‘Significant Disproportionality’ of Latinx Students in Special Ed

Santa Barbara Unified Takes Action to Address Misidentification of Struggling Multilingual Students

Santa Barbara School Board members Rose Muñoz, Vice President Dr. Jacqueline Reid and Wendy Sims-Moten(left to right) attend the first partially in person school board meeting Tuesday November 10, 2020. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Children from Latinx families are 3.43 times more likely to be identified as having learning disabilities than their white peers in the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

The alarming data point is why the district has been flagged by the state as having a “significant disproportionality.” In other words, the district was identified for having a disproportionately high number of Latinx students in special education. As a result, the district is now required to use $371,278 of its federal special education funding to help support struggling Latinx students.

This is how the district’s massive plan got spurred into action. 

“We’re going to stop treating all kids like they learn the same way,” Superintendent Hilda Maldonado said at the Tuesday board meeting about the plan. 

“And we are going to stop pretending that kids who don’t speak the language they’re taught to read in learn automatically and that they should have comprehension, when we know that their level of proficiency in English is not at the level of someone whose first language is English,” she continued.


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The plan identifies six root causes for why Latinx students continually get misplaced into special education. Some of them include that the district does not have clear and consistent systems to help intervene when multilingual students are struggling; there are conscious and unconscious biases toward linguistically diverse students that negatively impact expectations; and there is a lack of parental understanding of rights and legal support around special education.

The root causes are a springboard for six corresponding steps designed to level the test scores. The district is currently in phase three of the four-phased, 27-month-long plan. The third phase comes after identifying the root causes and is meant to create the plan before the final execution phase.

John Schettler, director of special education, said that the short-term goal is to get the district’s disproportionality rate down from 3.43 to 3 by September 2022. Ultimately, the goal is to get the number down to one. One of the six actions will create a three-tiered system of support for students that gives other forms of support before the third tier: special education.

“We are going to stop jumping from tier one to tier three because we are really going to establish robust tier-two interventions and have a system by which we are able to provide students with support,” said Frann Wageneck, assistant superintendent of student services. 

“There will still be Latinx students identified with learning disabilities, but those will be the students who absolutely need it after we’ve thrown everything we possibly can at them.”

The plan will target 2nd and 3rd graders attending Monroe, Franklin, and Cleveland elementary schools because those are the students found to have the highest rates of special education classification. 

“This is a very comprehensive plan on a very complicated topic, but there are still a few holes for me,” Boardmember Kate Ford said. “First of all, I don’t really know how you identified those three schools or why. And now that they’ve been identified, how have they reacted to the data and the plan?”

Sierra Loughridge, director of general elementary education, told Ford that the three schools and the district have “basically always known” that the special education disproportions were higher at those sites and that they are glad that there is now a plan to address it and to “start digging into the hard work.”

Part of building the tiered system includes a major strengthening of the second tier, which includes building a separate system for non-native English-speaking students that focuses on affirming their native language and culture rather than seeing them as a barrier to learning. The aim is to create a support system for struggling multilingual students that is separate from support systems for native English-speaking students. 

“Culture and language is interchangeable; one goes with the other,” said Boardmember Rose Muñoz. “Being an English learner myself back in the day, I was fortunate that I was able to build on my language. My brother didn’t. He lost the language along with the culture.”

The actions in the plan also include expanding professional learning related to conscious or unconscious racial and linguistic bias and revising district procedures and protocols for assessing multilingual students, among other steps.

To see the full presentation, click here.


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