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 La Mesa-Spring Valley's Approach to Special Education Aims to Have “Significant Impact on Learning”

When the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District embraced a new approach to special
education three years ago, the team took to heart some insight from Temple Grandin, the famed professor and animal behavioral expert who has autism:

“There needs to be a lot more emphasis on what a child can do instead of what he cannot

That’s a good way to describe what the district is doing through Specialized Academic
Instruction (SAI) to ensure children with special needs receive the most well-rounded
education possible, better guide the creation of Individualized Education Programs, and
guarantee access to the grade level standards laid out for all students.

Guido Magliato, the district’s assistant superintendent of learning support, said that by
implementing the SAI model, the district is providing students with special needs the ability to
demonstrate success in general-education classrooms with additional support.

This is especially important, said Andrew Smith, the district’s director of special education, to
offer children and families both a better sense of community by being able to attend their
neighborhood schools, but also to present students with the opportunity to learn with their
peers in a general-education setting.

SAI was first rolled out in 2014 at the La Mesa Arts Academy, then expanded to three more
campuses the following academic year. This year, the model is being used on all La Mesa-Spring Valley campuses for the first time. About 2,000 students in the district have special needs that range from autism to learning disorders to speech and language impairments.

The model is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, but is used to tailor an education plan for
each child’s needs with the help of a team typically made up of parents, the campus
principal, a school psychologist, and a speech and language pathologist. The special education and general-education teachers assigned to the student join in as well and are
better able to collaborate in this model.

Magliato credits the success of SAI to the expertise and hard work of the entire staff and
their dedicated support for each and every student.

“The more we can expose students with special needs to the grade level expectations, the
better,” he said. “Whenever they can access the expectations and rigors of the grade level, we want them there. We are now equipped to challenge them where they can be challenged. It is amazing what they can do, given the chance. It’s going to have a significant impact on learning.”

Both special-education and general-education teachers also have remarked on the
performance they would not have seen if a student with special needs had been assigned
exclusively to a special-day class.

Smith, who is the parent of a student with special needs, already has seen that impact,
particularly with children who he said sometimes feel left out when they are placed in a
special-education setting.

“One thing that we do know — we’ve already heard from students this year who have
expressed delight in being in a general-education classroom,” he said.