy.

Incorporating SEL into schools comes with its fair share of challenges. It’s sometimes hard to find enough time. Not all staff and administrators are always on board. Selecting the best professional development can be tricky. But the pandemic has shown us the importance of SEL and of including students as critical partners.

SEL is not a cure-all for repairing the emotional and psychological effects of the pandemic. But we know that learning about mental health is as important as learning how to read or compute. In fact, without mental health, a great deal of reading and problem solving just doesn’t happen. A stronger collective commitment to making SEL part of a school’s everyday fabric is not just a smart response to the pandemic. It’s smart always.

Social-Emotional Learning for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities

Woman holding baby

Infants and toddlers learn through their bodies. This mind-body connection makes inseparable the intellectual and physical development of young children. Early childhood experts have known this for years, but recent research points to a third and equally central component of this equation: social-emotional development.

According to Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, “emotional development begins early in life. . . is a critical aspect of the development of overall brain architecture, and. . . has enormous consequences over the course of a lifetime.” In effect, what young children learn socially and emotionally—about how to express feelings, form relationships, and explore the world—directly influences how well they are able to perform as students and as adults.

This interaction among the three developmental trajectories—physical, intellectual, and social-emotional—confirms the importance of social-emotional learning for infants and toddlers. What also has critical implications for families and early childhood programs is the fact that the brain’s “neural circuits, which create the foundation for learning, behavior, and health, are most flexible or ‘plastic’ during the first three years of life. Over time, they become increasingly difficult to change.” This developmental progression makes social-emotional experiences of children during their very first years fundamentally formative and influential for their rest of their lives.

Certain experiences can interfere with the healthy development of this circuitry. Conditions such as extreme poverty, abuse and neglect, and severe maternal depression can damage the developing brain and create lifelong challenges in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health. A disability, as well, can impact all areas of development.

Research also has clearly demonstrated that when children experience early trauma, or are born with risk factors or a diagnosed disability, high-quality early intervention services “can serve as a protective buffer against the multiple adverse influences that may hinder their developmental progress.” This applies to all children, says Townley Saye, assistant chief of the Early Start and Health Services Division at the California Department of Developmental Services (DDS). Saye’s work specifically focuses on providing these services to infants and toddlers with disabilities.

Early Start

Because of the proven benefits of early intervention, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires every state to offer these services to infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. California provides the services through its Early Start program, which is administered by DDS, with direct services delivered across the state through California’s 21 Regional Centers. In those efforts, DDS also partners with the California Department of Education, which provides early intervention services through local educational agencies (LEAs).

The State Systemic Improvement Plan

DDS receives federal Part C money from IDEA for this work (Part C deals with early intervention services for children birth through 36 months of age). As a condition for receiving funds, DDS writes and executes a State Systemic Improvement Plan (SSIP). Saye describes this plan as the state’s response to “DDS’s charge from our federal grant providers to find foundational items that we can improve on.”

The decision to focus the SSIP on social-emotional development was not made by DDS alone, says Saye. A diverse group of invested educational partners, including parents, “looked at the research and decided on this focus, since social-emotional development is foundational for positive attachment, success at school, being able to self-regulate emotions, and being able to read social cues of what’s happening around us.”

“The SSIP is not just about compliance, however,” says January Crane, assistant deputy director, Part C Coordinator at DDS. “The plan’s measurements for improvement,” she says, focus on “families getting the support they need,” a support, she says, that “can be very transformational” for both the child and the family.

The family is the focus of Part C service delivery because young children learn best and thrive in the context of their families and natural environments. With this context in mind, Saye says, “DDS works to give extra support to families to help them learn about and better understand their child’s disability; to realize that their child may demonstrate delays, interruptions, or challenges in meeting developmental milestones, but will still develop; and that children with disabilities benefit from the same things that all children benefit from—safe, loving, and responsive environments.”

With critical developmental milestones taking place “well before a child enters the schoolyard,” says Saye, those early years make “that parent or caregiver interaction with the child and that early bonding so important. And that’s what Early Start is all about: early identification, early connection to resources, early parent engagement—helping the parents to understand that they are their child’s first teacher,” and that what parents and caregivers teach and model for children profoundly influences their later success in school and in life.

Resources for Social-Emotional Learning

In support of the early intervention services that Regional Centers provide to children and families, “we have been able to develop resources to help educate parents,” says Saye, including “a short, animated video on our website that talks about the expectations that a family might have entering the Early Start Program. It’s very gender-neutral, very multi-generational-parent neutral.

“Parents of children with disabilities may be reluctant to seek services for a variety of reasons—some of them cultural, some of them socio-economic,” says Saye. Early Start works to “make sure that our outreach and our website are as inclusive as possible.”

In executing its SSIP, DDS also has developed a set of resources that offer Early Interventionists the research-based resources and professional development they need to ensure they understand the challenges families are experiencing and know how to engage and support parents and caregivers, especially with young children’s social-emotional development. This professional development addresses different infant-toddler assessment tools, for example, and the skills required to write accurate, measurable outcomes for an Individualized Family Service Plan [IFSP], says Saye, as well as considerations for choosing measurement tools that are sensitive enough to accurately reflect developmental progress.

A third collection of resources focuses on the importance of coordinating services among agencies and initiatives. These resources offer strategies for creating interagency collaboration, says Crane. “We want to make sure that children [with disabilities] are found. If they are receiving services through a different avenue, we collaborate—not only at the state level but on the community level” with school-based early intervention programs and public and behavioral health systems, for example, “so they know about early intervention services and how they are delivered.

“We share all of our resources with those other agencies,” says Crane, “because it’s important for a case manager or interventionist to have a relationship with, say, the NICUs [neonatal intensive care units] in the region. We want to ensure that we are increasing our collaboration with any other agency or service where families might find themselves.”

The full range of resources the department has developed to support the social and emotional learning of infants and toddlers is extensive, addressing such topics as navigating the NICU, dealing with toxic stress, getting ready for school, and more.

Future Support

Healthy social and emotional development in the earliest years promises concrete results: research shows less need for special education and related services, more gainful employment, fewer incarcerated adults, and generally improved physical and mental health outcomes across a lifespan, all of which represent incalculable savings to society. For everyone interested in the future of the state’s children—and even those just interested in an improved financial bottom line—the direction of California’s Early Start program is very good news.

Creating Stronger Relationships with Students

By Talisa Sullivan, PhD, Administrator for Equity and Access, Riverside County Office of Education

“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”
—Rita Pierson

Strong, positive relationships at school motivate students to learn. When these relationships are in place, students perform better academically and display better social skills. Fundamental to these relationships is a student’s sense of connectedness, the belief that adults and peers in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals. Yet specific groups of students remain at risk of missing out on these kinds of connections: students with disabilities and students of color.

Much has been written about the pernicious effects of historical and systemic inequities on students of color. And while the disability rights movement borrowed from the playbook of civil rights in the sixties to gain inclusion and access in schools, students with disabilities, along with students of color and English language learners, persistently remain on the wrong side of the achievement gap.

California has worked to repair and improve public schools through projects that address inclusion, equity, bias, and disproportionality. But there is so much work to be done and change to happen that many teachers feel overwhelmed and unsure about what they personally can do in the face of centuries-old biases and slow-moving systems of inequity. In addition, most teachers have little control over school-wide or district-level systems.

But there are three things that any teacher can do to create stronger relationships with students, whatever their abilities or ethnic and racial backgrounds:

  • Get personal
  • Create relevance
  • Engage families

Get Personal

“Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best they can possibly be.”

—Rita Pierson

People are naturally drawn to the familiar. What is particularly challenging for teachers and students alike is that nearly 80 percent of teachers are white, while more than half of the public school students in the United States are not. And approximately 4.6 percent of teachers have a disability while the student population reflects nearly three times that number. Despite these differences, relationships can still happen.

Although it is important for students to see teachers who look like them, “You don’t have to have a shared race, background, or experience in order to connect,” writes Akisha Jones Sarfo from the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy at the University of Delaware. You can still build a relationship. And it’s not complicated. The process requires the same ingredients of any other relationship: time, genuine interest, a sense of humor, openness, and honesty. And it can start the moment a student walks on campus.

The first interactions we have with a student can set the tone for their entire day. Something as simple as saying, “Welcome! I am so glad you are here. How is your morning going so far?” can help to turn a defensive child into a student who is relaxed and ready to learn.

