Special Ed. Teachers Plead Case Before School Board

By Teresa Rochester

Tuesday, November 23-One of Karen Tomita's Lincoln Middle School students learned to tie her shoe this year. She is a teenager.

Another has gone a full semester without pulling a fire alarm or throwing a computer out a window. Four others need assistance when using the bathroom.

"The progress of my students is slow," Tomita, a special education teacher, told the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District's Board of Education Tuesday night.

Tomita, along with 10 other SMMUSD special education teachers, went before the school board to describe their responsibilities, challenges and needs of their students in the second of two workshops aimed at educating the board about the district's special education program.

From helping students eat and use the bathroom to juggling students' schedules and making sure their individual education plans are followed, the teachers detailed their daily duties and expressed frustration with excessive paperwork, a lack of qualified classroom aides, ongoing training and time.

"There may be a kid coming back from jail," said Pam Vescera, who describes her Santa Monica High School classroom as an island in the fast current of SAMOHI - a place of transition and calm for emotionally disturbed and special needs students. "There may be a kid with attention deficit disorder. There may be a kid returning from a psychiatric hospital or a school phobic or a violent student."

And then there's the paperwork. Teachers are required to collect data and maintain all the records that support and document the individualized education plans.

"Increasingly we are secretaries," Lynn Hobbs, a speech teacher at John Muir Elementary and John Adams Middle School, told the board. "It's hard to keep up with all the paperwork. What we all love about the job are the kids. It's not the paperwork, it's the kids."

"The paperwork has just increased, not decreased There is no time to plan with mainstream teachers," Laura Wechsler, a first grade teacher at Roosevelt said. Wechsler switched to teaching regular classes after five frustrating years as a special education teacher.

Special ed teachers also are responsible for scheduling time students spend with specialists, which often requires knowing 14 individual student schedules. Crucial individual time with students is often limited.

"They know they already have a disability," Hobbs said of her middle school students. "We are faced with trying to keep their self-esteem high. I come in at 7:30 in the morning and on weekends. You don't pay me to come in at 7:30 in the morning, but my kids need individual time that they can't get in the classrooms."

Teachers said classroom aides would ease their burden, but finding qualified aides is difficult. According to teachers and district staff, classroom aides take longer to hire than a teacher, and most aides are young and inexperienced.

"We need good aides that don't have issues of their own, that won't set the kids off, that know themselves," Vescera said.

"If assistants are going to be the great equalizers then they need to be trained," Wechsler, said. "The training right now is substandard at best."

Teachers also said there is not enough support for them. New special education teachers are not given an orientation on how to fill out basic district paperwork, nor do they have people to turn to for help and advice.

"There was no orientation for me coming in," Wechsler said. "There were no mentors to ask questions of."

Hobbs said that at Muir and Adams she and other long-time teachers serve as mentors to new teachers. "There are three or four times a week that these people call to ask questions," she said. "I have some new teachers that are really contemplating not coming back."

District staff said it's struggling to find time to offer ongoing training for teachers and aides. Lisa DeMirjian, SMMUSD's student services coordinator, said the district recently hosted a meeting for new special education teachers, but only four attended. Unlike other school districts, SMMUSD does not offer pay or district credit as incentives for special education teachers to attend these meetings or other training.

Board members voiced their concern for the teachers, but no action was taken. The workshops were offered to bring board members up to speed on changes in the special education program. According to Laurel Schmidt, co-chair of student services, the first workshop, held in October, by district staff was meant to bring board members up to speed on legislative changes in special education and the needs of the district's program.

"The point of the workshop is to get a clear snapshot about what is being experienced," said School Board President Margaret Quinones. "This kind of workshop is new for us."