WISH Academy high school, which was approved two and a half years ago over the objections of then-LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer, just became the first charter school in Los Angeles to push for a lottery admissions preference for kids with moderate to severe special needs.
WISH’s elementary, middle and high schools, located in Westchester and known for their fully inclusive model serving kids of all abilities together in the same classrooms, were renewed for five years Tuesday. The charter petitions added a preference at all grade levels for kids with moderate to severe needs, but the state will have to agree to a waiver before the preference can be included in the schools’ lottery applications.
Allison Buchner, who has two children at WISH elementary, one of whom has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, pushed the school to add the preference to the charter petitions.
“I brought it up with WISH when my child in second grade asked where the other kids in chairs were and why weren’t there more kids in chairs at WISH,” she said. “Inclusion doesn’t just mean that kids with special needs go to school with kids with typical needs. Everyone wants to look around and see others who share the same challenges they do. There’s a lot of comfort in that. I think this is a really positive step, and I’m really excited about it.”
WISH Academy, currently the only fully inclusive high school within LAUSD boundaries, launched last fall, creating an inclusive TK-12 pathway for kids with special needs to be educated alongside their typical peers. The high school almost failed to make it out of the starting gate because of opposition at the time from the Charter Schools Divisions staff and Zimmer, who pushed to convert the school to a district program at Venice High. That would have meant losing the school’s independent charter status and the startup grant the school had been promised.
WISH’s parents advocated passionately to keep the school independent and to allow the expansion to high school so kids could finish their inclusive education at WISH. During the suspenseful 2016 Board meeting, WISH Executive Director Shawna Draxton managed to cobble together four votes on the Board for a three-year approval of the high school without the support of Zimmer, the Board member within whose district the school was located.
Three years later, the Board renewed WISH Academy without debate.
“I just want to give kudos to the WISH team that’s here for asking to have an opportunity to take more, a higher number and a preference for kids that are typically very hard to serve,” said Board Vice President Nick Melvoin (BD4), who replaced Zimmer on the Board. “They do a wonderful job. I appreciate that interest to serve kids with moderate to severe special needs and to push us forward to a fully inclusive model.”
LAUSD has struggled to implement an inclusive model in district that works for kids with severe special needs. Parent Ivey Steinberg moved her son Jack, who uses a wheelchair, to WISH after his prior elementary school left him on the second floor during a fire drill.
About 20 Speak UP parents of kids with moderate to severe special needs showed up at Wednesday’s public hearing before the Office of the Independent Monitor, which oversees LAUSD’s special education program. Parents testified about their experiences with LAUSD failing to properly serve middle and high school kids in inclusive settings at general education schools.
Parents from Pacific Blvd. elementary, Sophia T. Salvin, a K-8 special education center, and Lanterman high school advocated to protect their right to send their kids to special education centers that have the specialized facilities and staff needed to help educate medically fragile kids.
“There is no one size fits all when it comes to our kids,” said Clarissa Warren, whose 7th grade daughter attends Salvin. “When I think of what an ideal inclusion program looks like, I imagine children with special needs and general education students collaborating with one another to make their school a great place. All students would participate in school activities, and the facilities and staff would provide all of the necessary supports for all students to succeed. Unfortunately, the [district] inclusion programs I have observed do not come anywhere near this vision that I have.”
The so-called inclusion program that Warren visited at Pio Pico middle school “can be described as nothing less than segregation,” she said. “I saw no interaction between general education students and special ed students. The staff at the school did not appear to have any of the necessary training to provide appropriate services for students with unique learning needs. The bathroom facilities were not appropriately equipped to meet the needs of students with special needs.”
Likewise, LAUSD recently converted Pacific Blvd. from a special education center serving kids until age 22 to a general education elementary school. Parents there are upset that LAUSD is now kicking students out after 5th grade and sending them to general education LAUSD middle schools that parents say don’t know how to keep their kids safe and meet their needs. Some kids sent to general education middle schools were placed in closets to be fed through g-tubes and came home with unexplained bruises and soiled diapers, according to their parents.
“When we see non-compliance, we direct the district to fix it, but we have no authority to proscribe how to fix it,” said David Rostetter, the independent monitor. “In order for inclusion to really work, special educators and general educators have to work together.”
Until that happens, parents say they want to keep their kids where they are served well.
“Parents should always have a choice,” said Lisa Mosko, Speak UP’s special education project director. “Until their vision of inclusion is realized, many district parents will continue to fight for their right to send their kids to the special education centers that are already equipped to serve them well. We all want more and better inclusion opportunities, but in the meantime, special ed centers are one valid choice for kids with special needs.”