Students’ interactions with their teachers in the classroom matter even more. When a teacher stands at the door greeting each student who enters the class, not only do students feel welcomed, but teachers can get insights into how students are doing and adjust their tone and approach to a lesson

I have seen teachers give students a choice to capture and respond to how they want to be greeted. Some students respond to a simple “good morning.” Others love a fist bump or a handshake. Whatever the interaction and at whatever part of the school day, a personal, caring message says, “I see you. I hear you. I care about you.”

Create Relevance

“To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.”

—Bell Hooks

Students pay attention in class when they see their lives in what they’re learning, when their interests are reflected in the lessons, and when schoolwork builds on what they already know and can do. A classroom that is guided by relevance connects whatever is being taught to the experiences of students. By designing lessons and classroom activities that create this relevance for their specific students, teachers give students an implicit but clear message: you matter.

Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better, and when you know better, do better.” We know that students learn best when we do things with them rather than to them or for them. It is for this reason teachers also must include the voices of students—by listening to their concerns, asking them how they learn best, and redesigning lessons in response.

In turn, when they see a teacher making the effort to create relevance, writes educator Robin Roberson, “students often respond to this perceived care by caring about the teacher and what he or she teaches.” Author and leadership expert John C. Maxwell is quoted as saying, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Culturally relevant lessons show students they are seen, known, and important.

Countless books and websites are devoted to making teaching relevant by designing lessons that reflect students’ cultures and backgrounds and by activating their prior knowledge. Relevance can also be created by building on a student’s existing strengths, using universal design for learning as an operating principle, and incorporating growth mindset into interactions with students. Foundational to the success of any effort, however, is knowing your students, caring about them, and reflecting that knowledge and care in your classroom.

Engage Parents and Families

When schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school, stay in school longer, and like school more.”

—Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp

Decades of research confirm that students learn more and have fewer behavioral challenges when parents and teachers work together. But while all families want the best for their children, engagement is not easy for many. Becoming involved in their children’s schooling can be especially challenging for parents who don’t speak English or who have had negative experiences with schools or school staff. And nearly all families struggle to find enough time and sufficient child care to attend school meetings and events.

Teachers can help to create a family-welcoming school culture by:

  • Connecting with families during back-to-school nights
  • Making positive phone calls home
  • Informing families of their students’ progress early in the school year
  • Participating in community events to meet families where they are most comfortable connecting

Just as we listen to the voices of our students, we must listen to the voices of our parents so we can know their concerns, understand as best we can their struggles, and cherish their children. This is especially important when the goal is to engage families of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Some obvious strategies involve including parents’ language and culture in classroom activities, designing events and activities that honor what is important to families, and inviting family members to come into class to share their expertise. Perhaps one of the most important things that schools can do in any genuine effort to engage families is to recognize “the power imbalance between home and school” and seek to change it.

California’s Local Control and Accountability Plans have been a step in that direction, as they include increased levels of family engagement as an important goal for schools. In the experience of Karen Mapp and countless other parents and educators, “models for effective family engagement have not been baked into our educational system.” Mapp has written a guide for helping educators create schools that connect the word “authentic” to “family engagement.” Embracing a New Normal: Toward a More Liberatory Approach to Family Engagement offers teachers and school leaders a game plan for making family engagement truly authentic.

Creative educators have developed ways to dismantle even the most daunting barriers to engaging families. For example, in Leading from the Strawberry Fields, Peter Flores III and Joseph Dominguez describe their efforts to build “an organization that strives to be responsive to our parents and our community.” Because many parents of their students worked long hours picking strawberries, the district’s schools decided to hold parent meetings in those strawberry fields. Rather than re-enforcing a long-standing “school-centric” model, these educators brought the school to the families in the community.

By “meeting parents where they are,” both physically and culturally, schools can partner with families, make them an integral part of the school culture, and more fully engage students.

Make a Difference

As educators, we are committed to ensuring that all students can succeed in school. Centuries-old systems of inequities exist. But every single teacher can work to break down barriers and build bridges that lead to roads of success for all students. Membership in a positive, inclusive classroom community can be one of those bridges as it contributes to students’ well-being and their ability to learn and thrive. Every effort counts. In the end, everyone—students, teachers, and schools—end up being more successful.

Additional Resources

Ways 2 Equity Playbook

Creating equitable schools may be one of the most complex challenges that educational leaders face. While examining local, state, and federal policies; physical structures; and systemic procedures and practices is central to the work of increasing equity, the process also often requires a change of hearts and minds—what we fundamentally believe and feel about ourselves and others. Change at that personal level demands a degree of honesty and trust that is not always easy to find. The Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) has developed a roadmap to guide educators and organizations in this process of exploring and reflecting on personal values and beliefs, all in the service of creating equity in schools.

Inspired and informed by the very diverse region it serves, SCCOE is experienced in these complex and delicate challenges. The county office has demonstrated for decades an active commitment to addressing issues of equity, specifically through its Inclusion Collaborative, which hosts an annual statewide conference and provides training, coaching, and technical assistance to promote inclusive practices. Through these efforts, the SCCOE staff has learned that true change requires more than just a “to do” list.

Ways 2 Equity PlaybookIn recognition of this history and experience, SCCOE was awarded in 2018 the California Equity Performance and Improvement Program (CEPIP) grant, which was made possible through Assembly Bill 99. The grant provided the resources the county office needed to develop an equity support system for its districts, including online micro-credentials and several Equity Institutes. The grant also made it possible for county office staff to spend two years developing the Ways 2 Equity Playbook.

Written in collaboration with the National Equity Project, the Western Educational Equity Assistance Center, and numerous school districts, the playbook serves as a navigational tool for active reflection and offers an opportunity, says Dr. Mary Ann Dewan, Santa Clara County superintendent of schools, “to address and respond to inequitable practices in our education system in a meaningful, deliberative way that will facilitate dialogue and improve communication—which is the only way we will continue to learn, understand, and eliminate bias.”

Developed as part of California’s statewide System of Support for schools, the playbook focuses on equity as it relates to students with disabilities, English language learners, and African American students.

 The playbook is designed to:

  • Change systems
  • Adapt to place and population
  • Promote collaborative and shared leadership
  • Humanize data
  • Prioritize universality, which translates into equity for all student groups

Operating out of a theory of systems change, the playbook incorporates a “plan, do, study, act” cycle to ensure a process of continuous improvement. It also promotes Universal Design for Learning (UDL), “which disrupts inequities,” says Kathy Wahl, director of the Inclusion Collaborative. Incorporating the metaphor of a roadmap, Wahl says that the playbook allows school leaders to “determine your on-ramp” to a path for creating more equitable schools, with UDL, equity, social-emotional learning, and culturally relevant pedagogy “as your traveling buddies.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the playbook can go to the Inclusion Collaborative web page to download the resource and explore accompanying tools, videos, and archived webinars. Interested parents and educators also can see an overview of the playbook in a video.

However you explore it, the Ways 2 Equity Playbook offers a road worth taking.

Authentic Learning and Culturally Responsive Teaching

“From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in school comes from his inability to utilize the experience he gets outside while on the other hand he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning in school. That is the isolation of the school—its isolation from life.”

John Dewey. (1907). “Waste in Education.” In The School and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 77–110.

teacher with kids at tableSchools should not be a waste of time. Everyone wants students who are excited to be in class, engaged, interested, and working for much more than a good grade. Longstanding research points to one reliable strategy for creating these places: authentic learning.

Generally defined, authentic learning involves giving students the opportunity to engage in real-world issues, discover solutions, create responses—and learn in the process. This kind of engagement happens when:

  • Students understand how they can use what they’re learning in their lives now and in the future.
  • Lessons make use of, connect to, and expand on what students already know.
  • Lessons and instruction are shaped, as much as possible, by real-life issues, students’ interests, and students’ experiences outside the classroom.
  • Students “learn by doing.”

“Why are these authentic experiences so valuable?” asks author and educator Todd Stanley.  “Because in them, students are learning how to learn.”

When teachers provide a student with authentic learning experiences, writes Stanley, the student ends up being able to “learn almost anything he wants.” Through the process—which typically involves the struggle to understand a problem or situation, sustain an investigation, collaborate with others, examine issues from different perspectives, reflect on the implications of action, and finally determine something concrete to do in response—students become independent learners, creative problem solvers, and critical thinkers.

COVID-19 has created massive disruptions in schools and learning. In response, educators and policymakers are exploring with renewed interest both old and new ways of re-inventing schools and re-engaging students. Authentic learning and culturally responsive teaching are two of these ways.

