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Oakland Unified Special Ed Plan in flux after Superintendent leaves

Sarah Tan
Markham Elementary 5th grade teacher Renee Gillespie passing out papers


Last May, Oakland Unified School District’s former superintendent Antwan Wilson put forth a master plan to prioritize an inclusion teaching model for its special education students. Inclusion is a teaching strategy in which students with special needs are integrated into general education classrooms, and are taught side by side with their general education peers.

Earlier this year, though, the superintendent left for a job in Washington D.C. Since then, the special education department has been in flux. Some parents and teachers are worried the district does not have the resources or the leadership to make inclusion work for everyone.


Nsambi Hasan is mother of a fifth grader named Jared who has ADHD and a speech delay. He’s in an inclusion class at Carl B. Munck Elementary, but Hasan said her son is often bullied, and doesn’t keep up with the class. She is worried that the inclusion class isn’t helping.


“Jared has his own world, and he wakes up in his own world, but every morning, for two and a half hours before he gets to school, I have to get him ready to get into their world,” she said.


The school declined to comment on Jared’s case, but Hasan said she thinks Jared’s problems stem from being left out in class.


“They’re still excluded within inclusion,” she said. “They’re always separated. You’ll always see a table up front, or in the back. If you walk into the classroom and see a table, you’ll know that’s where the special needs students sit.”


Though Oakland recently renewed its push towards more inclusion classes, inclusion is not a new concept. In the U.S., schools first made attempts at inclusion for students with special needs in the early 1960s. One school in Oakland, Montera Middle School, adopted inclusion strategies a decade ago, but according to school board president James Harris, too many special needs students were mostly in separate classes, not interacting much with their general ed peers.


“We have to get in Oakland a throughline in the services we provide,” Harris said.


He added that while Oakland had inclusion programs, they were mostly in schools in more affluent neighborhoods, and that former superintendent Wilson wanted inclusion in every Oakland school.


One of the schools that began piloting inclusion classes under the new plan was Markham Elementary in East Oakland. It piloted inclusion classes with their third, fourth and fifth graders this past September. In their model, each general education class of about 30 students folds in four to five students with mild or moderate special needs. Employing a co-teaching model, a general education teacher and a special education teacher teach the class together, and then break the class into smaller groups for more personalized attention. The goal is that special education students will be sprinkled into the smaller groups, and that their peers can also help teach them concepts.


“They’re able to teach each other, respond to each other,” special education teacher Christell Grace said. She also said it’s been good for general education students as well.


“It’s given them compassion and understanding, it’s given them an understanding that I need to embrace what I have and do my best.”


The Markham model is just one example of how inclusion can be done. At other schools, classes have one or two teachers plus individual aides for special ed students. Fifteen schools received professional development this school year, and the district says inclusion’s happening at all of them, but other teachers, like Sayuri Sakamoto at Bret Harte Middle school, say there are problems with implementation.


“Forty-three percent of this particular class was special education students,” Sakamoto said of one class that was supposed to be piloting inclusion. “Are the students succeeding in their classes? Yes. But could we have done things differently? Yes.”


Natalia Stark, a special education teacher at Oakland International High School, said that her inclusion classes also often have high numbers of special education students, which distorts the idea behind inclusion.


“So that changes the dynamic of the cohort in a way that is very difficult to manage,” Stark said. “As time goes on, if more and more students qualify...then it becomes more difficult to have heterogeneous grouping in the classes and to have students with a variety of skill levels that can teach and tutor each other.”


Sakamoto added that it’s also been difficult having the superintendent who championed inclusion leave while it’s being piloted.


“If there’s nobody leading us and providing this continuity and  these supports... teachers do quit, teachers don’t stay, teachers feel overwhelmed,” she said.


With an interim superintendent currently in place and continued turnover within the special education department, Sakamoto said students often pay the price.


“The lack of stability and leadership...it’s exhausting mentally,” she said. “So when there’s not someone who is firmly planted and firmly rooted...that absolutely affects our students and their learning.”


One of the district’s biggest partners, Teach for America, is also watching how inclusion will roll out. For the last 20 years, Teach for America’s filled about a third of the special education vacancies, about 20-30 teachers for the approximately 60 special education vacancies that happen yearly.  Now, director Tracy Session says they’re “hitting the pause button,” not assigning any new special education teachers until the inclusion plan is more clear.


“We think it’s a great idea, we believe that that should be our aspiration,” Session said about inclusion. “At the same time, our teachers were telling us that they had questions around what it would look like around implementation.”


He adds that he knows Teach for America’s absence will make an impact on special education staffing, but that they decided it was the best move in the long run. They hope to begin assigning new special education teachers to the district in the fall of 2019.


“We actually need to make sure we get it right because it’s what our students deserve, it’s what our families deserve, it’s what our teachers deserve quite frankly,” he said.


Aside from the staffing concerns, school board member James Harris said that one of the other barriers to achieving full inclusion is the price tag. He estimates the most ideal model would cost about 10 million dollars, but with a budget deficit, and a special education department that’s run 7 million dollars over budget in the past two years, Harris isn’t sure where that kind of money would come from.


“We’re trying to do this with a lot less money than New York or New Jersey, and it’s incredibly difficult,” he said.


One idea he proposes is cutting costs by moving services like speech therapy and testing into the district’s special education department, away from private contractors. Neena Bawa, OUSD’s director of schools for special education, said the district needs to better utilize teachers and resources that they already have.  

“We work with schools individually to look at their current staffing, what their students are, and develop a model around that, what is it going to look like in terms of needing extra support, or are we going to be able to use the current staff to support the needs of the students,” Bawa said.


Parent Lisa Rasler has a daughter, Clio, with Down Syndrome. Clio is currently a junior at Oakland Tech and has been in inclusion since Kindergarten.


“Clio has really thrived being in a diverse group of kids, really fully part of the community,” Rasler said. “It’s been in many ways a very good experience.”


But she said she was worried about things as the district moved toward full implementation of inclusion. She thinks inclusion on that scale will require more money than the district has. She speculates that the push for inclusion could be a way to trim the special education budget.


“I think that in some way there’s an idea in the district that universalizing inclusion will be cheaper, and I think that it is not necessarily cheaper at all,” Rasler said. “There are a lot of attending services that need to be provided in order for inclusion to be a really successful model.”


Teacher Natalia Stark was also skeptical of the district’s plans.


“One of the major barriers is, in order to have a successful inclusion program, it will actually cost a lot more money,” she said, “because it requires additional preparation time, and collaboration time...and additional training and additional resources.”

Nonetheless, the district plans to continue implementing district-wide inclusion, with 15 new schools piloting inclusion classes in the coming year. The end goal is that every school in Oakland will offer inclusion services within the next two years.