New special-education chief faces familiar challenges 

click to enlarge San Francisco's special-education system has been overseen by the state Department of Education.
  • San Francisco's special-education system has been overseen by the state Department of Education.

Overseeing special education at a big city school district isn’t easy. Elizabeth Blanco, who took over last week as San Francisco Unified School District’s assistant superintendent for special education, will manage a system struggling to improve after years of complaints, violations and turnover.

Since 2010, the district's special education programs have been under review by the state Department of Education, which ordered correction of 21 violations. And a 2010 audit found that the district wasn’t adhering to the 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires children with special needs to be placed in mainstream classrooms as much as possible.

While the district is working to correct the problems, its history reveals the complexities of public special education, which is governed by detailed state and federal laws as well as evolving theories about what’s best for children.

“It feels like it’s turning around,” said Katy Franklin, chair of the district’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education and the mother of one such student. “But parents are still in this sort of battle mode. The atmosphere was really bad.”

The controversies might feel familiar for Blanco, who has 25 years of special-education experience. Her two-year tenure as special education chief at the Pasadena Unified School District was marred by accusations that she and the district mishandled the case of a second-grader with autism.

“He was really dumped into a general education with no support,” said father Tony Brandenburg.

Brandenburg said his son’s second-grade teacher wasn’t trained in how to work with autistic children. When the boy’s behavior became disruptive, his classmates’ parents pushed to have him removed from school. Brandenburg said the district responded by barring his son from school and attempting to have the high-functioning child transferred to a private school for emotionally disturbed youth.

“For a little boy with autism, that wasn’t appropriate,” Brandenburg said. “She could have done the right thing, but she buckled under the pressure.”

The case roiled the district. The Brandenburgs and their allies protested, accusing the district of violating a law requiring disabled children to be educated in the least-restrictive environment possible. An audit found that teachers lacked training in autism, and school board members are considering an outside investigation into the case.

“It’s not only the Brandenburgs’ case, there’s other issues,” said German Barerro, the father of a sixth grader with autism. “There is a tendency to remove and isolate kids, but the support should be in the school.”

Barerro said he liked Blanco personally, but that the systemic problems in Pasadena were too hard for her to overcome.

“We wish her the best,” he said. “I hope she is able to accomplish in San Francisco what she was not able to accomplish here.”

Blanco could not be reached through the SFUSD, which provided instead a supportive statement from Superintendent Carlos Garcia.

“Her references were exemplary and they reported that she has successfully overseen large and complex programs and is committed to student achievement, access and equity,” Garcia said. “We look forward to having Dr. Blanco join SFUSD.”

The law governing special education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1990 and amended in 2004, lays out the rights of students with disabilities and their parents, as well as the responsibilities of public schools. Under the law:

School districts must identify children with disabilities

Such children must receive a “free appropriate public education” with services to meet their needs

They must be educated in the “least-restrictive environment” possible

Discipline must be appropriate

The school must work with a child’s parents to create an individualized education program

Parents have the right to appeal a school’s decisions

Source: National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities

In a statement, Superintendent Carlos Garcia said he had confidence in Blanco, who has more than 25 years’ experience.

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