By Noel Scott
I’m the mother of a biracial 5-year-old boy who has Down Syndrome. In less than two weeks, my beautiful boy should be starting kindergarten with all the other kids in LAUSD. Tonight, rather than writing this blog, I should be doing some back-to-school shopping or making a crafty chalkboard prop for the classic “First Day of School” photos to brighten our social media. But as we approach mid-August, LAUSD has yet to provide an appropriate school placement for my son. In fact, his Individualized Education Plan is blank for a school placement. He literally has no place to enroll in school. It is likely that he will spend the first several weeks of school at home, rather than with his peers in a classroom.
This is heartbreaking. But the fact is, I live in South Los Angeles, and until we tackle the systemic racism that has led to decades of severe neglect, it’s clear that LAUSD does not consider the vulnerable kids in my zip code a priority. What I have witnessed while touring LAUSD’s special education classrooms in South L.A. has shaken me to my core.
I should start by saying that I am accustomed to working with vulnerable populations under difficult conditions. For the past 15 years, I have worked as a Special Education teacher for incarcerated youth and adults in New York and Los Angeles. I have worked tirelessly to implement an inclusion model, which allows those with special needs to be educated alongside typical peers, and to support learners of all abilities in some of the most notorious jails. I have delivered special education services with dignity and advocated for every student as if they were family. I had no idea that I would eventually be a mom to a child with disabilities. I had no idea that I would have to fight this hard for him to receive an equitable education and the services he needs to access it.
Our journey with LAUSD began as our son entered preschool. The district required us to purchase a gait trainer (similar to a walker) because he was not yet walking independently. We thought he would benefit from a year in a Non Public School contracted with the district to support his progress in a more therapeutic setting, but LAUSD was insistent that its Preschool for All Learners (PAL) Program would be sufficient. They praised the PAL model for having a districtwide common curriculum and services embedded into the program.
But the reality is that PAL winds up treating all kids the same, regardless of their individual needs. Each student receives 30 minutes of occupation therapy, 30 minutes of physical therapy, 20 minutes of Adaptive Physical Education and two hours of group speech therapy throughout the week, even if a child needs one-on-one therapy to progress. And while the name suggests an inclusive setting of students ranging in ability, including general education students, the PAL program is just a segregated classroom for 3 and 4 year olds with special needs.
So I met the district representative at our school of residence for a classroom visit. We entered a classroom filled with furniture. Part of the PAL program model is that every classroom has the same furniture and learning centers, regardless of the square footage. I asked how my son would navigate the classroom with a gait trainer and was told he could park it outside. In a brief introduction to the person in charge of the class, she told me that she was recently moved up from a classroom aide and was about to go to school to get her teaching credential. Student work on the bulletin boards was dated four months earlier. There was no changing station for students who are diapering. The class schedule was posted on the white board, and I observed students watching videos on tablets rather than participating in the scheduled instructional center.
Over the next several weeks, I visited 52nd Street Early Education Center, Raymond Elementary and 6th Avenue Elementary. While each classroom was uniquely worrisome, they all shared some common problems. The rooms were dark and unorganized, lacking the physical environment that stimulates inquiry and learning. Staff appeared to be babysitting rather than teaching. Disengaged students sat by themselves on the edges of the classroom with no adult interaction. There was no evidence of the common curriculum being taught. Staff had lengthy conversations on their cell phones while students sat at the table with them.
And to think, this is what I saw while on an announced district tour. What was clear to me was that the children in these classrooms didn’t matter. There is no expectation for them to learn or thrive in these environments.
Fast forward to our search for an appropriate placement for kindergarten. Disgusted by segregated Special Day Class options, I requested an inclusion setting for kindergarten. My request has been denied, and LAUSD sent me to school of residence with a Special Education program called YES! Academy. I called the school several times to set up a tour of their programs. When I finally reached the assistant principal, he confirmed that the school had a Multiple Disability Orthopedic (MDO) class and an autism class. I asked whether they had an inclusion option, so that kids with disabilities could be educated alongside their typical peers, and the response was: “We don’t do that here.”
So what exactly do you do? LAUSD’s special education model is to segregate students from their typical peers and place them in classrooms for three to five consecutive years. LAUSD combines kindergarteners, first graders and second graders in one classroom with one teacher. K-2 classes and grade 3-5 classes are offered in elementary schools. In some schools, students are grouped together from kindergarten to fifth grade. They have stated more than once that the goal is to provide students with interventions so that they can eventually “mainstream” them with general education students. But if the goal of this class is intended to provide interventions to help students eventually integrate with their general education peers, how does a teacher teach a full year of kindergarten, first grade and second grade curricula at the same time? I keep asking but am still waiting for an answer.
I got the true answer, though, when I showed up at YES! Academy unannounced to take a look. School office staff looked at me as if I were lost. “Are you new to the area?” one staffer asked. “What do you do?”
I stepped into that MDO classroom to find 12 children of color in a class with two aides and a parent volunteer covering for a teacher vacancy that had not been filled for the entire school year. They had not even provided a long-term substitute teacher. This is what LAUSD really thinks my child -- and all these kids -- are worth. I wanted to give that volunteer mom a hug.
On two more school visits, dark classroom walls were filled with behavior charts rather than any evidence of instruction or learning. Student folders were filled with “Ed Helper” worksheets. (Ed Helper is a free lesson plan website for teachers who aren’t interested in joining the Common Core Standards instruction initiative.) Students watched videos on desktop computers, while the whiteboards were completely blank, except for the recess schedule written crooked across the center. What I witnessed was nothing short of educational neglect.
I have spent a lot of time crying in my parked car outside these elementary schools. My tears come from anger that programs like this exist in 2019. I am angry that our zip code dictates the quality of programs available to my community. Angry because I know that I have the resources to ensure my child never steps foot in these schools but that my neighbors may not have the means to combat the district in the same way. This is clearly the embodiment of systemic racism. Privileged parents often secure an attorney and challenge the district for violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
There are thousands of families being harmed by LAUSD’s Special Education programs. The district refuses to give students what they need in order to learn and thrive. LAUSD relies on the fact that most parents will not question or fight for the services they are denied. Instead, every day parents are taking their children to school and trusting that this is the best the district can do. They are hoping that the classroom instruction is high quality and meeting the needs of their child.
Unfortunately, my observations in my community schools tell a different story. Children with disabilities are being warehoused in LAUSD Special Day Classes. This district doesn’t just have low expectations for our children. It has no expectations.
In the Down Syndrome community, there is a hashtag #shouttheirworth. This is my intention with writing this blog -- to shout their worth. I am shouting the worth of every child with a disability and every single child in the zip codes that are too often overlooked. Every child has the right to an equitable education, regardless of the barriers they face. If we shout loud enough, maybe LAUSD will hear us. Maybe they will be forced to do better. LAUSD, you must do better!
-- Noel Scott is a mom of three kids and Director of Special Education at a school serving incarcerated youth and adults.