Example

Authentic learning doesn’t have to be complicated or involved. It could happen, for example, during a unit on persuasive writing in an eighth-grade English class. Students identify their biggest complaints as consumers—for example, a pair of running shoes fell apart after a couple months, a video game was disappointingly boring, a gadget of some kind was faulty or over-hyped. The goal is for each student to write and send a clear email to the customer service department of the manufacturer, outlining the complaint and requesting a reasonable recompense.

During the intervening lessons, students read and discuss examples of clearly stated complaints and arguments; describe what makes the examples clear and effective; articulate the principles of that effectiveness; discuss what constitutes reasonable recompense; develop drafts of their emails; and work with each other to strengthen their arguments. Some students may research consumer protection laws and the history of class-action lawsuits.

Each student then sends an email to the company in question, CC-ing local and national business journalists. The class then tracks responses. The emails that receive satisfying or engaged responses are subsequently examined against the principles of effectiveness that the students laid out themselves. Much discussion ensues.

More ambitious examples of authentic learning could seek to learn about, understand, and do something to address issues of local water pollution or neighborhood crime, poverty, homelessness, and more. The guiding rubric in any effort is relevance: working with what students care about and helping them learn by doing.

Finding real-world applications for every lesson is not possible. But it’s not necessary. Once students have the experience of how, in the example above, clear language can be a useful tool for making things happen in the world, the importance of learning the more technical elements of the discipline becomes not only easier for the teacher to justify but more obvious and important to the student. Just as a child committed to making the varsity basketball team doesn’t question why she has to practice her jump shots over and over again, a student who realizes the value of clear writing will more willingly engage in the practice. So also with mathematics. Science. History.

Writing for California’s Learning Policy Institute, Janette LaFors describes in Beyond the Bell: The Power of Authentic Learning the many ways students in the state are finding success through authentic learning experiences, and how this approach can thrive even through the restrictions of school site closures and virtual platforms. And in Seize the Moment, Doubling Down on Authentic Learning, Monica Martinez and Dennis McGrath capture how distance learning actually inspired a California teacher to support the authentic learning of a fourth-grade aspiring marine biologist (and English learner) who was able to learn online directly from a shark researcher in Australia, an oceanographer in New York, and a marine biologist in Washington, D.C.

Effectiveness for Students with Disabilities

Decades of research show that when teachers systematically used the features of authentic learning, they “realized significant gains in overall student achievement, as well as reductions in the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students.” More recent studies show authentic learning practices as stronger predictors of improved learning outcomes for students with disabilities than “students’ disability status or academic ability.” When students with disabilities were included in general education classrooms that applied an authentic learning approach, they “had higher levels of participation and achievement in postsecondary education, college completion, job satisfaction, and civic involvement than comparable national samples, with little difference between those with and without disabilities.”

Importance of Culture

To be authentic, learning also must incorporate the cultures of the students involved, with the curriculum and pedagogy reflecting their backgrounds and voices. At this point, authentic learning dovetails with culturally responsive teaching, another proven practice, which not only recognizes the fact of students’ cultures, but leverages the strengths that students from varying backgrounds bring to the classroom.

In experiments where students read material that reflected their own cultures, they “read the passage more rapidly, recalled a larger amount of information, and produced more culturally appropriate elaborations of the content.” Using classroom materials that mirror the cultures of the students helps “English language learners (ELLs) in particular make important connections to content,” writes Kristina Robertson on ¡Colorín Colorado! a bilingual website for educators and families of English language learners. The same principle applies for students who are African American, American Indian, Alaskan Native, and other racial and cultural minorities—all of whom see improved engagement and enhanced learning in culturally responsive classrooms.

Issues of culture for students with disabilities are more complex. While disability exists in all groups, cultures, and races, the fact of disability creates its own culture—one of the largest in the world. More than one quarter of the people living in the United States alone have a disability. Contributing to the complexity of disability culture is the fact that, within that very large population, there exists a wide range of disability categories, and within each category, a vastly differing degree of disability and ability. And then the very word, “disability” creates its own complications. Many disability rights advocates consider the word itself an injustice, since the phoneme “dis” indicates “a lack” of something, thus implying that the people who carry the label are “less than” those without a disability.

Advocates also take issue with what they call “ableism” on the part of people without disabilities who consider themselves “abled,” while people with disabilities are “disabled.” Ableism “can take the form of condescending, rude, or abusive attitudes towards people with disabilities, leading to lack of accessible and inclusive services and communities.” In response to these issues, the disability pride movement, Deaf culture, and the neurodiversity movement of individuals on the Autism spectrum, among others, all recognize disability as an important and valued part of identity and source of strength.

As the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees access and inclusion for students with disabilities in public schools, the pertinent question for educators is what teachers can do to best support the learning of all students, regardless of—and in support of—their cultures. Linda Darling-Hammond and Channa M. Cook-Harvey advocate for schools and classrooms where every identity is respected and valued, and diversity is viewed and treated as an asset. Their report Educating the Whole Child: Improving School Climate to Support Student Success outlines how educators can create this kind of school culture:

  • Teach to promote understanding, student voice, and student responsibility for belonging to the classroom community; and teach cooperation in learning and classroom tasks.
  • Cultivate diversity as a resource for teaching through the regular use of diverse materials, ideas, and activities.
  • Establish high expectations for all students.
  • Develop relationships based on trusting, strengths-based interactions between the teacher and each student.
  • Create caring, orderly, purposeful learning environments where social skills are proactively taught and practiced to help all students respect and care for one another in an emotionally and physically safe classroom, so each student feels attached to the others.

Authentic learning and culturally responsive teaching are two ways to make learning effective. There are many others: personalized and individualized learning, whole-child instruction, project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and more. The list is long and can be overwhelming. An unrelenting focus, however, on crafting instruction to engage a child and on honoring the identity of every individual may be the foundational approach of them all.

Additional Resources

Expanding Learning Opportunities

Kids bouncing balls on sheetMichael Funk smiles when he refers to California’s expanded learning programs in the COVID-19 era as “a hybrid of summer school and summer camp.”

Funk, director of the Expanded Learning Division in the California Department of Education (CDE) isn’t being flippant. Educators know that both aspects of the program are needed to make up for learning losses that occurred when school sites were closed during the pandemic.

“Summer school” focuses on academic loss and aims to bring students up to grade level or to allow them to earn missing credits needed for graduation. “Summer camp” includes activities that promote socialization and emphasizes social-emotional learning, which students, including students with disabilities, missed when they were isolated at home.

So important is making up learning loss that the state of California is investing upwards of $5 billion over the next several years in Expanded Learning Opportunity Grants to mitigate the effects of school site closures. These funds will be available to all districts but apportioned based on a district’s number of high-need students. Focusing on before- and after-school as well as summer programs, Funk says the funds are “used to support the whole child. It can include both tutoring and social-emotional development.”

Purpose

As defined by CDE, expanded learning refers to before and after school, summer school, and intersession learning experiences “that develop the academic, social, emotional, and physical needs and interests of students.” Expanded learning opportunities, as intended by state legislators, should be hands-on, engaging, student-centered, and results-driven. In addition, these opportunities should involve community partners and complement learning activities that are part of the regular school year.

As school reopened, expanded learning has an additional purpose: Helping students make up what skills they might have lost during distance learning, both academically and socially. Recent research shows that high-quality expanded learning programs are linked to higher student achievement, better attendance rates, and improved classroom behavior—especially when these programs include “inquiry-based approaches to learning, along with physical activity, mindfulness, and the expressive arts—all of which support brain activity and stronger learning and achievement.”

Funk’s division provides technical assistance to districts receiving Expanded Learning Opportunity grants and offers help in setting up expanded learning programs.  Most programs have their own after-school staffs, often members of the community. Or they may contract with community organizations to staff the programs.

New and Established Efforts

When COVID-19 initially closed schools, “some districts developed learning hubs, especially for students with IEPs, [Individualized Education Programs],” says Funk. “Paraprofessionals and credentialed staff supported academics, and the after-school staff supported social-emotional development. Community educators were working alongside K–12 educators in ways that hadn’t been seen before.”

In 2021, he says, “there was a massive expansion of summer learning.” He expects a similarly robust summer program in 2022.

If there was one agency that was ready to pivot to virtual programming when school sites closed, it was the San Diego Expanded Learning Consortium, a partnership between the San Diego County Office of Education and the Children’s Initiative, a nonprofit child advocacy agency. The consortium, which has been providing after-school programs for students in the county since 1999, serves more than 31,000 students in 27 local school districts and 21 charter schools.   

In addition to academic support, the consortium offers “opportunities beyond the school day,” including such activities as robotics, photography, cooking, gardening, and arts.

