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New Plans for Special Education

Illustration by Sophie Devaney

On Wednesday, September 12, the new executive director of the special education program for the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), Dr. Jan Hamilton, provided an update on her plans for the program. To address significant shortcomings in the way in which BUSD currently administers special education programs, as outlined in a report published by Dr. William Gillaspie last December, Hamilton plans to improve communications between the district and the schools, and create a new system to track student success.

Gillaspie, who has evaluated dozens of districts, schools and special-education systems, highlighted numerous problems. He described failings in professional development, fiscal management and communication between the district office and schools, and with parents. Principals therefore are not able to depend on the special education director for authority or direction concerning the implementation of special education programs into their schools.

In order to address these and other problems, Hamilton, who assumed her post in July,  plans to create a Special Education Advisory Committee, made up of administrators, classified personnel, and a student representative from the special education program. The committee will meet once a month to further discuss the vision and planning of the Special Education department, and create a strategic plan to be implemented in the next three to five years. “I truly believe that looking at collaboration and the purpose of special education will help this department to succeed,” said Hamilton.

Hamilton also addressed the importance of ensuring that transfer students, both to non-public schools (NPS) as well as those in residential schooling, succeed in their new environment. The current cost of transferring a student to a NPS is $40,000 per year. Therefore, Hamilton hopes to ensure that before students are moved from BUSD schools, all the possible resources have been offered to the student. Monthly monitoring, in the form of checking in about goals and the students’ readiness to graduate from high school and move on to college are also vital components.

To support these students, teachers must be well trained as well as capable of handling students with various learning difficulties. Hamilton stressed the importance of retaining teachers already in BUSD, saying “If we build our own people and have our own philosophy it certainly helps with the mission and vision that we have for special education.”

While it remains to be seen how quickly these ideas will lead to the desired results, it is the hope of the BUSD school board members that this will improve the system.

Susannah Bell, the Special Education Coordinator at Berkeley High School (BHS), noted that the program at BHS faces challenges due to lack of funding. “In 2017, although the number of students with Individualized Education Programs had increased 25 percent over the past twenty years, the government funded only 14.6 percent of the extra cost, expecting school districts to pick up the rest,” she said.

However, Bell is also optimistic about the future. Her goals for the coming year center around better communication. She hopes to bring together students, parents, and staff to ensure that each student receives the education they deserve.

“I have always felt really included at Berkeley High,” a student who is a part of the Special Education Program but who wished to remain anonymous said, “and that people were interested in being my friend, which makes me happy. I feel like I am part of the community.”