Guest Contribution - Much has happened for EGUSD's Inclusive Education but 'without your voices, nothing changes'



By Brandon Morgan | Special to Elk Grove News | 

It has been three weeks since my first article was published here on Elk Grove News about the downsizing of the inclusive education program by moving Inclusion Specialists into other roles within the district.

Since then, so much has happened.

   A Facebook group was created that has as of today, surpassed over 700 people ranging from parents, teachers, paraeducators, advocates, service providers, and people throughout the district all the way up to the highest ranks.

   We’ve held 2 protests at the district office with great turnout - even one in 115-degree heat.

    We packed the room at the school board meeting with a sea of people in red shirts and had around an hour’s worth of public comments that often were some of the most gut-wrenching and heartbreaking stories of parents who have lost an important part of their team.

   We’ve had this story told several times in the media through here on Elk Grove News, ABC10, Univision, Sac Bee, and others.

   We’ve had a meeting with Associate Superintendent David Reilly.

   We’ve had one on one conversations with some of the current, and one future board member. 

And ultimately this is only the beginning of our journey. So much more is in the works.

 



While the issue of Inclusive Ed changes was the spark that got myself and many others embarking on this journey, this was the symptom of a much much larger problem.

We’ve had a multiyear growing deficit of paraeducators and SPED teachers in the classroom. The classes that needed to be filled were not unexpected.

The district had to have known for quite some time that this growing problem - a lack of hiring new teachers and paraeducators, and an inability to retain the ones they had - was going to be a problem this year. It is not a symptom of a sudden post-covid teacher shortage. It was already was a growing problem over the past several years that has only continued to get worse.

And we should be asking the question - WHY?

I’ve heard far too many stories from teachers who feel neglected, put in dangerous situations for themselves and their students, get overworked without compensation, and are just burned out seeing the direction EGUSD is taking in SPED, while hearing from teachers in other districts about how much better they are being treated and supported.

One teacher who has since resigned from the district was put in a classroom without a working air conditioning, at the beginning of the school year, in the heat of summer, despite a perfectly good empty classroom being available on campus. She was denied her request to use that room, and it took 6 requests to the district to get someone out to fix it. District administration ultimately ignored her pleas of urgency to keep both herself and her students safe in their classroom on those hot days.

Teachers tell me they have been left alone in a highly intensive class of 8-10 students (and in a few cases, far more than that) and couldn’t even go to the bathroom during the day because they didn’t have paraeducators in the classroom to supervise the children.

Paraeducators say they are being left alone with a class of students for large chunks of the day because due to program changes, an administrator thought it would be perfectly acceptable for 1 teacher to oversee 2-4 classrooms as they were connected, and the door could be left open for the teacher to run between rooms all day.

Teachers being denied paid overtime because they were told that waiting an extra hour for a late bus to show up was time they were volunteering out of the goodness of their own heart, despite having children of their own waiting to be picked up from after school care.

And paraeducators who are so underpaid, they can’t live within the district boundaries, let alone even pay rent for a place to live anywhere in general.

Yes… there are paraeducators, as of today, who are literally living in their cars and working for EGUSD.

How can this be happening?

Several sources within varying levels at the district have told me that when Associate Superintendent David Reilly was hired, he was tasked with “trimming the fat” within the district. And while that can come in many forms, these sources have told me he had put his eye specifically on Special Education because of it being a large portion of the district’s budget.

We can definitely see in that all these stories from teachers and paraeducators, it comes down to money. With the move to downsize Inclusive Ed, the district stands to save somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million in salaries and benefits by not having to find additional staffing to fill this year’s empty SPED positions.

While I am all for making sure tax dollars are spent appropriately, at what point are we trading fiscal responsibility for austerity measures, particularly at the expense of the most vulnerable in our district?

As parents, we want to trust the district to be good stewards of our children as they make their way through school. But when our children’s teachers and paraeducators have their needs put on the chopping block, they are not working in the best interest of the children they are charged with supporting and educating.

At this point, I have no trust in the district administrations competency when it comes to SPED. Speaking with teachers and staff, many have indicated that the district cant even send consistent direction about the LEVELS program which replaced the previous PALSS program.

