“All means all” is a slogan Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson often uses to describe inclusion efforts at California’s fourth-largest school district.
However, past and present trustees and parents argue that the district is not living up to the motto.
Their dissatisfaction primarily stems from the situation at Dorothy Starr Elementary where special-ed students are taught in old portables 215 feet away — about two-thirds the length of a full-sized football field — from where their general-ed peers learn.
“Everybody in power has said this is unacceptable, and I agree.” — Terry Slatic, Fresno Unified school board trustee
“What we have now is unacceptable,” said trustee Terry Slatic, who represents the area in which Starr is located. “Everybody in power has said this is unacceptable, and I agree.”
Many also find the district’s plan to transfer the special-ed students to the school’s main building troublesome.
“I know that campus extremely well and, logistically, there is no room in the general education building,” said Chrissy Kelly, a parent of two special-ed students who formerly attended the school.
Nelson has said that he fully backs improving the special-ed situation at Starr.
“From a facilities standpoint, yes, Starr is the most glaring,” Nelson said. “We cannot have separate facilities. The parents are well within their rights to be upset about the Starr situation.”
Amy Idsvoog, Fresno Unified’s interim chief information officer, said the district’s main goal is to make Starr Elementary more inclusive.
“The district’s plan is to have special education students being educated alongside their general education grade-level peers to the greatest extent possible,” Idsvoog said.
Rescheduling a Final Meeting
District staff is in the process of rescheduling a meeting to firm up recommendations to present to the board of trustees to accomplish that goal, Idsvoog said.
Staff canceled the original meeting March 7 shortly after Slatic arrived, saying that it was inappropriate for a board member to attend.
“All board members need to hear the plan at the same time,” Idsvoog said then.
Kelly: ‘Six-Plus Hours a Day in Tiny, Dilapidated Portables’
After years of losing sleep over the portable classroom situation, Kelly said, she is relieved the district is starting to do something to address the problem.
“I see them (board members) speaking about weight equipment and multi-million dollar pools, places where children spend one, maybe two hours a day at most,” Kelly said. “But, for some reason, children with autism are allowed to spend six-plus hours a day in tiny, dilapidated portables. Where is the humanity in this situation?”
“The district’s plan is to have special education students being educated alongside their general education grade level peers to the greatest extent possible.” — Amy Idsvoog, interim chief information officer at Fresno Unified
The situation, Kelly said, is also clear evidence of the district’s failure to comply with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
“Those students are protected by the IDEA, which states that segregation of children with special needs in separate buildings should only occur if the nature of their disability is too severe,” Kelly said. “It also creates the next generation to believe that it is OK to separate people who are different.”
District Needs More Inclusion
Former Trustee Brooke Ashjian said the district has also failed to implement recommendations by the Council of the Great City Schools.
The organization provided the district with a report last summer on how to improve special education services.
“We’re not doing what the report and the experts say is one of the most important things to do, which is inclusion,” Ashjian said at a board meeting in November. “Special-ed students need to be in the same classes, in the same lunchrooms and go on the same field trips.”
The district has taken notice of the complaints and has created a plan to address them, Idsvoog said.
So far, Fresno Unified has relocated two special education classes from portables to permanent classroom space in the main building.
The district’s ultimate goal is to move all of the school’s nearly 85 special education students into the main building.
Future decisions are up to the school board as the trustees discuss where to invest resources based on their collective facility priority list, Idsvoog said.
Will the District’s Plan Work?
“It also creates the next generation to believe that it is OK to separate people who are different.” — Chrissy Kelly, parent of two boys who formely attended Starr Elementary School
Slatic said there are many reasons why the district’s plan isn’t practical.
The main one is that the portable classrooms contain essential functions not found in the school’s main building such as diaper changing areas and specialized bathrooms.
Slatic said he also doesn’t see how all of the parent volunteers in the special-ed program — which is nearly equivalent to the school’s paid staff — will all fit.
“I’m certain that it can be done in that main building facility, but no one has shown me the way that it is going to be done,” Slatic said.
Slatic’s desire is for staff to present more options to the school board.
Kelly said there is not a spare inch of space in the general education building. She recommends that the building be expanded.
“We walked around with (Fresno Unified Chief Operating Officer) Karin Temple from facilities, and she said there is plenty of space to build new classrooms attached to the main building,” Kelly said. “Ultimately, that’s what needs to happen, but in the interim, there needs to be a detailed plan to make sure this segregation stops tomorrow.”
Fresno Unified turned down GV Wire’s request to interview Starr principal Charles Reynolds and other district officials about the portables and potential solutions.
But the district issued this additional statement:
“The District believes that Starr Elementary is a top priority, but until our Board has reviewed and discussed all potential facility projects, we’re not going to comment further. We expect those conversations to happen soon as part of an upcoming facility workshop.”