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 New Project Takes Aim at Equity and Disproportionality in Special Education

Effort Uses Human-Centered Approach to Develop Preventive Services and Tools

San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) employees at the South County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) are working to give all special education students the opportunity to live up to their full academic and social potential by as part of the Equity, Disproportionality & Design project.

Disproportionality in special education is the over-representation of minority students identified with a learning disability or other type of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Act. When a minority group's numbers in special education are statistically higher than they should be, they are considered disproportionate.

"Every child deserves to reach their potential," said Russell Coronado, South County SELPA executive director. "Our goal is to remove as many obstacles as possible, such as inequitable practices that exist in current educational systems, so students are able to access that path to success."

The team's work is being funded by a five-year grant from the California Department of Education. As part of the grant, the South County SELPA was chosen to participate in the California Statewide System of Support and serve as the content lead to help SELPAs across the state reduce disproportionality and improve equity. The grant has nine deliverables that fall under the categories of awareness, action, and scale, including training, data tools, and an intervention framework.

The team right now is focused on raising awareness about equity and disproportionality and enlisting key stakeholders, including parents/guardians, educators, and community partners, to help design solutions and services.

"We believe that putting community stories and experiences front and center will sustain the emotional investment in preventing disproportionality, so we not only design for our community, but with our community," said Ryan Estrellado, SELPA executive consultant and content lead.

One such story the team hears often is when students display behavior that is deemed significantly challenging, many school districts enroll students in alternative educational programs outside of their school/district of residence. When this occurs, it is difficult for these students to transition back to a comprehensive school site. This means that students with special needs are disproportionately denied the opportunity to be educated in an integrated environment with their general education peers.

The team is preparing to host its second of three creative design workshops on Feb. 13. At the first workshop in October, participants were introduced to the design-thinking process and then chose to join one of three teams that would address awareness, action, or scale. Since then, some members have been conducting empathy interviews, talking with people who have been affected by disproportionality in school. Using student stories and taking a human-centered approach to developing preventive services and tools is an approach not often utilized in education, but one the team hopes will improve engagement and make implementing the solutions more successful. 

In conjunction with the workshops, the team provides disproportionality awareness training, builds relationships with community partners and universities, and communicates frequently with SELPAs throughout the state to learn about the challenges they are facing. These interactions help the team get more people involved in their work.

Olivia Rivera, SELPA executive consultant and content lead, said that it's important to get an understanding of some of the challenges other SELPAs are facing and build a network of support so they all can get the help they need to address challenges around equity and disproportionality.

"Our goal is to shape our services to be their services," Rivera said.

"We are all doing similar work for students," added Marcus Jackson, SELPA executive consultant and content lead. "When we consult with other SELPAs who are just starting their equity work, it helps that they know there are many connections and networks to help them. Our job is to help them connect some of those missing pieces within our system of support."

Jackson has been working on issues around equity and disproportionality since 2015, focusing on building Multi-Tiered System of Support and positive behavioral interventions and supports programs for districts and schools served by the South County SELPA. The grant allows Jackson and the team to expand their work and engage more stakeholders to design solutions that help students.

"The stories of our families, students, and school staff are the key to nurturing our emotional investment in preventing disproportionality," said Estrellado. "We hope that having these stories at the center of our work honors these experiences and also inspires our community to shape their stories into one where all students reach their full academic and social potential."