Taking a hard look at the complexities of special education at Santa Barbara Unified School District, Superintendent Cary Matsuoka has been visiting classrooms and meeting with teachers and parents for the past several months. He’s also scrutinized the data, which concerns him, he told the district’s Board of Trustees during its last meeting before winter break. The numbers show that of the district’s 1,933 special-ed students, 45 percent are identified as English-language learners.
“It should not be that high,” Matsuoka said. “When you talk to our teachers, they see their English learners [and] they know they’re smart, but we have to help them overcome the language barrier.” He said that many English learners — kids simply struggling with learning to speak, read, and write in a new language — have been mistakenly placed in special-ed classrooms. That could be a big reason, he explained, why 13 percent of the district’s student body is categorized as special-ed when the national average is 10 percent. “This has been an issue for some time,” said Board President Kate Parker, “and yet systemically we haven’t been able to change it.”
Matsuoka introduced what he called a “three-tiered instructional framework” in which the bottom tier represents the district’s educational foundation — language arts, math, and science — for all students in every classroom. The second tier kicks in when a student starts struggling with one or more of those basics, he continued, and there’s a consistent, district-wide “strategic intervention” to get that kid into one-on-one or small-group settings at school and at home that ideally accelerates him or her to grade level or, failing that, establishes a pathway to the third and final tier, which is special-ed instruction.