By June 2020, expanded learning had switched to virtual, says Sarah Mostofi, operations director at the Children’s Initiative. Among the consortium’s new offerings were virtual mentoring and tutoring services and an online fitness program. Art kits were delivered to students’ homes. The Children’s Initiative provided almost 40,000 donated books to be distributed to students. And, as Funk noted, the expanded learning staff collaborated with core teachers to promote distance learning.

“As soon as it was allowed, we offered modified onsite programming,” Mostofi says. When schools reopened, the expanded learning program “was much modified with more focus on social-emotional learning and providing mental health supports.”

Students with disabilities have always been included in the program. Funding requires districts to make all accommodations for any student who wants to attend. “The staff has a meeting with the parent to discuss needs—for example, if the student needs an individual aide,” says Davina Hale, director of expanded learning at the Initiative.

For all students, Hale says, “Expanded learning provides a safe environment with a supportive staff. It exposes them to enrichment activities, teaches basic life skills, and contributes to character and leadership building.”

Mostofi sees expanded learning as serving the whole child. “It supports academics, emotional learning, and socialization. Not all those pieces are always available during the school day.”

Many expanded learning programs also target English language learners who may not have been exposed to English during school site closures. “Studies show that they acquire language much more rapidly in after-school programs than in class,” says Funk. “Expanded learning is designed to be project-based work. So by working with other students they gain fluency.”

English learners were among the students targeted in the Riverside County Office of Education’s expanded learning program, along with foster and homeless youths, students with disabilities, and students in danger of not graduating. The program offers extended instructional time, academic supports and tutoring to help students attain grade-level proficiency in literacy and math or to recover credits needed for graduation. With a “student-centric focus,” the staff is trained on social-emotional issues and strategies to address trauma and increase cultural sensitivity. And a special effort is made to reach out to students who were disengaged during distance learning.

Specifically for students with disabilities, instruction was extended for one hour a day for 20 days of summer school during 2021, says Casaundra McNair, director of special education at Riverside. To detect the extent of learning loss when school sites reopened, McNair says, “We did a universal screening using the SANDI assessment, which is designed for students with intellectual disabilities. With the extra hour of support, reading, writing, and math scores stayed the same.” Where learning loss was most noticeable, she says, was in the “fine and gross motor skills and adaptive living skills of students with moderate-severe disabilities.” Now, she says, “staff is increasing activities that get them outside, that get the element of play into their day.”

The infusion of large sums of cash to support the recovery of learning loss may be new, but expanded learning programs have always been strong in California. Prior to the pandemic, Funk says, expanded learning received $650 million in state funds and $140 million in federal funds, a total of almost $800 million, which “was more funding than the other 49 states combined.”

That is a strong foundation on which to build new learning opportunities. And the many benefits of expanded learning—improvements in school attendance, on-time promotion, behaviors, discipline, and attitudes—make this foundation a worthwhile investment.

Additional Resource

Community Schools: Hubs for Student Success

Adults learning in meeting roomDebra Duardo dreaded her son’s IEP meetings. She remembers them as being “solitary, intimidating, and depressing. The only thing I heard was what my son couldn’t do, what he would never be able to do. I heard all the challenges they were facing. I just wanted to leave, apologizing that my son was such a burden and so difficult for them.”

Duardo is now the superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE), the largest regional education agency in the country. She is using her memories of those meetings, along with a great deal of experience and generous funding and support from her Board of Supervisors, to help create a very different set of experiences for students and families. Duardo is part of a nation-wide movement to start and strengthen community schools.

The Model

Community schools are not new. They are simply public schools that have developed formal and informal working partnerships with families and community organizations to better coordinate a full range of services to improve supports and outcomes for students. As such, community schools have always existed in some fashion. Interest in them, however, is growing, and informal arrangements are becoming systematized.

The Institute for Educational Leadership, for example, has partnered with the Coalition for Community Schools to establish standards for these schools. And they’re “getting a lot of attention” says Duardo, “after what we’ve been through with this pandemic, which put a real spotlight on inequities that exist within our communities—and how we need to do a better job working together to address the needs of children and families.”

That spotlight seems to have strengthened the commitment of many educators and policymakers to embrace inventive ways to address seemingly intractable learning gaps and a widening school-to-prison pipeline, among other challenges. Community schools offer one promising approach by focusing on more than the intellectual growth of students. “Educators are realizing,” says Duardo, “that we need to look at the whole child to make sure that they’re doing well emotionally and physically in order to be successful academically.”  

Duardo started her professional career as a social worker, so she is well-versed in the importance of “meeting clients where they’re at,” which often involves applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—knowing, for example, that children can’t concentrate if they’re hungry, or they can’t absorb information if they’ve been traumatized. The hunger and the trauma must first be recognized and treated before learning can take place. Community schools, says Duardo, are designed to “be hubs that address the needs of the whole child.”

Hubs of Equity

LA County started its pilot community schools program in 2019 with 15 high schools in 15 different districts. “We have 80 districts and we’re trying to scale that out,” says Duardo. “But first we looked at equity, and we tried to make sure that the districts and the schools with the highest need were at the top of the list.”

Why high schools? “Some of them already had wellness centers or a community center in place,” says Duardo. Because of these established partnerships, “it just made sense to start with the high schools.” The plan is to expand outward. “Some of the high schools are already engaging with the feeder middle schools to make sure that the middle school families are aware of the services they can access.”

The list of community organizations that partner with these pilot schools is long. In addition to what Duardo refers to as “an unprecedented partnership with the county’s Department of Mental Health,” other formal partnerships are with departments of Health Services; Public Health; Children and Family Services; Consumer and Business; Probation; Parks and Recreation; Public Social Services; Workforce Development, Aging, and Community Services; the county’s natural history museum, public libraries, and more.

Staffing

These many moving parts must be managed. With most teachers and school administrators already overworked, “you need additional staff in place,” says Duardo. Ideally, she says, these dedicated staff members are “people with a background in community organizing, mental health, or counseling, and with experience at school sites.”

“What’s unique about our program is the infrastructure. We have a director at LACOE providing the staffing. . . going out and doing the site visits and seeing how [community schools] are being implemented—being a real thought partner alongside each district.” That staffing includes “a community school coordinator and a community-parent engagement person” at each of LACOE’s pilot schools.

The Work

The initial work of these staff members involves bringing “people together who are invested in children and families,” says Duardo, “to develop a process to talk to each other, work together, and leverage resources to make sure we’re doing the very best that we can for our children and our communities.” The work then requires “coordinating services and volunteers, getting parental consent, working through referral processes.”

Duardo knows how the history of education is littered with brilliant ideas that turned into stories of failed school reform. Intent on doing more than avoiding failure, Duardo says, “I can’t tell you how critical it is to involve the people who are most impacted.” This involvement requires that students and parents play a key part in the leadership. In addition, “you have to be sure that you’re bringing in the things they want, the things that are their priority. If you don’t have their involvement, and if you think you know better than the community itself, it’s very easy to design a program that doesn’t meet the needs of the very people you’re trying to serve.

“The big thing is empowerment, giving students and parents a voice,” she says. Having just visited one of the county’s schools, she lists the standard community school protocols and activities that were in place—community involvement, coordinated services, regular meetings to discuss improvements. But “the big thing that I saw was the empowerment. Students were leading the efforts, talking about mental health, breaking stigmas. Parents were talking about how they were empowered, and the pride they felt for their children.”

Empowerment

Teresa Murillo is the community schools coordinator at Ganesha High School. The first thing she did when she started in April of 2020 “was to create an advisory council that’s made up of our teachers and support staff, our community partners, including parents, and district staff.” Conducting an initial needs assessment was the next step. “Working together as a team is really powerful,” she says, “when you join staff with community partners to establish goals and priorities that support a vision for the school.”

Community school councils meet monthly to examine how they can best support students, what needs may have changed, what priorities they need to adjust, and how they can strengthen their efforts. “We’re not just a mental health add-on,” says Frances Valdez, the community school specialist at John Glenn High School. “It’s beyond mental health. It’s looking at all basic needs and building systems of access.”

And those needs vary, says Duardo, ticking off a range of possibilities: better serving English language learners and their families, addressing issues of hunger and poverty, confronting violence and behavioral issues, supporting students to get into college. “It’s whatever comes out of your needs assessment.” The direct involvement from parents, students, and community partners results in no two community schools looking alike—but each providing what is needed.

Coordinated Services

Murillo started her role at Ganesha in the month the coronavirus pandemic broke out. As the school site had to shut down, she says, “we knew that a lot of students were struggling to engage, and they needed academic support.” Those became the school’s priorities: strengthening student engagement and providing academic support.

