What is wrong with the SPED department in OUSD?

By Andrew Pablo, former OUSD Special Education teacher

I know everyone is tired of hearing the same statement that “public schools are underfunded.” However, the fact of the matter is, public schools are truly lacking the necessary amount of money to create learning spaces that can benefit ALL students, including those with IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans). Students with IEPs are 10% less likely to graduate high school and 29% less likely to meet A-G requirements than their counterparts. In the 2019-2020 school year,13% of Oakland Unified School District’s nearly 36,000 students received special education services. That means there are nearly 5,000 students that are simply not getting the variety of educational support from their respective schools.

So why are students with IEPs struggling more than their peers? As a SPED teacher for the last two years, I can definitely say that OUSD needs to put more money into SPED and wrap around support if it wants to make sure students with IEPs get what they need.

There simply are not enough quality educators to support our highest-needs students. When writing an IEP, or finding out if a student qualifies for one, I needed at least a school psychologist and nurse to complete required evaluations and assessments. However, at my worksite there was a constant backlog of student testing with the psychologist, making it a struggle to even begin the IEP process. That means there were several students that never got tested or given an IEP simply because there wasn’t enough personnel.  

Psychologists are shared by several schools and always working to catch up, which slows down the entire process. That’s because OUSD only hires 43 psychologists and 44 counselors to support the entire district. This is a common problem in OUSD: employees are spread too thin, and are underpaid and under supported.

As a new teacher living in one of the most expensive areas in the world, working for a district that pays lowest in the area, and navigating the work of being a resource specialist, I admittedly struggled at times. This reflected in the quality of the work I put out. I got by because I had great colleagues that helped keep me at compliance.

I witnessed multiple colleagues leave to work for other districts. The reason usually was that they could no longer afford to work in our district. With the growing cost of living in Oakland, competent teachers are slowing leaving for districts that can compensate for their work better. Because of the inability of our district to provide a competitive salary for the work they require, teacher burnout becomes inevitable and a high turnover rate is the result. OUSD had a 20% teacher attrition rate in the 2018-2019 school, while the national attrition rate is about 8%. This only pushes competent teachers away, leaving newly untrained teachers behind. It is the reason why the many competent colleagues of mine decided to leave their job to find other opportunities that can sustain their ability to live in the Bay Area. It is because of such huge discrepancies that OUSD can’t keep up with the amount of students that they need to be serving.

The past few months during this global pandemic, civil unrest, and general weird times, has highlighted one thing: change is not going to happen unless we speak out and take action. We must capitalize on the times we are in and push for more funding towards education, and especially in creating wrap-around support for students with IEPs.

In a recent survey done by GO Public School Oakland they found that over 1 in 4 Oakland families with IEPs report spending more than 5 hours each day supporting their student’s learning. This goes to show that these students need time, attention, and more importantly multiple resources. It is our duty as educators to ensure that the students we serve are getting nothing but the best from us, and the fact is we have not been doing that. I want to see a future where all those parents spending all that time helping their students during this pandemic send their students to an OUSD school knowing that their students will get that same level of support, attention, and love from teachers they trust.

Andrew Pablo is a summer intern with one of OUSD’s school board members, wherein he assisted in the formation and implementation of different educational policies. With his work experience as a resource specialist in LIFE Academy, for the past 2 years, Andrew is determined to fight against barriers towards educational equity for all students.

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