Joanna White, the new director of special education for the William S. Hart Union High School District, said Tuesday that while she was growing up, special needs students would typically stay home from school, separated from other students in general education.
Once new legislation began to pass as we moved closer to the 21st century, that culture of limiting children in need of special services to their homes began to fade away, she said.
“As the legislation led them into public school settings, it was never the intention for them to be housed or separated in those school settings,” said White. “I think the impetus for that comes from a good place, but it was never meant to separate students on public school sites.”
White hopes, during her tenure as the new director of special education, a position that oversees 3,200 students and 140 staff in programs throughout the district, she’ll be able to create more inclusive practices, with more students from both general and special education, befriending and learning alongside one another on campuses.
“A piece of it that we’ve really been looking at is our least-restrictive environment piece, and that we are attempting to incorporate more inclusive practices,” said White, “meaning that special education students will be given more opportunities to participate alongside general education peers.”
The idea to dissolve some of the division between special and general education, which White stated was going to be a large focus for her tenure in office, began to be implemented last year with her predecessor, Sharon Amrhein, with campuses offering more co-taught classes with special education kids taking general education classes.
“We have different populations who participate in different types of settings,” said White, adding that students, based on the level of services they require, can be introduced to different classrooms that allow them to learn at a rate that fits with their learning abilities. “The rigor of the (general education) classroom is far greater … students are expected to keep up with that pace. They learn that it’s not just the core curriculum piece that they’re learning, but the depth of knowledge is far greater in a general education classroom, typically.”
White said that both the special education and general education teachers will work together along with the other district staff working on special education curricula to provide students with the best possible outcome for their learning. She said this amount of staffing and effort going into special education in the Hart District is what makes it stand out as one of the best special education options in Southern California.
“A lot of the charter and private schools, it’s very difficult for them to secure the personnel and support service providers that (the Hart District) is able to provide,” said White. “We are very fortunate … that we’re able to enlist pretty much the best of the best coming out of our colleges who then end up working here.”
White added that another goal of hers will be to have the district keep up and continue to be proactive in their behavioral assessments for students who have not already received an individualized education program, or IEP, and ensuring communication with that student’s parents. One obstacle she’ll need to face, however, she said, is an ever-decreasing funding formula from the state.
“What ends up happening with a school district as large as ours is that given that the contribution the government gives to the school district, our expenses far exceed that amount,” said White. “So, the general fund helps with all of those expenses.”
Nonetheless, challenges aside, she said she got into this work because she loved the uniqueness and challenges of being a special education teacher, and looks forward to taking special education in the district further.
“Something about my natural attributes led me to working with that population,” she said. “I’m excited, and this is something I’ve always wanted to do.”