“We started making personal phone calls to families,” she says, to make sure they were doing OK, to assess what they needed, and to learn how the school could support students. She and her colleagues then started conducting home visits, “dropping off Chromebooks so that students could get that academic support.” She says that “making this decision as a team put us all on the same page. We’re not duplicating services, and we’re supporting each other.”

When she began, Murillo also “attended as many community meetings as possible,” she says, “to learn about what other organizations were doing and to share what we were trying to do as a community school. We met with Tri-City Mental Health, David & Margaret Youth and Family Services, Leroy Haines Family of Programs; we met with Just Us 4 Youth, God’s Pantry, the American Jobs Center for Pomona Valley. And we invited them to our advisory council to be part of the conversation.”

Many of these organizations were already serving the youth and families from Ganesha. But the organization, staffing, and philosophy of the community school model made it possible, says Murillo, to work with them to coordinate and align services.

Integrated Supports

Integrated supports for students are foundational to community schools. This effort involves “making connections for students and following through so students get the support they need to improve attendance, to improve graduation rates, to reduce suspension rates,” says Duardo. Valdez offers some examples at the student and family levels.

“Recently I worked with kids who require tutoring,” she says. “There’s a bunch of tutoring services in our school site, at our public library, and at our district through its partnership with Tutor.com. While these things exist, they’re often not used because kids don’t know how to access them.” Valdez makes sure students know that the services are available, gives them encouragement, teaches them how to use the services, and helps them experience success in their efforts. Ensuring this kind of access requires “lots of information and consistent outreach to students and families.”

When she stepped into her role in early 2020, Valdez says, “we had some existing partners at the school, but the coordination and the integration wasn’t taking place.” Through the work of her Community School Advisory Council, she was able to support families to get health insurance and to navigate complicated Medi-Cal processes. Through “a partnership with Pacific Clinics and a clinician on campus, we work with their access-to-care coordinator” who lets her team know the status of various medically related referrals—and, most importantly, “whether or not the students we refer are getting services.” Valdez can be sure that students in need of services don’t fall through the cracks.

Professional Development

The work of any community school, however, involves more than the extra effort of a designated staff member or two. “All teachers and other school employees need to buy into this,” says Duardo. The 15 participating districts, she says, “had to sign an agreement that said they were committed, they were going to make time for all the professional development, and they were going to support this effort.” This training addressed “what the model is and what we’re trying to accomplish,” says Duardo. Professional development also focuses on trauma-informed care.

In many underperforming schools, staff training in trauma-informed practices is critical to the success of many students, especially those who have been marginalized. We have to “help teachers find compassion, to help them not personalize the behavior of children,” says Duardo. She dismisses any suggestion that this approach is complicated. “If you think about it,” she says, “it’s just understanding your children.

“If you have a child who just saw his mother beaten up last night, or his stepdad arrested, he might come to school with some anger and without the ability to talk about it. He might just pick up a chair and throw it out the window.” The child, she says, “is not out to get the teacher or disrespect them.” The child, she implies, is simply trying to manage a traumatic moment without the tools to do it in a constructive way. Understanding trauma and knowing how to respond to its manifestations are key to supporting students to develop higher levels of self-awareness and executive function. In effect, trauma-informed practices can teach students how to more successfully manage school and life.

Authentic Family Engagement

Authentic family engagement is central to a successful community school. And it is a challenge for nearly every school. Too often, says Duardo, educators, “tell parents we want them to participate. But what we’re really looking for is someone to agree with us.”

Duardo has a playbook for promoting authentic engagement: focus on the family’s strengths, communicate genuine respect, share information, invest time, and practice compassion.

“Parents don’t need educators talking about all of the problems that exist within their community. We need to talk about the strengths and how we can build on those.” One of those strengths, she says, is each parent’s knowledge of the child. “We have to understand that they know their child better than anyone else. We need to listen to that.”

Education is another element. Sometimes parents are not aware of the research and science” that exist behind new initiatives or educational practices. Duardo insists on the importance of sharing germane information with parents, but also having conversations with them about their priorities. And then “honoring every idea, even if your first response is that it would be too hard, or take too much time. Going through a process of saying, ‘Let’s see if we can make that work.’”

 Duardo also counsels compassion. “We need to understand what their world is like, what can be done realistically. Otherwise parents will just sit there—as I did in my son’s IEP meetings—not saying anything and just walking away feeling this guilt.”

Finally, any relationship takes time, says Duardo, and relationships with parents are no different.

Organizational Culture

Duardo talks about the additional challenge of bringing people from outside organizations onto school campuses. “Everyone comes to a partnership with an agenda of what they want to happen.” There, too, she says, “It takes time to develop relationships and trust and really get down to how we are going to make this work.” For example, there may be a clash of culture with an organization that tend to respond punitively to behavioral challenges. “But we want to take a more empowering approach. And we have to deal with all of those things.”

Students with Disabilities

Duardo’s experience of “deficit-based IEP meetings” has sharpened her commitment to creating community schools that are strengths-based. Sometimes, she says, a student is severely emotionally disturbed because of a “severely challenging environment. We are working to change that equation,” she says, by creating schools that focus on “seeing the strengths and the assets that children bring to the conversation. We need to look at students through a lens of strength, and not a deficit.” Not taking this approach, she says, results in “kids having a low level of trust because adults had bailed on them.”

In addition to capitalizing on strengths, Valdez and Murillo describe service models that are more focused on what exactly will help students, not on whether or not they have a disability label. “We developed a site intervention team this year,” says Valdez, “for any student with any concern, whether it’s behavioral or learning or basic needs. We’re meeting to support them. Our site intervention team—which is our principal, the community schools team, and our site intervention counselor—discusses the students’ grades, attendance, discipline, assessments. We’re looking at how any student might fall through the cracks and how to support them.”

Community schools, by definition, are a strategy for creating this kind of equity by providing a wide range of services for any student, especially for those who are traditionally underserved and marginalized. Research shows that these schools “increase equitable access to resources and whole child supports that create the conditions for learning and healthy development for all children, including students of color, English language learners, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities.”

Goals

What general success will look like for community schools is what success looks like for any school. “We definitely want our students to improve their grades and attendance,” says Murillo, “and to get the information they need about college and career opportunities so they can take advantage of those opportunities and make an informed decision about their future.”

Successes for LACOE’s community schools may be incremental at first, and mostly organizational. Those first small steps, says Duardo, involve “how many partners each site has. How many trainings the staff are participating in. How many different programs we’re offering. How many families are taking advantage of parent workshops. How many kids are in student programs.”

While it’s too early to see major change, much is happening in LA County. Community partners are being brought on board, schools are beginning to operate as service hubs, and information about each of the 15 community school sites and what they have to offer is spreading among students and their families.                       

Larger Goals

The UCLA Center for Community Schooling will be conducting an evaluation of some of the more long-term goals: increased graduation rates, decreased numbers of chronic absentees and dropouts, reduced suspensions, and increased family engagement.

Within three years Duardo says she expects to see important improvements related to behavior—“less fighting on campus, less discipline because we’re giving children an outlet, safe spaces where they can go, giving them alternatives”—and parent and student engagement. She intends to be more patient with “graduation rates. Those are going to take a lot longer.”

Data to track these changes are being gathered and evaluated by UCLA, which also provides the professional development for the 15 pilot schools.

Saving Money, Saving Lives

“We’re looking at inclusion and empowerment and tolerance and acceptance and compassion. Identifying the needs of communities and finding people who are willing to work together and leverage resources so that children get what they need to be successful in school and in life,” says Duardo. No small order. But in addition to the expanding degree of student success within LA County’s community schools, she also expects to realize significant financial savings for the county, state, and country at large.

A coordinated community approach to schooling has been shown to successfully slow if not altogether stop the school-to-prison pipeline. Community schools are “the best diversion program possible,” Duardo says. “We pay something like $300,000 to incarcerate a child for a year.” The investment in wrap-around services at community schools pales in comparison, “and I’m talking about everything from early childhood education and after.” She is committed to the community school model that “wraps services around to make sure we identify families and students who are struggling or who have unique needs—addressing these needs early on before it becomes much more difficult and much more costly to intervene.”

Grant Money

Duardo’s argument—to pay for something now in order to secure future savings—is oftentimes difficult to make. The community schools model has become compelling, however, and California is doing its part to promote it. With $45 million from its 2019–2020 budget, the state created a Community Schools Partnership Program (CCSPP). LACOE applied for and was awarded $3 million from that initial funding.

