A year after the state sounded an alarm about the high number of black students receiving special education in Santa Cruz City Schools, the district has implemented a number of culturally responsive measures aimed at keeping more students in the general classroom.
The county’s second-largest district is trying to correct what leaders see as a systemic problem of over-identifying children in general–but especially students of color–as needing potentially stigmatizing and often expensive specialized instruction.
But in the absence of “research-based interventions”–such as small-group reading instruction and cultural competency training now in place for staff and teachers–too many students of color have been separated from peers, Munro said. Even if students benefit from the attention received through special education, early interventions are needed to avoid a label that can stick with students for years.
“In the past, a student was struggling, you try some things and then special ed might have been the only game in town,” said Helen Stuart, the district’s special education compliance coordinator.
In the 2011-2012 academic year, 38 percent of black students in Santa Cruz’s middle and high schools were in special education although black children make up just 2 percent of total students. Black residents also make up just 2 percent of the overall population of Santa Cruz.
The fact that 32 of 84 black students received special education led to the state Department of Education’s finding in September 2012 of “significant disproportionality.” That distinction requires the district to spend 15 percent of federal special education funding on strategies designed to address students’ learning difficulties early.
The state makes such findings when districts report high numbers of special education students within a student subgroup for three out of four consecutive years. Forty-nine districts in California, or about 5 percent of the total, are identified as significantly disproportionate in some way.
The district’s proportion of Latino students in special education is also out of balance, though it hasn’t yet triggered a state warning. Nineteen percent of Latino students, who in 2011-2012 made up 34 percent of all secondary students, were in special education.
In contrast, white children who comprised the largest slice of secondary students at 56 percent, represented just 12 percent of the special education population. Between 13 and 14 percent of Native Americans, Asians or children with multiple ethnic identities were in special education.
Setting ethnicity aside, the district has a high percentage of special education students in general. Fifteen percent of the 4,691 students in secondary schools received special education in 2011-12 as did 17 percent of the district’s 2,336 elementary students. The average of special education students in districts statewide is 11 percent.
“We need to revise the way we do gatekeeping to ensure only kids with learning disabilities are labeled as special education students,” Santa Cruz Superintendent Gary Bloom said. “Once they are designated as special education, we need to do a better job of exiting them and helping them catch up.”
A team made up of teachers, staff members, a principal and a psychologist assesses each special education student, and an individualized education plan is developed with input from parents. Services run the gamut of part-time speech therapy to full-time individual instruction.
But pushing intervention programs to keep children out of special education can be sensitive because of the potential concern among parents that the district isn’t granting special help to those who really need it. There is an inherent perception that money is a primary motivation.
The district spent nearly $8 million last year, or 12 percent of its general fund, on special education–costs the federal government are obligated to help underwrite but for years has failed to do so. Ironically, it’s also the federal government that requires states to monitor disproportionate special education within public school districts.
To address the imbalance, the district has initiated a program in elementary schools called “Walk to Read,” in which similarly skilled peers read together four times a week for a minimum of 40 minutes daily. Small-group reading is planned for middle and high schools, and after-school study or special technology also may be considered.
The district also hired Dr. Edward Fergus, deputy director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University, to work with teachers and staff for two days in August on cultural responsiveness and related issues that contribute to significant disproportionality.
Eighty-three percent of the 245 teachers in Santa Cruz middle and high schools in 2011-2012 were white compared to 4 percent who were Latino and 0.8 percent who were black, according to state figures. The state does not provide statistics on the ethnicity of staff and administrators who also contribute to decision-making about special education.
Fergus, a former high school teacher who was identified as needing special education in middle school, said significant disproportionality has roots that go far beyond special education. Educators must question their general expectations for children with language or cultural differences.
For instance, Fergus said, teachers might encounter a student of color who is struggling with English comprehension and ask themselves, “Is this a language-development issue or a speech issue?”
And Fergus said it’s not unusual for politically progressive communities to grapple with inequity in education.
“What is unique in Santa Cruz is that there is great progressiveness around the environment and how to support local businesses,” he said. “But is there a level of progressiveness as it pertains to all of our kids? For some of our most marginalized population of kids, what do we expect them to achieve and how do we organize those expectations? Do we have the same expectation of college and career readiness for all our kids?”
Fergus said having a minority identity–ethnically and academically–can have a compounding effect on a child in special education and society as a whole.
“Your identity becomes outside the norm,” he said. “It helps to feed the insidious notion that there is something about the racial and ethnic minority that makes them less cognitively able. Even though practitioners are well-intentioned and in no way, shape or form are feeding that monster, it still lives within our society.”
Santa Cruz High Principal Karen Edmonds said teachers will benefit from working with Fergus and supports the new focus on culturally responsive curricula.
Edmonds, who is black and sent her twin sons through the district’s schools, has been involved in team decision-making for numerous special education cases during the past 20 years. At times, she said, she has thought there were ways students of color could have been helped without entering special education but did not intervene because students were likely to benefit from those individualized services.
But Santa Cruz resident Bethany Kientzel, who has degrees in early childhood education and counseling and psychology, believes if black students are over-identified for special education in Santa Cruz, it’s not because of cultural differences.
“They are not bringing cultural diversity to school,” where most students are white and Latino, she said. “They are assimilating into those groups.”
Kientzel, a single mother of a special-needs son who is biracial–black and white–and has a birth defect that affects his learning, said black students may appear over-identified for special education because too many children from other groups are denied services by the district.
“We are more politically correct and we don’t want to deny kids of color,” she said. “There are probably a huge amount of Caucasians who also need special education.”
A special education identification can’t happen without parent or guardian permission, though educators agree parental choice is not driving disproportionality in Santa Cruz.
Children are identified as needing special education in a variety of ways. Developmental disabilities make an obvious case for specialized instruction, but teachers and parents also observe more subtle differences over time, such as students falling two or more years behind the comprehension level expected for their grade level.
District officials say the majority of students are made eligible for special education in elementary school and a large number because of a speech or language impairment identification.
Although it is a common tool for identifying learning disabilities, California law prohibits administering IQ tests to black students for that purpose. It’s in the process of using other assessment techniques, district leaders acknowledge, that black students are disproportionately identified.
The following statistics for Santa Cruz middle and high schools are for the 2011-12 academic year:
Black students overall–2%–84 of 4,691
Black students in special education–38%–32 of 84
Latino students overall–34%–1,618 of 4,691
Latino students in special education–19%–302 of 1,618
White students overall–56%–2,628 of 4,691
White students in special education–12%–305 of 2,628
Overall students in special education–15%–682 of 4,691
SOURCES: California Department of Education and Santa Cruz City Schools