Stockton Unified launches revamp of special ed programs

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 2B

STOCKTON – With details still being fine-tuned only five weeks before the start of the new school year, Stockton Unified is embarking on a multiyear effort to standardize and improve its special-education programs.

Assistant Superintendent Tom Anderson, who has headed Stockton Unified's special-education department for 10 months, said the ultimate goal is a "massive culture shift."

"The big thing that needs to happen is a culture shift back to the idea that every kid belongs to every teacher and every kid starts as a general-education kid," Anderson said.

He presented a framework for his plan at last week's school board meeting.

The first phase of the plan is scheduled to begin when school starts next month with the establishment of "learning centers" at as many as one-quarter of Stockton Unified's 40 K-8 campuses.

The concept – in which all students begin their day in general education and visit a room designated as a learning center for support in areas of need – is far from new. Some school districts have learning centers on all of their campuses.

On the other hand, Stockton Unified last year had what Anderson called a "mishmash" of K-8 programs with the common characteristic that special-needs students were in large part separated from the rest of the student body.

In 2012-13, Anderson said, two K-8 schools – Victory and Adams – had some success operating learning centers for the first time.

This year, he said, the plan is to establish additional centers at August, Fillmore, Nightingale and Roosevelt; possibly at Kennedy, and maybe at several other sites, too.

Within five years, Anderson said, he hopes there will be learning centers at all of the K-8s, with similar programs implemented at Stockton Unified's four comprehensive high schools.

"What we would hope to see is more students spend more time in general education with more support and more of a rotation running through the learning center rather than students that are separated into (a special-education) class for a whole day sometimes," Anderson said.

About 10 percent of Stockton Unified's 37,000 students receive special services under Individual Education Plans, but usually they do not qualify for those services until they have fallen two years below grade level, according to Anderson.

Ensuring maximal inclusion of special-needs students also is a legal matter. Federal law requires that disabled students be placed in the "least restrictive environment" possible as they receive their education.

"It's not an option," Stockton Unified Deputy Superintendent Sheree Audet said.

"And we know it's best for kids to be in an environment with rigor, constant feedback and differentiated instruction."

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