The 2021–2022 budget ramped up the investment, allocating nearly $3 billion in grant money over seven years for the CCSPP to “establish new, and expand existing, community schools” that promote integrated student supports, enriched and expanded learning opportunities, family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership and practice. “We will be applying for the new grant money to continue to support the students and families in LA County,” says Duardo. “With our schools, we can do a lot better.”

Nearly $3 billion from the state is a solid step toward increasing interest in what that “better” might look like.

The Continuing Evolution of Teacher Preparation in California 

Teacher in classroomOne prospective teacher is completing all of her coursework and teaching practicum within the Greenfield Union School District (USD) in Kern County. Her classes are co-taught by faculty from California State University-Bakersfield and Greenfield USD. For a year she has been partnering with a skilled mentor teacher from the district, who guides and trains her. They plan lessons together and co-teach classes.

This prospective teacher is participating in the Teacher Residency Program (TRP), a $350 million state-funded initiative designed to recruit, train, and retain teachers. TRP is just one of many ways that California is addressing a persistent shortage of teachers, a shortage that has been exacerbated by the retirement of many long-time teachers and more recently by the lingering coronavirus pandemic.

TRP offers competitive grants for local educational agencies (LEAs) and teacher preparation programs to collaborate. The funds can be used two ways:

  • To train teachers in fields where the shortage is greatest, especially special education and bilingual education
  • To recruit and develop systems to retain a diverse teacher workforce that reflects the local community

At CSU Bakersfield, “we have five residency programs with five different districts,” says BreAnna Evans-Santiago, chair of teacher education. “We work together with them on curriculum development, and our students get 1,000 hours of classroom experience” thereby linking theory and practice. The students may receive scholarships, stipends, payment of student debt, or other financial incentives. “They then agree to work with a specific district for a certain time.”

Bakersfield is just one of 22 CSU campuses that offer residency programs. With an acknowledged need to diversify the teaching community, “We know that teacher residency programs are a pathway that trains and retains teachers of color,” says Marquita Grenot-Scheyer, CSU vice chancellor. And, says Sarah Solari Colombini, a consultant at the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC), “a student who experiences the deep preparation it offers by shadowing an expert teacher for a year is less likely to experience burnout.”

Additional grants have been designed to get prospective teachers into the pipeline, “and we are hoping to extend how long they stay in the field,” says William Hatrick of the CTC. To specifically target the shortage of special education faculty, the Local Solutions grant program provides funding to LEAs to recruit, prepare, and support special education teachers. Every student who receives financial support from this program agrees to teach at a school within the LEA as an education specialist for four years.

Other recruiting efforts include programs at community colleges that offer teacher credential courses in locations around the state with low rates of credentialed teachers. California universities also have partnered with the Collaborative for Effective Educator Development Accountability and Reform (CEEDAR), a national technical assistance center, to improve instruction for students with disabilities in inclusive settings. CEEEDAR, is “helping us reimagine how we prepare teachers who can teach all children,” Grenot-Scheyer says. And then there is the “grow your own” plan in which districts and colleges look for candidates with roots in the community. One way the districts are seeking candidates, says Solari Colombini, is by “identifying paraprofessionals, people in the community who are likely to stay.”

With state and federal funds now available for teacher education, “we have to communicate that to prospective candidates who may need help with financial support for tuition, and even food and housing,” says Victoria Graf, professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Loyola Marymount University (LMU). “We need to think of better marketing.” 

Since the teacher shortage is not new, neither are the state’s marketing efforts. But with many new pathways to becoming a teacher now available, the California Department of Education, CTC, and teacher preparation programs are working overtime to get the word out. The state budget for 2021–2022 will help. California has earmarked an unprecedented amount of money (more than $2 billion) to support the preparation and retention of teachers.

Distance Learning

When K–12 schools switched to distance learning in March 2020, so did teacher preparation programs. “We had to pivot very quickly to teaching all online,” says Graf. “Zoom classes have been pretty effective. With breakout rooms you can have better discussions, more participation.” LMU will continue to offer classes online through spring 2022.

The Innovation in Digital Education and Leadership (iDEAL) Institute at LMU created modules to help candidates teach in the virtual world, including how to design classes using Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which offers multiple ways for students to access lessons and show what they know. And LMU’s Center for Equity for English Learners (CEEL) shares resources for teaching English language learners online, working with schools “to help students and parents cross cultural and linguistic barriers to access,” says Magaly Lavadenz, CEEL director.

Most schools sites and college campuses have returned to in-person learning now, but COVID-19 led to some acknowledgments, some changes, and some increased flexibility in teacher preparation programs.

Recruiting Candidates of Color

“If there was any silver lining” to the pandemic, Grenot-Scheyer says, it was how “it shed a harsh light on systemic inequities, racial disparities, disproportionality in our schools.” One way teacher preparation programs are tackling these kinds of inequities is by recruiting candidates of color. Studies show that students of color perform better when they are taught by teachers who look like them, and the CSU system is “intentional” in its efforts to “recruit and support minority candidates,” she says. Four CSU campuses are using a grant from the Gates Foundation to help diversify the teaching force.

Graf also puts a high priority on recruiting candidates of color “especially African Americans to come into teaching and to become administrators. And given some of the challenges of special education, including over-classification of African Americans, we need to be intentional about looking at disproportionality.”

The pandemic also led to some changes in the requirements for earning a teacher credential. The CTC normally requires 600 hours of clinical practice for a credential. “What’s really important,” says Solari Colombini, “is whether the candidate is prepared. The CTC allowed the preparation program to decide that.”

Also changed was the requirement that candidates pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST), which measures proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics. Assembly Bill 130 created two alternative options for credential candidates. They could meet the basic skills requirement through coursework alone or through a combination of course work and an examination. Those who don’t meet the requirement must then take the test.  “The CTC really worked with us,” says CSU’s Grenot-Scheyer. “More candidates apply because of the relaxed basic skills test.”

School site closures also led to “a renewed commitment to mental health. Many students continue to struggle,” says Grenot-Scheyer. Teacher preparation courses now have a greater focus on social-emotional development. Graf agrees with the importance of this focus. “It will be incredibly difficult for students to learn if we don’t pay attention to their mental health. But we can’t diminish academic preparation. It’s a balancing act that looks at the whole child.” New state standards for acquiring a teaching credential also place additional emphasis on social-emotional learning.

New Standards

The CTC has been revising the credentialing standards for the better part of a decade. Following the release of the recommendations of the California Statewide Task Force on Special Education, published in One System: Reforming Education to Serve All Students in 2015, the CTC began revising the requirements for obtaining a teaching credential to reflect this goal of one system of education for everyone. In the process, the CTC has approved a plan for all teachers—whether general educators or special educators—to share a “common trunk” of knowledge and skills that will enable them to serve all students in a general education setting to the greatest extent possible. “With the common trunk and more shared information, it is easier for general ed teachers to get a special ed credential and vice versa,” says CTC’s Hatrick.

New standards and Teaching Performance Expectations (TPEs) for general education teachers were approved in 2016, and TPEs for special education teachers were released in 2018. The standards reflect this new focus on social-emotional development, along with cognitive development, and emphasize collaborative teaching. The TPEs for all five special education credential tracks—mild–moderate support needs, extensive support needs, early childhood special education, Deaf and hard of hearing, and visual impairments—include “planning instruction and designing learning experiences for all students.”

“The standards are most rigorous now,” says Graf. “We are reworking our programs,” to reflect that rigor, she says, referring to LMU and every other teacher preparation program in the state. All plans for implementing new standards were submitted in October 2021, and the CTC is in the process of reviewing them.

In response to the call for “one system” of education, some CSU programs are offering dual-credential programs, where graduates will be certified in both general and special education. “Six to nine campuses are making good progress on inclusive teacher preparation,” says Grenot-Scheyer.

Inclusive Teaching

In Shasta County, inclusive teaching is also on the minds of Jeremy Sawtelle, director of specialized student support at the Shasta County Office of Education, and Nick Syrrist, support services consultant for the county’s Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA). They work together to train teachers across 11 counties in Northern California. With a recent and substantial staff turnover in the area, Syrrist is asking, “How can we use this as an opportunity to foster inclusion? How can we build the confidence of the teachers we have to serve all students?”

In response to these questions, Sawtelle says they offer training on such subjects as “‘What is equity? What does UDL really look like in the classroom? How do we use data to inform our teaching?’

“We have to change hearts and create a mindset that all students can learn.”

The tumult of the past two years has brought some hopeful signs to education. With distance learning, “parents have seen how difficult it is to teach,” says Grenot-Scheyer, “and we are seeing a new appreciation for teachers.” At the same time, “We are seeing a renewed interest in teaching. We are seeing applicants who are passionate about social justice and want to become teachers.”

