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‘Final 12 months was devastating’: San Francisco’s particular ed problem

Havah Kelley was more than ready to get her son back into private school. Studying on screen for over a year made reading difficulties worse for her dyslexic son who is now in fifth grade at Sunnyside Elementary.

But instead of finding redesigned services from a difficult year, the first week back was another disappointment on her trip with the San Francisco School District Special Education Services.

“The past year has been socially and emotionally devastating for my son,” said Kelley, a single mother who lives in Bayview. “I know everyone is doing their best, but I am upset that no more programs have been implemented to address the ground they have lost.”

Last year school days at home were received with sheer frustration. “My son is very smart and doesn’t want to fail at anything,” she said. “He just gave up last year. He stopped trying. “

Your son is not alone. Students across the city and across the country struggled with distance learning. With the start of a new school year, observers begin to see the effects of the trauma they have suffered.

Kelley now fears the tough battle this year will bring.

“Now he’s back at school, almost like nothing happened,” she said. “I was hoping they’d start the year a little differently and tackle some of its setbacks.”

Kelley is part of a growing chorus of parents and education advocates looking to see more screening and remedial action for young students in the San Francisco Unified School District, especially amid the pandemic.

In San Francisco and across California, where universal screening for dyslexia is not required, disability can go unnoticed until students are academically well behind their peers. This can have huge social and financial implications for students and their families.

“It is likely that many students went missing during online school. It’s so hard to spot reading trouble with zoom. Children can withdraw from what they may have been asked to do in class, ”said Dr. Robert Hendren, director of the Dyslexia Center at UCSF. Hendren specializes in the psychological toll that learning disabilities can take on a student.

When Kelley noticed that her son was having difficulty reading and writing, she had to do something. What she didn’t expect was a disappointing response from the school district.

“I was put into a series of meetings and tremendous pressure to withdraw. It broke my heart. The school is great and I love it, I just didn’t understand what happened, ”said Havah Shepard-Kelley, adding that she admires many of the school staff who have supported her. “It taught me that things are not as beautiful as I thought.”

Kelley thinks she’s one of the lucky ones. She was able to convince the school to assess her son as early as first grade, an age that many experts say is an ideal time to identify learning difficulties and teach students who have difficulty distinguishing letters and words. to intervene in a targeted manner, because most children will then still learn to read.

But for many across the country, school closings disrupted disability assessments and other special education assessments. In the spring, San Francisco Unified opened a personal assessment center at O’Connell High School to help clear a backlog of inquiries. According to official information, the district has rated almost 335 students since March 15, 2021, but it remains a backlog.

Megan Potente leads a parent support group in San Francisco for parents with children with dyslexia. When her son was identified as dyslexic, she made the difficult decision to pull him out of San Francisco Unified after realizing that the services he needed were limited.

“For him, the problem was that teachers weren’t trained in structured literacy, a tried and tested method of supporting students with dyslexia,” said Potente, referring to a reading teaching strategy that has worked well with students with dyslexia. “The services were not delivered with the intensity that he needed. It wasn’t every day. “

Seventh grader Gianluca Potente, who has dyslexia, uses an audiobook to help him read at his Richmond County home on Friday, August 20, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume / The Examiner)

A San Francisco Unified student with dyslexia can qualify for an individual education program that meets their needs and “receives multi-sensory instruction,” according to district spokeswoman Laura Dudnick.

Screening for learning disabilities at a young age can be crucial. If overlooked, downstream effects include anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems, which often fall disproportionately on students of color. Students with dyslexia who have not been diagnosed are more likely to be sent to a special school later. On social issues, the American Bar Association says an early 85 percent of teenagers who come into contact with the juvenile justice system cannot read.

But many studies show that students who are screened, identified and encouraged at an early stage can successfully keep up with their fellow students.

That goes for potentates and their son, who she says is now at grade level. Potente runs a nationwide advocacy group called Decoding Dyslexia and would like more spring aid so that fewer students later have to be placed in special schools.

Without universal access to screening and treatment, a justice gap has emerged in San Francisco schools. Students with wealthier and better educated parents are more likely to have the resources to campaign to ensure that their child can use early intervention services and outside therapy and rehabilitation.

A dyslexic mother told The Examiner that she spent over $ 100,000 in two years giving her son special care before and during the pandemic to keep him on track.

That’s not an option for most parents in San Francisco Unified, where more than 50% of students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, according to the California Department of Education.

“I cannot afford outside services for my son. If they refused to evaluate, I couldn’t pay the tutors. The public school system is all I have at this point, ”said Kelley. “It’s really hard for me to understand why everyone is so lagging behind in this area. Reading is everything. “

Governor Gavin Newsom, who is dyslexic, is a proponent of increasing screening and remedial services for students with learning disabilities. But progress has been slow. A bill, SB-237, which would require California schools to introduce universal dyslexia screening for young students, failed to make it through the state assembly in July.

The proposal met with opposition from groups including the California School Boards Association and the California Teachers Union, who raised concerns about possible over-identification of dyslexia among young students and reducing class time for the tests.

“That could have a really big impact. The question is how do we do it? ”Hendren said about universal screening. “Some of the tests can take hours and cost a lot of money.”

UCSF researchers are trying to answer this by developing a game-based screener that teachers can use to identify risks associated with dyslexia and other learning challenges. “This is not about finding and identifying a dyslexic. It’s about screening for risk – short, simple actions that take predictable factors into account, ”said Potente.

Several experts have criticized the school district’s existing system of screening for learning disabilities including dyslexia, known as Fountas & Pinnell, which “sees the field as severely flawed screening,” said Steve Carnevale, founder of the UCSF Dyslexia Center.

But the solution has to go beyond screening. Teachers need to be trained and supported, strategic renovations and curricula also need to be implemented.

There is a long way to go, but things are slowly starting to change.

The district is now using some of its Covid resources to create 13 new psychologist positions as well as a supervisor to help clean up some of the persistent evaluation backlog. Due to the nationwide lack of school psychologists, however, there are still some positions to be filled.

“A decade ago I think the education system didn’t get it,” Carnevale said. “But I’ve been working closely with the President of the San Francisco School Board and other parents involved, and everyone is on board and starting to work closely with UCSF and we’re having deep conversations about how we do all of this.”


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