The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board of education accepted a “Special Education Strategic Plan” Monday, June 14th, that recommends retooling the district’s special education program.

The report, compiled by the Special Education Steering Committee, is modeled after the districtwide strategic plan two years ago which “did not specifically address the needs of learners with disabilities in our district.”

“We understand we are doing this in a context of the State [of California] just not funding education the way it should,” said Craig Hamilton, chair of the steering committee.

The special education plan focuses on five areas:

n understanding root causes of problems in special education with the goal of retooling the program to provide equity and equality for all students;

n a paradigm shift consistent with the district mission and vision and special education law;

n action plans for developing initiatives;

n costs and cost implications; and

n recommendations for implementation of the plan and further development of the plan.

The Steering Committee surveyed parents and special education teachers and held community workshops.

Surveys show that the top concerns among parents and teachers in the district’s special education program are teacher training, inclusion behavior, autism and central office support.

“When behavior is part of the disability, it does need to be dealt with differently,” Hamilton said. “How we do that is a huge challenge for everyone in this district.”

Hamilton also said the district currently has no comprehensive program for autistic students.

The paradigm shift in special education refers to changing the belief that students with disabilities cannot be learners.

“The belief that intelligence is learned is significant to all of us. That is supported by science,” Hamilton said.

“We can educate,” he said. “We don’t necessarily just have to train. We can have higher expectations for [special education students].”

The steering committee recommended initiatives to make up for what the district is currently lacking, such as an autism program, an appropriate math curriculum and curriculum that students can use throughout their school life.

The committee suggested utilizing a research-based curriculum that is applied across all schools in the district.

“It cannot be a dumbed-down general education,” Hamilton said. “This will not work. This will continue to fail.”

The district’s current special education program is separate from general education.

Statements in the Special Education Strategic Plan say other districts that integrate special and general education programs have been able to cut costs and provide beneficial services to students.

Hamilton said the district’s program costs $18 million and uses expensive non-public agencies and non-public services.

“Special education is growing faster than kindergarten through 12th grade education,” Hamilton said. “You are experiencing what every other district is experiencing. The funding is not keeping up with that.”

Special Education Steering Committee findings about why special education is expensive also cite the fact that medical advances allow infants to survive challenging disabilities and live longer.

Hamilton said the district could implement cost-effective measures by starting to fund better training for teachers.

“We need to remind ourselves that the district’s strategic plan was written in a time when things were looking good and then the bottom fell out,” Hamilton said, of the district’s budget shortfalls.

“The district still did a lot of the things that were in the plan. The district rose to the challenge, so let us do it again,” he said.

All board members and Superintendent John Deasy agreed with the recommendations in the Special Education Strategic Plan and thanked the Special Education Steering Committee.