For years California has struggled with teacher shortages and with widening inequities among students. The new teacher preparation initiatives are designed to address both.

The 2021–22 State Budget for Special Education

“This year’s budget is historic,” says Leticia Garcia, referring to California’s 2021–22 budget as it applies to education. Garcia is the policy director for governmental relations at the Riverside County Office of Education, and she sees the budget benefiting special education in particular. That’s a good thing, she says, since it “has been historically and woefully underfunded” from the beginning.

Special education became mandatory in 1975 when Congress passed Public Law 94-142 (later reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA). This law guaranteed a free and appropriate public education to students with disabilities. With that guarantee came a promise of federal funding to states to cover 40 percent of the excess cost of providing the necessary educational supports and services. In the subsequent 47 years, the law has undergone several reauthorizations, but the promised 40 percent has never fully materialized.

The coronavirus pandemic has both highlighted and exacerbated this and other long-standing educational inequities. Ironically, the pandemic also may have motivated the state to more fully fund efforts to address them.

Equalizing SELPA Funding

While there is a great deal more money for special education in the 2021–22 budget than was anticipated, Garcia does not see any anomaly. “In recent budgets,” she says, “we have seen a continued state investment in special education. It started out with one-time money. But in the last two years, that one-time money has become ongoing—progress toward equalizing the level of funding” for pupils in the state.

Benay Loftus and Anjanette Pelletier agree. They are directors of Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAS) for Antelope Valley and San Mateo County, respectively. According to Pelletier, the budget is a continuation of “explicit, multi-year commitments from the legislature and the administration toward supporting special education and special education equity.”

SELPAs are central players in California’s funding arena. They currently constitute the state’s regional system of financial distribution and programmatic management for local educational agencies (LEAs: school districts, county offices of education, and some charter schools) for students with disabilities. Since their inception, however, SELPAs have been unequally funded across the state, due in great part to long-standing and complicated funding rates and formulas. California’s current budget makes significant inroads toward addressing those inequities.

“For the ten years prior, our budgets were stagnant,” says Loftus, “and we didn’t even receive the full funding of our base rate.” She sees the current budget as a reflection of “the legislature and the governor really believing that [special education] is an underfunded program and needed a fiscal infusion.”

Additionally, the budget funded a governance and accountability study that will further guide the state’s efforts to make the use of money for special education more equitable, transparent, and local. But along with equalizing the distribution of money for special education services overall, this budget contributes to equity in education for students with disabilities in numerous other ways, both general and specific.

General Funds

The 2021–22 budget increases funding for each pupil in the state to an estimated $21,000. Since students with disabilities are general education students first, they stand to benefit. Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) dollars will also increase (by $1.8 billion). This money is targeted to those LEAs with high percentages of students who are from low-income families, who are English language learners, and who live in foster care or are homeless. Students with disabilities are well represented in each of these three groups. And since there are students with disabilities in nearly every other identified student subgroup, they stand to benefit additionally from the following funding lines:

  • $2.4 million that will fund LGBTQ+ and cultural competency resources and training for educators
  • $5 million to fund ethnic studies in schools
  • $4 million to fund an Antibias Education Grant Program that will provide professional development to address hate, bigotry, racism, or any form of bias or prejudice
  • $6 million for school climate surveys and resources
  • $5.2 billion to invest in connectivity to make sure that students can connect remotely to school from their devices if they cannot physically attend
  • $54 million for additional school meal reimbursements under the State Meal Program. This money will grow to $650 million in 2022–23 so that any child who asks for a meal at school will receive one.

Learning Recovery

The budget’s $450 million for Learning Recovery, however, is specifically designated for students with disabilities. In the wake of the pandemic, the money is well placed.

The federal Office for Civil Rights reports that school site closures and the resulting diminishment of in-person interactions between students and teachers may have affected students with disabilities more than any other group. “For many elementary and secondary school students with disabilities,” the report reads, “COVID-19 has significantly disrupted the education and related aids and services needed to support their academic progress and prevent regression. And there are signs that those disruptions may be exacerbating longstanding disability-based disparities in academic achievement.”

California’s Learning Recovery money will support efforts to redress that disruption and learning loss. The funds are already being used by school districts, according to Loftus, to develop plans to accelerate learning and to provide additional services to students with disabilities. “Districts and staff are doing great stuff,” she says, “creating incentive programs, providing before- and after-school tutoring, making in-home visits,” and more.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Parents are always interested in how their children are faring in school. The pandemic has added new levels of concern to this interest, leaving many, including parents of students with disabilities, wondering how school site closures may have hampered their child’s educational progress—and what to do in response. Schools are wondering the same, and disagreements about what exactly to do are bound to emerge. 

Maureen Burness, a former SELPA director and member of the Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE) and current consultant for the State Performance Plan Technical Assistance Project (SPP-TAP), sees the issue from the perspectives of both parents and school districts. “The pandemic put so many difficulties in the way of delivering services,” she says. “We need to help parents and families understand that there is a difference” among situations. In some cases, “The district may have failed to do its duty.” And in others, “This pandemic happened, and the district simply couldn’t do some of the things it needed to do, things that the child’s IEP required, without seeing the student in person.” Should a student receive compensatory education? Or does an Individualized Education Program (IEP) simply need to be updated to reflect current levels of performance and need? In either case, how can families and schools more forward?

The budget has anticipated this set of challenges in the form of $550 million in one-time money to expand Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) efforts to address what happened during the pandemic. ADR makes it possible for schools and families to work cooperatively toward agreements, with a focus on keeping relationships intact. Research shows that when disputing parties settle their disagreements outside of the court system, those involved avoid time-consuming and costly litigation, while important services and supports for the student are uninterrupted.

Mildred Browne is a strong advocate of ADR. A former ACSE member and SELPA director, and a current SPP-TAP consultant, Browne says she sees the new ADR money as providing an opportunity for educators “to figure out how to communicate and problem solve with families to build those relationships so that the outcomes are good for students. That’s what’s most important.”

Impetus

According to Loftus, SELPA Administrators of California gets some credit for securing both the Learning Recovery and ADR dollars in the 2021–22 budget. “We co-sponsored a bill asking that those things be put in place,” she says. “We’ve ramped up our advocacy efforts with those targets in mind,” adds Pelletier, “and we’ve had some fantastic legislative partners who have floated bills specific to those issues in the last five years.”

Burness suggests another force that may have helped to create the cohesive direction of this and previous budgets: the California Statewide Task Force on Special Education. This group was formed in 2013 to examine why the learning gap for students with disabilities in the state was so wide and to determine what could be changed in policy and practice to improve their school outcomes. Recommendations from the group’s two years of study were released in 2015, titled One System: Reforming Education to Serve All Students.

Early Learning and Care

Burness, who was the co-executive director of that task force, points specifically to the group’s recommendation to improve “access to and coordination of high-quality early care and preschool. . . particularly for children with disabilities, children who grow up in poverty, and children who are dual language learners—with the access not dependent upon geography or service provider.” Burness argues that the achievement gap for students with disabilities “has only gotten bigger. It starts at an early age, and we need to do something about it. We must put our money where the needs are.”

The state is putting a great deal of money where it can benefit young children, again doubling down on established commitments. “The past few years,” says Loftus, “have seen long-overdue and fabulous increases in funding” for preschools, with one-time money in the 2019–20 budget cycle. The investment in 2021–22 provides “ongoing funding for early childhood and preschool. The state had never before made this kind of commitment for services and supports for inclusive settings,” she says, which will “improve readiness and long-term outcomes” for infants, toddlers, and young children with disabilities.

In specific amounts, the budget provides $300 million to support preschool expansion planning and capacity building for LEAs and COEs. The money for universal transitional kindergarten is more complicated but is estimated to be $600 million from the General Fund, growing in the 2022–23 budget to reach $2.7 billion in 2025–26, which would fully implement transitional kindergarten. The budget also provides $260 million for Special Education Early Intervention Preschool Grants, which will provide early intervention services to infants and toddlers with a disability or who are at risk of a developmental delay.

Highlighting the importance of early intervention, California’s 2018 Joint Informational Hearing on Special Education Finance reported, “Early Intervention is the key to future success for students, especially for those with disabilities. Many students who receive interventions as infants and preschoolers make significant gains and are able to be educated in general education with their peers with little or no special education support, as they enter the primary grades. . . .  Therefore, by funding early intervention programs at necessary levels, the benefits to students as well as the cost savings would be significant across the remainder of the students’ educational careers.”

