BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – Just months after rolling out a program integrating scores of special education students into general education classrooms, Panama-Buena Vista Union School District teachers are crying out in frustration over a lack of preparation, training and breakdowns in communication.

Panama began mainstreaming about 120 students this year with mild and moderate disabilities, including ADHD, autism and other learning impairments, into general education classrooms on a case-by-case basis.

Administrators say they are following the lead of other districts across the state, and that the move limits the amount of time special education students spend on buses traveling across the district to designated campuses, protects their civil rights and better serves students.

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Some teachers, however, say the plan has been rolled out with little training and it’s hindering the quality of instruction for both children with special needs and general education students.

“Teachers have to slow instruction down to a pace where they can successfully complete assignments. This is not fair to the education of the basic and above basic students. It’s a distraction to the entire class and teachers’ continuity of instruction,” Wayne Van Horn Elementary School teacher Connie Lenk told Panama’s Board of Trustees this week. “Your teachers are frustrated.”

Panama-Buena Vista Teachers Association President Lauri Heffernan pointed to breakdowns in communication between the special education department and teachers assigned newly integrated students, some of whom were until last year attending special day classes, where they received one-on-one instruction with about six to 10 other students.

Many teachers were not given lists of former students with special needs in their classrooms who were reclassified as general education students, Heffernan said.

“It took weeks for many of the teachers to even realize that’s who these students were,” Heffernan said. “It was really just a mess.”

That mess could have stemmed from “missed opportunities” in communicating with teachers while rolling out the new program, Special Services Director Rita Pierucci said.

“We have 2,200 students in special education. It’s the responsibility of the special education teacher on site to inform these teachers if some were missed,” Pierucci said. “We are working through the kinks.”

Administrators held no special training for general education teachers on how to instruct students with mild and moderate learning disabilities, several teachers said.

But Superintendent Kevin Silberberg said all teachers received training at the outset of the school year explaining the transition and will receive ongoing training throughout the year.

That training, however, was part of regular staff development meetings not necessarily crafted for students with special needs, Pierucci said.

“Those trainings were provided for general education teachers … and both strategies are designed to work well for general education and special education students,” Pierucci said.

Silberberg said he’s reviewing and interviewing representatives from two companies next week that develop systems that blend Common Core standards with special education needs.

“It’s a new level of support. We don’t ever want a teacher at Panama to say that they didn’t have the skills to meet a classroom’s needs,” Silberberg said.

Regardless of training, Pierucci said teachers have access to a team of specialists including a psychologist familiar with the student’s individualized education program. Additionally, part-time aides are available in the classroom to assist students being mainstreamed.

“The people who can best help that teacher with respect to those individual students are those specialists,” Pierucci said.

Those students who cannot cope in the general education classrooms where they have been placed are sent to one of five school sites throughout the district, he said.

Despite that, at least one seasoned special education instructor said the program needs work.

“For every one kid that did well, I see three failing miserably,” said Cori Larsen, a special education instructor at Sing Lum Elementary School who has been working with students with learning disabilities for 18 years. “I feel like the kids were set up to fail.”

Larsen said she sees few general education instructors equipped to teach students with special needs.

“We’re general education teachers – not special education teachers,” Heffernan said.

The integration comes at a time the district is experiencing a growing number of students with special needs. Enrollment has grown about 10 percent since 2014, with 2,200 of Panama’s students requiring individualized education programs, Pierucci said.

At the same time, the special education department’s management structure is decades old and understaffed, Pierucci told trustees during a January meeting when she lobbied to hire more employees. She painted a picture of department members stretched thin.

“They’re asked to be at three or four places at one time and sometimes a student is having a serious outburst, they need support and they can’t be everywhere,” Pierucci said, referencing her staff members’ current situation.

And while enrollment figures grow, so do the costs to serve special education students.

“The number of students served in special education has grown significantly over the last few years and that’s mandated, and we have to serve these kids and they’re expensive to serve,” Glenn Imke, Panama assistant superintendent of business services, said. “We don’t get adequate funding from the federal government and the state, and all that comes out of the LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula).”

Administrators said they could not provide precise figures of what it costs to serve special education students, but that the new mainstreaming program was more expensive than the older model.

“We added staff,” Pierucci said. “They still have the same accommodations, the same curriculum that they utilize when they were in self-contained special education program.”

The decision had nothing to do with finances, Silberberg and Pierucci said.

“Special education for every district is an issue. It costs a lot of transport kids, and it gets very expensive, but it in no way drove the decision. It’s not what convinced us to go this way. All the districts have done this,” Silberberg said.

Silberberg said the move had more to do with civil rights.

“There are kids with IEPs in regular education classrooms functioning very well,” Silberberg said. “Those kids deserve a regular education in a general ed classroom with support. If they can succeed in a class, we’ve got to do everything we can to make that happen and give teachers the tools to succeed.”

© 2016 The Bakersfield Californian
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