Earlier this year, a representative of a California advocacy and civil-rights organization asked me if the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, the new state agency that I head, has a “genuine sense of urgency” about its work in getting the right kind of help and assistance to districts, charters and county offices of education.
I told him that the very first meeting that we had in the very first district that we agreed to take on was at Ironwood State Prison, which is located within the boundaries of the Palo Verde Unified School District in the city of Blythe on the California-Arizona border.
There is nothing that gives an educator like me a greater sense of mission, purpose and urgency than walking into one of our state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facilities and sitting down to talk with inmates about their schooling experiences. The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year that our state is now spending just over $75,000 per year, per inmate at our prisons, which is more than the annual cost of a Harvard University education, including room and board.
As part of the state’s landmark reforms of its accountability system to give local districts greater decision-making authority over how they spend state funds — and hence over educational strategies in their districts — my agency has been charged with developing a new approach to assist school districts to improve, emphasizing support for improvements rather than punishing them for failure.
An important part of our work in emphasizing a return to local control of schools is getting to know the local communities that we’re serving. The economy in Blythe, in addition to agriculture, is actually driven by the presence of two state prisons (Ironwood and Chuckawalla Valley), and we wanted to familiarize ourselves with one of the community’s economic engines as we began our work.
After going through the usual security procedures that you would expect at a prison, the warden took us to visit one of the most popular occupational programs at Ironwood to have a chat with the inmates about their experiences in California schools. We sat down to talk with a group of inmates, largely young men of color, who were diligently working on translating textbooks into Braille — part of a contract that the prison has with the California Community College system. It’s a very popular occupational activity at the prison because participants are guaranteed a job when they get out.
I asked the inmate leader about his schooling experiences, and he said: “As a middle-schooler, I was growing up in South Central Los Angeles in a single-parent household, and no one was paying any attention to what was going on with me socially and emotionally. I was fine with the academics, but I realized that I needed to join a gang to get to and from school safely and, if I was going to be in a gang, I was going to be the leader of the gang.”
Later I asked the warden what the inmate had done and he said in a very dispassionate way: “Like most gang leaders, he killed some people.”
As the state launches its new 2017 color-coded California School Dashboard and new system of support, I think about that visit to Ironwood and a more recent visit to Soledad prison in South Monterey County as a source of urgency about getting this right. All of us at the state and county levels are going to have to bring our “A game” to help the more than 220 districts that the state has identified as qualifying for assistance based on how they did on the multiple measures included on the dashboard.
This year’s dashboard reveals that a significant number of districts are identified because of the underperformance of students with disabilities — giving us a unique opportunity as a state to take on a long overdue challenge at reforming our special education system, which we haven’t addressed in a systematic way in the past.
A statewide task force on special education that I co-chaired issued a report in 2015 calling for “one coherent system” that, at long last, acknowledges that improving educational opportunities for students with disabilities will require major changes in general education. Currently about one in ten of California’s public school students are officially classified as special education students, with many more requiring special assistance who have not been diagnosed.
We will take the lead in coordinating the work of a new Special Education Collective that will pull together existing California Department of Education and other state resources. In addition, we will partner with existing models of exemplary practice in this area at El Dorado, Orange, Butte, Napa, Sacramento and Santa Clara counties.
We will also sit down with our labor partners, both the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, for a candid conversation about the changes needed to support inclusive practices in schools and classrooms throughout our state. As our statewide task force concluded more than two years ago: “All children and students with disabilities must be considered general education students first.”
At times, special education is a challenging area because of outmoded belief systems, continued teacher shortages, debates about the right kind of teacher preparation and leadership that is too often legalistic and compliance-driven. Because of these factors, changing it is a heavy lift, and I don’t underestimate the difficulty associated with ushering in this kind of change in a system that has viewed it as a place separate, apart and isolated for so long. However, there is a powerful moral imperative at work here that demands that we as state leaders take this on.
As I reflect on that first visit to Blythe and Ironwood State Prison more than a year and half ago, I’m reminded that the CCEE went there because the former Riverside county superintendent Kenn Young told us about a district that had been the lowest performing in the county for more than two decades, and how numerous past state interventions hadn’t succeeded in improving things.
One of the gratifying elements of this week’s dashboard launch announcement is that the Palo Verde Unified School District in Blythe won’t be on the list of school districts needing assistance. Here’s to the school board, superintendent, teachers, administrators, classified staff, parents, students and community who, along with us, have been working very hard at reversing a two-decade trend. We’re hopeful that our new approach to intervention — partnering and collaborating with a local district — has been a contributing factor in their not making the list at this time.
California now has the opportunity to support other districts to make similar progress. We should make special education a priority — so that many students who should be better served by our state don’t end up in circumstances like those I witnessed at Ironwood. But what is needed is a comprehensive approach so that all our schools work for all students. The California School Dashboard is an additional and important tool that should help local communities identify where the need for intervention is the greatest.
Carl Cohn is executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a state agency established in 2013 to advise and assist districts under the state’s new accountability system. A former member of the State Board of Education, he was also superintendent of the Long Beach and San Diego Unified School Districts.
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