A great deal of that funding is now here.

Inclusion

Support for developing inclusive practices and settings for all students with disabilities is another of the state’s established commitments. The 2016 budget provided funds for an incipient Supporting Inclusive Practices (SIP) Project. Project Director Kristin Brooks recalls starting the effort six years ago as “a one-man band running around California” preaching the benefits of inclusion. This year California has exponentially increased that initial investment in the 2021–22 budget.

“The power of inclusive practice,” Pelletier says, is confirmed. “Every single bit of research tells us that inclusive practices are the way to improve outcomes for students with disabilities—and they help all students. This 2021–22 budget gives us resources to make those things happen.”

The SIP project provides technical assistance to increase the number of students with disabilities who receive their education in well-designed inclusive settings. Individual schools (including charter schools), school districts, SELPAs, and county offices of education in California are all eligible to apply for a SIP grant.

As this project has grown, Brooks and her co-director Kevin Schaefer have gathered remarkable data to justify the budgetary increase. “The average change from joining the project for a 3-year participant,” Brooks says, “was 2.18 percent. The change for a 4-year participant was 2.49 percent. But the change for 5-years was 18.92 percent. So if you are with the project for five or more years,” says Brooks, “you show five times the average rate of increase” in inclusion. It’s not surprising that she is advocating for participants to be involved in the project for “no less than 3 to 5 years, and preferably 5 years.”

Brooks and Schaefer have five years to spend the money from the current budget, and they want to make the most of every year. Their data explain why the project has agreed to more than double its number of grantees in one year, to a total of 100 by spring 2022. “It’s aggressive,” Brooks says, but she also feels well supported by the state’s System of Support and the California Department of Education. “You show what you value by how you allocate your resources. And we’re getting the platform to highlight how important it is for this boots-on-the-ground technical assistance work to happen.”

Professional Development and Quality Instruction

Despite her enthusiasm, Brooks admits to some concern about finding the additional personnel she will need. Staffing concerns are not hers alone, and they are not new. The state has for decades struggled to find enough teachers. Today California has 40,000 fewer public school teachers than in 2008, and special education staff and service providers are regularly at the top of the “help wanted” postings. Here again, the 2021–22 budget delivers good news that builds on previous efforts.

“This is the best year for education in what seems like forever,” says Burness, referring in part to the “focus on expanding educator preparation programs. There has been great growth in that area,” she says, “and there have been some wonderful recommendations about career ladders” that came out of previous budgets. “That’s a direction we need to continue.”

For teacher preparation, retention, and professional development, the current budget provides:

  • $2 million to waive the fees typically required of credentialed teachers.

  • $250 million “to provide incentive grants to attract and retain National Board Certified teachers to teach in high poverty schools, serve as mentors for other instructional staff, and support other teachers in pursuing National Board certification.”

  • $350 million “to support teacher preparation residencies and other grow-your-own teacher credentialing programs.”

  • $500 million “available over five years to support a combined total of at least 25,000 grants for teacher credential candidates who commit to teach at a priority school, in a high-need subject matter area, for four years.”

  • $1.5 billion to “provide professional development for teachers, administrators, and other in-person staff that work with pupils.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, President of California’s State Board of Education, has been a long-standing and vocal advocate for teachers in the state. “California is committed,” she writes in an email, “not only to better funding services to our learners who receive special education services, but also to creating strong, affordable pathways into the profession for teachers who are well-prepared to meet their needs.” The state’s 2021–22 budget reflects this continued commitment.

Family Empowerment Centers

The budget also reflects a continuing awareness of the important role that parents play in the educational success of their children, especially those with disabilities. The state has provided $7 million of additional funding for Family Empowerment Centers (FECs).

Established in 2001 by Senate Bill 511, these centers provide information, training, and peer-to-peer support to families of children with disabilities. The purpose of these centers is to prepare “families to partner with professionals in obtaining an appropriate education” for their children.

The expressed intent of SB 511 was to develop 32 centers in California. There are currently 14. This year’s budget will give priority to those areas of the state that do not have an FEC, which Loftus says is “a significant step toward equity for those living in parts of the state without a center.”

Behavioral and Mental Health

The pandemic has made mental health a central topic for anyone interested in the country’s children and sharpened the cries of many California initiatives (e.g., Breaking Barriers, California Wraparound, California Children’s Trust) to better coordinate mental health services for children across the state, especially children from under-resourced families.  

“I do think the whole world has shifted” in response to the pandemic, says Browne. “Many of our students are coming back to school in greater need than when they left. I’m particularly concerned about those students from traditionally under-served populations—African Americans, Native Americans, Latinx families, and all of those diverse families. It was so difficult to determine just how much access to mental health services they actually got during the pandemic.”

Browne is not alone. As the pandemic drags on, regular reports of the high “rates of anxiety, depression, and stress, and even more specific issues such as addictive internet behaviors” among children and youth during the last two years alarm both educators and parents.

The budget has responded to these concerns by providing $4.4 billion to create a Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative, which will work to better connect children and youth to screenings, counseling, and therapy so that they and their families can deal with such issues as pandemic-related depression and self-abuse. The budget includes $205 million “to fund school and county mental health partnerships to support the mental health and emotional needs of children and youth as they return to schools and everyday life.”

Garcia says, “We all need to be aligned to make sure that students have access to the mental health services that they desperately need.” The money for a behavioral health initiative and an additional $50 million for social-emotional learning promise to be firm steps in that direction, especially when coupled with the model of community schools.

Community Schools

The 2021–22 budget includes a seven-year grant of $3 billion for the creation and expansion of community schools, and the development of technical assistance centers for their support. This money represents another recurring but expanding commitment on the part of the governor and state legislature. The previous budget included $45 million for community schools.

The state’s vision, Garcia says, “is for schools in general to be the access point” for mental health and other wrap-around services.” Speaking at the November 2021 meeting of California’s State Board of Education, Darling-Hammond referred to these schools as “a way to manage and integrate the complexity of the programs that already exist.”

Community schools, by definition, are a strategy for creating equity as they “partner with community agencies and local government to provide an integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement.” Research shows them to “increase equitable access to resources and whole child supports that create the conditions for learning and healthy development for all children, including students of color, English language learners, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities.”

California’s significant increase in funding for this model, says Garcia, is a “recognition that there is a huge need for mental health services among children and youth. We just need to make sure we’re all speaking the same language,” she says, echoing the core feature of the service coordination that is the heart of this model.

Medi-CAL Expansion

Securing medical insurance to address physical and mental health needs is often costly and complicated. Under-resourced families with children who have disabilities can face particular challenges. A workgroup formed in 2019 in response to Senate Bill 75 was charged with finding ways to make it easier for LEAs and SELPAs to access Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid) dollars for mental health services. A commitment to securing appropriate access to Medi-Cal dollars continues in the current budget, which delivers $5 million to establish pilot sites focused on increasing access to federal Medicaid dollars and increasing provider payments to support children’s health services and screenings.

The budget also approves $1 million in General Fund one-time money and $30,000 in ongoing funding for field testing translated Medi-Cal materials to ensure that they are understood by the intended audiences—another step toward equitable access for families and children.

The Future

The Statewide Task Force on Special Education recommended addressing inequities by aligning and coordinating systems—general education and special education—to create one system of education. Much alignment has happened since the task force made that recommendation in 2015.

Heather Calomese, director of the California Department of Education, Special Education Division, reported to the State Board of Education in November 2021 on the numerous alignment successes in the last six years. With the help of previous budgets, the division has, for example, overseen the incorporation of the state’s data system for special education into the general education data system. Students with disabilities have been included as a “significant student group” in the California School Dashboard. Students with disabilities are now eligible for Differentiated Assistance, which is part of the statewide System of Support that serves general education. A workgroup is aligning IEPs with the rigorous state learning standards that guide general education. And more.

The 2021–22 budget furthers these kinds of efforts, with many of its line items reading like direct responses to the task force recommendations: equalizing SELPA funding, fully funding Family Empowerment Centers, and making significant investments in teacher preparation and retention, quality child care, universal transitional kindergarten, early intervention, inclusion, and community schools to promote family and student engagement. In effect, this budget has taken an important step toward refining the system of education in California, making it more coherent, coordinated, and aligned for students with disabilities—and for all students.

In the wake of a seemingly relentless pandemic, concerns about learning loss, and “deepening divides in educational opportunity across our nation’s classrooms and campuses,” the state’s 2021–22 budget—along with projections of continuing historic increases in funding for schools—gives Californians many reasons to look to the future with optimism.

Additional Resources