I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but I just can’t help but feel shocked by the lack of progress in meeting the needs of students with learning differences in schools that have plenty of resources to do so. I have to admit that I am less surprised to hear of students passed through middle school with elementary reading levels despite on-going IEP programs in less affluent neighborhoods…but in Carmel Valley?! How can this still be happening today?!!
Recently, I met with a family looking for a reading evaluation for their daughter, who has been in the IEP system since early elementary school and is getting ready to transition to high school in the fall. Their daughter desperately wants to attend Canyon Crest Academy so she can play lacrosse with her friends, but the district has told them there aren’t adequate special education services to meet her needs at that campus. The family is not quite sure what to do with this information, as their daughter spent the last two years in an IEP program at her middle school where she received watered down curriculum and nearly zero remedial support for her learning disabilities. The parents fear their daughter has regressed and the student herself says she doesn’t feel that “anyone has been trying to teach her anything.” She prefers her regular education classes where at least the teachers hold higher expectations for students.
Upon evaluation, we found this rising 9th grader to have reading and spelling skills between the 4th-5th grade level with her overall reading comprehension just shy of the 3rd grade level. As a professional in the education field, this is an absolute failure of the school system – and ethically it is just plain criminal in my eyes.
Here we have a frustrated child who knows that her classroom instruction is far from effective in meeting her needs and is begging for a better solution. Why in the world can’t a school in a well-resourced community provide an appropriate education for this motivated student?
As much as I’d like to think that this is an aberrant, isolated failure of the school system, the problem is far more systemic. While San Dieguito Union School District appears from the outside as one of the most prestigious public school systems with beautiful campuses encompassing the upscale communities of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Encinitas, Leucadia, Del Mar, Solana Beach, La Costa, Carmel Valley, Rancho Santa Fe, and Fairbanks Ranch, the district’s approach to addressing students with learning differences is grossly insufficient. To start with, the district has only 10 full-time psychologists to evaluate the needs of students identified with learning challenges out of a population of 12,497 middle and high school students. While this sounds like a terribly poor ratio for support, the district is reportedly overstaffed by 1.5 full-time psychologists, based on the California Association of School Psychologists recommendation of a caseload of 1,469 students per psychologist. Nonetheless – and not surprising by any measure of common sense – a 2015 survey of the San Dieguito Special Education program reported that the psychologists are “extremely overworked and have difficulty fulfilling their responsibilities.”
As a testimony to the ineffectiveness of this system, $793,804 was spent in 2014-15 on due process settlements and legal expenses related to disgruntled families with special needs students within San Dieguito Union District. This amount was expected to rise in the 2015-16 academic year.
Based on a salary of $70,000/year, the district could have hired 10 more school psychologists to proactively address special education needs instead of spending the money on legal costs associated with defending their ineffective programming. How would you rather your tax dollars be spent???
With all of this wealth, it seems unimaginable to think that struggling students would be left without adequate support in areas like Carmel Valley, Del Mar, and Encinitas. Yet, I see nearly daily examples of students with language-based learning disabilities like dyslexia, dysgraphia, and auditory processing disorders left without real remediation or support at the middle and high school levels. Special education teachers do not have proper training and methodologies to address the foundational skills getting in the way of students’ learning, and general education teachers lack the knowledge and time to provide these students with effective accommodations. As a result, we have a whole population of students being ushered through the school system without sufficient skills to get by in the real world.
It’s time to rally for some real progress in special education. Children with language-based learning disabilities can be taught to read and write with research-based approaches. It is truly criminal to leave their potential on the table and their self-images marred with the feeling of failure despite their best intentions to do well and find success in learning.
~Megan Trezza, M.Ed.