Meetings with parents that have been confusing and unclear about what the levels are, and how they work. Teachers, without clear information, are left to give their best guess along with the remaining program specialists that theyre implementing placement correctly.

And thats even clear in David Reillys presentation he will be giving tomorrow night. He indicates that a Level 1 intervention” is Inclusive Education - yet multiple district employees whove sat in trainings for the LEVELS program have read this presentation and said that this is completely new information to them.

How is it that no one in the district is on the same page when it comes to SPED?

It’s because they can’t keep qualified and skilled people in place due to the negligence and incompetence at the top.

Nine program specialists left last year. That was a large portion of the SPED organization. The program specialists were the one’s who most closely interfaced with the teachers on the ground. Those relationships between the admin and the teachers are now severed. You can’t bring them back overnight, and you can’t expect to make wide-sweeping program changes when you don’t have the relationship with your staff to make them feel like you’re invested in their success.

This is a systemic issue.

This will not end with moving some people around to fill vacancies.

As a united front of parents, teachers, paraeducators, service providers, and community members, we ask of the district the following:


1. Restore the inclusion specialist position - its removal has had a ripple effect on the district as a whole, decreased staff and parent confidence in the districts ability to serve the needs of SPED Students, and has created a hostile work environment for teachers, and staff. By restoring these positions, the district sends a good faith message that they are listening and ready to invest once again into the SPED program.

2. Create safer and better working conditions for SPED teachers. This includes better pay and training for Paraeducators and Teachers, better classroom staffing ratios, safer facilities for classrooms, caps on all caseloads including Inclusion Specialists, Learning Center teachers, and service providers - with additional pay per day per student for overages similar to what Gen Ed teachers currently receive. And a roadmap to fill vacancies with a strong retention and recruitment program to prevent a future shortage in staffing.

3. Mandate the district administration to work with the Community Advisory Committee any time significant changes within SPED programming are being considered. Changes should never be planned in darkness, and seeking input and buy-in from the district’s largest stakeholders - parents and teachers - should be at the forefront of every step in how this district operates.

4. No changes to SPED programming can be made prior to the end of a school year, or after the start of a new school year. Parents and Staff must be notified of changes no less than 90 days prior to the start of the school year, and staff must be provided with appropriate training and resources prior to the start of the school year to adapt to those changes without significant impact to the continuity of education and support SPED students receive.

5. Become once again, the model district for SPED programming that teachers and staff are excited to work at, with teachers knocking at your door constantly, waiting for an opportunity to take part in an exciting and rewarding program that functions in the best way possible to go above and beyond the bar of a Free and Appropriate Public Education.


And finally, I ask the school board to keep the district administration accountable for their actions. While Superintendent Hoffman maintains his incredibly high-paying position within the district for soon to be his 8th year, getting raise after raise, this is happening under his watch.

Dangerously unfilled staffing positions and resigning teachers could easily be blamed on a national shortage of teachers. But that’s just passing the buck. Someone who is invested in successful outcomes doesn’t make excuses. They would have put in the work to cut the problem off before it got to this point.

When it comes down to it, people want to work in places that respect them for the work they do, that provide them with the tools and resources to do the job right, and compensate them appropriately for that work.

When our teachers have their needs met successfully, our kids are successful in their education. The district has year after year, failed to recognize this, and now we’ve gotten to this point.

Furthermore these issues go well beyond SPED. Elk Grove Unified continues to be a leader in disproportionate disciplinary actions against African American students, and does not implement a district-wide restorative practice approach to discipline.

Likewise, the problems in EGUSD’s SPED program are often exacerbated within predominantly African American and low socioeconomic neighborhoods, where children may be improperly placed or overlooked because they don’t have the proper training or staffing to identify needs in those communities.

These issues are part of a long list that continues to grow under Mr. Hoffman’s watch.

If Mr. Hoffman cannot steer this ship in such a way that brings Elk Grove Unified back to being the model district it once was, and instead, continue to make excuses, we should be asking if he’s still the right person for this job.

For parents, teachers and EGUSD staff members who are reading this, and are as frustrated by this as we are, we invite you to join our Facebook group EGUSD Inclusion STAYS. We’d also invite you to join us on Tuesday, September 20th as we protest in front of the district office, and attend the board meeting afterward.

Without your voices, nothing changes.


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