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Parents Worry About San Diego Unified Plan To Uproot Dozens Of Special Ed Classes

Lisa Neilson displays a picture of her son Evan on her phone, April 4, 2017.
Nicholas McVicker
Lisa Neilson displays a picture of her son Evan on her phone, April 4, 2017.
Parents Worry About San Diego Unified Plan To Uproot Dozens Of Spec... Parents Worry About San Diego Unified Plan To Uproot Dozens Of Special Ed Classes
San Diego Unified is planning to close dozens of special education classrooms and consolidate them across fewer campuses.

When Lisa Neilson visited the special education class at her neighborhood school, she said it was chaotic and not a good fit for her 7-year-old son Evan. He has a rare disorder caused by an extra chromosome, Trisomy 9 Mosaicism.

"I compare him — we have friends that have a child with Down syndrome — and they have a special kind of love and, just, joy," Neilson said. "I don't know if (it's) that extra little dose of chromosome."

Neilson said she called around to other nearby schools. They all pointed her to Foster Elementary School in Allied Gardens. It has a good reputation for working with children with moderate to severe disabilities. And Neilson said staff there worked wonders with Evan, who's in his second year of kindergarten.


"He's grown so much in the time he's been there," Neilson said. "He communicates effectively. He's socially stronger. He's met a lot of his developmental goals. He has friends at Foster who are typical."

But the district says classes like Evan's at Foster are too small. It's closing 37 of them and moving students to new campuses, including the school Neilson rejected and the ones that referred her to Foster.

The district says the move aims to better fold students with special needs into mainstream school settings. Research suggests children who are isolated from their typical peers miss out on important development opportunities.

"We want to make sure that kids are in the least restrictive environment that supports their needs, allows them the opportunity to learn classroom routines, allows them the opportunity to gain independence, allows them the opportunity to mainstream with their peers," said Executive Director of Special Education Deann Ragsdale.

She said some classes currently have as few as three students in them. The changes will bring all remaining classes up to 12 students next year.


That meets state regulations for such classes, but it worries Sabrina Hahnlein, president of the district's paraeducators union. She said a 12-to-1 student-teacher ratio looks good on paper, but can be unmanageable depending on the disabilities and behaviors students have.

Faced with a $124 million budget hole, the district has given layoff notices to many assistants who currently help special education teachers address challenging behaviors and provide one-on-one instruction.

RELATED: What Parents Of Students With Special Needs Can Expect Under San Diego Unified Cuts

Neilson said Evan is already getting the things the district is promising with its reorganization. His class started with seven students and now has six. She said he has also mainstreamed into a typical kindergarten class for about half the day.

"I feel that them making him go to this new school, that all that he accomplished in two years, I think it could be like a backward spiral where he digresses, maybe as much as a year," Neilson said. "Change is really hard for our kids with special needs."

Ragsdale said closure decisions were based on facilities, family commutes and school calendars. She said, like every year, the district is looking at student needs to ensure there are enough behavioral specialists and one-on-one aids dispatched to the remaining classes to meet what is laid out in students' individual plans.

"We recognize that the transition is difficult and the process is hard, but we want to meet with our families to listen to any concerns that they may have. We really want to walk through that process with them," Ragsdale said. "I have witnessed teachers and principals really doing an exceptional job of working thorough this and helping create positive transitions for these kids."

Neilson said she's hoping the district reverses course. In the meantime, she's crossing her fingers that Evan's teacher and aid will follow him to his new school next year.

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