San Francisco Allows Special Needs Students to Choose Their School

by Tara Siler and Lisa Pickoff-White

School board member Rachel Norton's daughter couldn't follow her friends to Presidio Middle School five years ago. (Sierra Michels Slettvet/Flickr)
School board member Rachel Norton’s daughter couldn’t follow her friends to Presidio Middle School five years ago. (Sierra Michels Slettvet/Flickr)

Starting this fall, San Francisco public school students with special needs will be able to attend the school of their choice. Special education teachers and teacher aides will follow the students to their new schools.

Currently, San Francisco Unified has assigned nearly 7,000 special needs students to certain schools based on their particular disabilities. For the upcoming school year, 74 schools out of 114 will change their staffing to accommodate the new students. Some schools are getting more teachers or aides, some fewer.

San Francisco school board member Rachel Norton pushed for the change. As a parent of a special needs student,  she says she’s faced a patchwork system with some schools integrating students with disabilities into the mainstream, and others placing them into separate classrooms.

“It just felt very unfair, to me and to a lot of parents, because as a district our assignment system said kids can choose to go to any school that they want to except, apparently, if you had a disability,” she said.

Now, the school district is embracing “co-teaching.”

Special needs students will go to a middle school science class, for instance, and they will have two teachers. One is a science teacher, and one a special education teacher.

“But when you’re in the classroom you can’t identify which kids are in special education and which aren’t in special education; and both teachers are teaching all students,” San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jill Tucker explains. “It’s a shift to saying, they’re not a special education student, they’re a student, and they just have special needs.”

All students in co-taught classes benefit from the extra instruction, Tucker said.

“Maybe a student who struggles with dyslexia or reading might need some extra help reading the text, but that student might be fantastic at creating science projects. So they work with each individual student and see what help they need,” Tucker said. “All students benefit from having differentiated instruction and teachers that can identify what each student needs.”

The district is also trying several other teaching options.

There are also self-contained classrooms that serve special-needs students all day; single classes for special-education students; teachers aides who accompany special-education students to regular classes; and regular class schedules with outside tutoring and support.

Many students have a combination depending on their strengths. A student who is fine in a co-taught math class might need a special-education-only class for English, an option available to parents as they work with the district to decide a student’s placement.

“We believe in success for all kids, even though that might look different for each kid,” said Presidio Middle School Principal Tony Payne. “It’s really important we be nimble.”

However, change can be daunting. Teachers have received training district-wide. However, even special education teachers may now be working with a wider range of students.

“Now you might have a student who has a learning disability, a student who has visual disability, a student who is on the autism spectrum in one classroom and trying to figure out how to adjust your instruction and how to meet the needs of these students can be difficult,” Tucker said.

District officials are meeting with parents, teachers and school communities to try to work out solutions and address their needs.

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