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Special Ed Problems Are Real. The Fresno Unified Script Isn't.
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By Bill McEwen, News Director
Published 5 years ago on
May 16, 2019

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Fresno Unified leaders carefully drew up Tuesday night’s roll-out of the special education budget for the next school year.

Assistant Superintendent Brian Beck presented a summary of the Council of the Great City Schools special ed recommendations.

Portrait of GV Wire News Director/Columnist Bill McEwen

Opinion

Bill McEwen

Check.

Beck meticulously explained the proposed new funding to the 40 teachers, advocates and parents of special needs students gathered at Parent University for a special meeting of the Community Advisory Committee.

Check.

And Beck explained how to fill out a community survey on the budget. He additionally said that people can write down their thoughts on provided slips of paper. Or talk to him and the special ed managers in small groups.

Check.

But the audience wanted something more — something not in the district’s script.

Audience Flips the Script

They wanted to speak publicly. They wanted to be heard.

With the event live-streamed on Facebook and the crowd waiting for a response, Beck said, “OK, if that’s the consensus of the group, I’m fine with that.”

Photo of Brian Beck, Assistant Superintendent for Health Services at Fresno Unified
Brian Beck, FUSD Assistant Superintendent for Health Services

The 20 minutes Beck set for questions and comments turned into 48 minutes, and was followed by parents talking with special ed managers until everyone eventually filed out.

Parent Sarah Lapietra shared how rushing a special needs child into a general ed classroom before the child is ready stunts the child’s progress and creates problems for others in the new classroom.

Shaun Albert, who teaches medically fragile students at Addicott Elementary School, explained how the school suffers because it doesn’t have a vice principal. When the principal is off-site, the school becomes rudderless. He said that Addicott has had a revolving door of principals over the last few years.

Can anyone argue that conditions like that are good for students?

Parent Kate Woertman asked special ed leaders to visit her daughter’s classroom at Gibson Elementary, where students “vision impaired, deaf and hard of hearing, severely autistic, Down syndrome, orthopedically impaired, cerebral palsy (or) with multiple medical needs are all lumped together in one classroom.”

Woertman said that she “loves” the classroom while also describing it as “chaotic.”

How could it be anything but chaotic?

Fresno Unified leaders also were re-introduced to Rosemary Wanis, whose expertise the district should regularly tap into.

Wanis, who is deaf, teaches at Fresno State. She has a doctorate in Educational Leadership with a focus on special education administration. She has been an advocate for the deaf her entire adult life — all the while ambitiously pursuing the education necessary to be successful in helping those with special needs.

Tuesday, she schooled special ed leaders on what a first-rate program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students should look like.

Photo from Tuesday's special meeting of Fresno Unified's Community Advisory Committee
Kate Woertman, the mother of a Fresno Unified special ed student, describes her daughter’s classroom as “chaotic.” 

 An Exercise in Engagement Without Really Engaging

But I never got the sense that district leaders really heard the audience or that they will address the issues raised. Never did I see empathy for special ed families. It seemed to be an exercise in engagement without engaging the very real people in attendance.

“The blind spot that Fresno Unified has for special education is stunning. The administration and board members have their excuses handy, and they pat themselves on the back for what they think they’ve allegedly done for special education. But the fact is, the special education program is a disgrace, despite the heroic work by parents, special ed teachers and others on the front line. Former Fresno Bee Executive Editor Jim Boren, commenting on Facebook

Toward the end, Beck accurately summed up the requests and observations made by audience members. He also spoke again about the district’s determination to support and educate all special needs students, which federal law requires, but the district, by its own admission, long has failed to do.

And, he again pointed to the district’s beefed-up funding — up 50% since 2013-14 to $145 million— as evidence of Fresno Unified’s commitment to getting things right.

In politics, there’s a term for what went down Tuesday on the district’s end: Kabuki theater. It’s used to describe events that are all show and no go.

If I’m wrong about this perception, so much the better. That will mean the people really were heard.

Certainly, it will take more than sticking to a script to propel the special ed program to where it needs to be.

District’s Special Ed Failures Date to the 1970s

While Beck, Superintendent Bob Nelson, and the authors of the Council of Great City Schools report aptly note that it will take time to make things right, the community also needs to see these three things:

— The district acts with urgency.

As former Fresno Bee executive editor Jim Boren pointed out in a recent Facebook post:

“The blind spot that Fresno Unified has for special education is stunning. The administration and board members have their excuses handy, and they pat themselves on the back for what they think they’ve allegedly done for special education. But the fact is, the special education program is a disgrace, despite the heroic work by parents, special ed teachers and others on the front line. This goes all the way back to the 1970s when I covered Fresno Unified as a young reporter. Superintendents and board members passed the excuses along to the next set of board members and administrators, and they, in turn, ignored the structural problems.”

Moreover, some students and their families simply can’t wait while the district dawdles. One example: When students with some forms of muscular dystrophy don’t receive needed therapy during school hours, years are shaved off of their already short life expectancies.

Fresno Unified special education staff speak out about deficiencies in the district’s program during a school board meeting on May 1.

Urgency also means not letting “this is how we do things” stand in the way of fixes. Leadership is finding ways to get things done.

Lark Atkin, who teaches orthopedically impaired students, says the district needs three physical therapists to meet demand — one at Addicott, one at Rata High School, and one who rotates among schools. The budget proposal calls for one contracted PT. The district should light a fire to the bureaucracy and hire more physical therapists for the next school year.

Special Ed Director Must Come From the Outside

— The district commits to making the right decision — specifically what’s best for special ed students — each and every time.

Special ed students and their families need a SELPA director who identifies areas of opportunity for improvement and acts on them — not someone unwilling to venture outside of his or her lane.

For example, before hiring a new special education director — technically called a “SELPA” director — the district should assemble an interview panel that includes special ed staff, at least one member of the Community Advisory Committee, and recognized special ed experts from local universities.

The interviews should be a forum for serious questions that allow candidates to share their command of the subject and passion for helping special ed students; these interviews and panels shouldn’t be window dressing. There mustn’t be a “script” from the district for panelists to follow.

Special ed students and their families need a SELPA director who identifies areas of opportunity for improvement and acts on them — not someone unwilling to venture outside of his or her lane.

In my book, this means hiring someone from the outside who can bring fresh ideas and new skill sets, and most importantly, implement the Great City Schools recommendations.

Talk Without Change Is Meaningless

— The district creates safe spaces for “courageous conversations” about special ed among staff, managers, the community and district leaders, including trustees.

Nelson and his team have done a wonderful job opening the lines of communication with the Fresno Teachers Association and achieving a collaborative partnership that is benefitting the entire district. They should similarly engage the special ed community.

Hearing out people with legitimate concerns and achievable solutions, smiling, and then continuing the status quo doesn’t cut it. Without question, if the district treated FTA as it is treating special ed stakeholders, the union and the superintendent would be at loggerheads.

There are 7,681 special ed students in the district. They need and deserve the best from Fresno Unified. How much longer must they wait to get it?

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Bill McEwen,
News Director
Bill McEwen is news director and columnist for GV Wire. He joined GV Wire in August 2017 after 37 years at The Fresno Bee. With The Bee, he served as Opinion Editor, City Hall reporter, Metro columnist, sports columnist and sports editor through the years. His work has been frequently honored by the California Newspapers Publishers Association, including authoring first-place editorials in 2015 and 2016. Bill and his wife, Karen, are proud parents of two adult sons, and they have two grandsons. You can contact Bill at 559-492-4031 or at Send an Email

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