A review of Fresno Unified’s special education services found that the district struggles to include students with disabilities in traditional classrooms, and suspends students with individualized education plans at more than double the rate of their general education peers.
The findings hold across all demographics studied in the 200-page review by the nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools. However, the trends disproportionately affect African-American students with IEPs, who are suspended at nearly three times the rate of their white and Hispanic peers, and are also least likely to be taught in general education settings.
Inclusion is a major theme of the report, as research has found children with disabilities show social and academic gains when they spend most of their time with general education students.
“Participating in activities with typically developing peers allows children with disabilities to learn through modeling, and this learning helps them prepare for the real world,” the report states. “Researchers have found that typically developing children in inclusive classrooms are better able to accept differences and are more likely to see their classmates achieving despite their disabilities.”
But for 3- to 5-year-olds at Fresno Unified, the inclusion rate has dropped. In 2015, data showed that 59.2 percent of young children were taught alongside their non-disabled peers in a traditional preschool setting. In 2017, it was 37.3 percent.
Assistant Superintendent for Special Education Brian Beck said the district intends to look into the root cause of that trend.
“The good news is that we’re getting more students into those early intervention programs,” Beck said.
Better for older students
Older Fresno Unified students were educated inclusively at about the average statewide rate, but lower than the national average. The district also relies more on separate schools and classes than the state and national averages.
The report found that male students of color are also likely to be overidentified for special needs, in addition to the higher rates of suspension and exclusion from general education settings.
Superintendent Bob Nelson said the district is working to minimize out-of-school suspensions across the board, but that he realizes that addressing disproportionate outcomes needs to happen through more than just discipline.
“Once you’re labeled special needs, it can be hard to shake that label,” he said. “We should be assessing the ability to function.”
Julie Wright Halbert, legislative counsel for Great City Schools, said it’s up to the district to find the causes behind the data.
“There could be a number of explanations. In terms of overidentification, it could be that families are flocking to this program,” she said. “The district needs to dig deeper, and ask the next set of questions to find out.”
The exhaustive report also found achievement levels for students with disabilities are too low — FUSD students with disabilities had lower scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2015 than they did in 2009.
Report: District needs more staff
Another of the recommendations includes hiring more special education staff members, as there is a shortage of paraeducators. However, the report included praise for the district’s high rate of teacher retention.
The district’s early intervention services and support for students who graduate are two more highlights in the program. All students with disabilities who graduate from Fresno Unified are involved in a postsecondary program or a career, supported by the transition team at the district, according to the report.
Fresno Unified pays $44,228 for its membership in the council and paid an additional fee for the report and its recommendations, which will be made available on the district’s website. The council conducted its assessment through a site visit in February, a review of documents and data as well as focus groups with staff members and parents.
The deficiencies in special education programs are linked, as it’s hard to do inclusion without enough bodies in the room, according to parent advocate Chrissy Kelly, who participated in one of the focus groups conducted by the organization.
“It’s logistics,” she said. “They need to make sure they have the right amount staff, who need to be appropriately trained, not only in inclusion but in the kinds of disabilities they will encounter, who have appropriate caseloads.”
Kelly said she’s happy to see data supporting what she’s observed as a parent. She said she believes the district sometimes forgets that inclusion is not an ideal, but a mandate under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires that students be educated in the least restrictive environment possible.
‘Inclusive education is their right’
“It’s not, ‘We’re letting them,’ or ‘giving them the opportunity’ — an inclusive education is their right,” Kelly said.
Special education professionals have been saying for years that they’re spread too thin according to Manuel Bonilla, president of the Fresno Teachers Association. Out of 79 school districts surveyed, 67 percent had smaller educator-to-student ratios than Fresno Unified, the report found.
“These numbers verify the concerns we heard from educators and community members during our Stand with Students townhalls,” a statement from the union reads. “Now that the board trustees and district leadership have this data, we call for them to act by reducing these ratios. This is what’s right to meet the needs of special education students and educators.”
Nelson said there’s a huge dearth of qualified professionals available for hire.
The report calls for the district to relax some of its requirements to expand its hiring pool, like offering CPR training for new hires, rather than asking for it as a condition of employment.
The district has put $5 million toward reducing classroom ratios, according to Nelson, and will look into implementing the other recommendations as well as the greater push toward inclusion.
“Everybody benefits from that,” Nelson said.