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Oakland, CA: Union talks focus on SPED as special needs population "continues to grow"

May 24, 2023, KQED TV, San Francisco: Special Education Gets 'Modest Gains' in Latest Talks With District, Says Oakland Teachers Union
On Monday, the Oakland Education Association reached a 90% vote in favor of its tentative agreement with the Oakland Unified School District. In the coming weeks, the two groups will vote separately on the proposal, negotiated during a seven-day strike.

“There are major gains in some areas, and there’s other areas where we made modest gains, and some areas where we have the status quo,” said Ismael Armendariz, a special education teacher and the union’s president. “But as a package, it is amazing what they accomplished.”...

It also features amendments to special education, but parents and teachers say there is more work to do.
“We made modest gains,” Armendariz repeated. “But we’re going to center special education going forward.”
Currently, the school district serves more than 6,000 students in special education programs, accounting for roughly 17% of students.

As Oakland’s population of students in special education programming continues to grow, the school district has struggled to find enough staff and funding to meet the needs of these students. It has consolidated programming, closing programs in some schools and moving them to others….

Last year, the school district decided to close seven schools due to costs, but some families with children in special education programs called the plan discriminatory….

Monday’s tentative agreement takes a step toward meeting these needs by creating a new joint committee to oversee special education programs and by piloting a one-year program to maintain more equitable workloads for special education professionals, according to Armendariz....

“Real inclusion comes with shifting the culture,” she said. “[It’s] how we as a community view our disabled students and the disabled community as actual members of our community and not this separate section over there.”

Other parents and educators think the major win is the new pilot program aiming to balance the workloads of special education professionals. It allows employees to request more support once they reach certain limits, which could include additional compensation or staffing.

Rather than base caseloads purely on the number of students, the program will take into account the specific needs and learning levels of each student.

“It’s really been a big issue,” said Holly Adler, a member of the union’s bargaining team and a resource specialist. “Teachers haven’t been getting support with high-needs students that are now being mainstreamed.”

Not all parents are happy about the “mainstreaming,” which will place more students with special needs in general education classrooms.

Alan Pursell is the parent of a sixth grader with autism. He said his son performs well in a general education classroom, but still needs time in a smaller, separate classroom to fully thrive....

The program to help teachers manage their caseloads conflicts with difficulties in hiring support staff. But these support staff, called paraeducators, are not included in the union and do not benefit from the salary raises.

Melious said that the low pay means these positions are often left empty, and students lose much-needed support....

“These students are going to be sitting in classrooms not learning,” she said. “They’re just waiting for the class to end. And that’s, like, criminal to me.”

Adler said the lack of support staff also affects teachers. In violation of the law, early childhood special education teachers were not getting a lunch break because of the demanding workload. Like Melious, she said higher salaries for support staff would help resolve the issue.

Armendariz said the bargaining team will hold the district accountable for lunch breaks moving forward. While he is proud of what the team accomplished overall, he wants to focus on special education more.

“For far too long, our students and our faculty have been ignored by this district and put as an afterthought. And that’s not going to happen anymore,” he said.


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