Equity in action

Using a multi-faceted approach to support students with special needs

By Katherine Aguirre | January | February 2020
Understanding the unique needs of all students is imperative in providing a comprehensive, meaningful and equitable educational experience. For California administrators, this includes the needs of the nearly 800,000 students who receive special education services across the state (California Department of Education, 2019).  Like many other districts, Santa Paula Unified School District in Santa Paula is committed to providing the supports, services and accommodations needed to help students meet their Individualized Education Program goals and thrive both academically and socially. Our district is located just north of Los Angeles County, has nine school sites, and serves a total of 5,400 Pre-K to grade 12 students, the majority of whom are English Language Learners. Of these students, more than 16 percent have an IEP. The district provides a continuum of special education services to help meet our students’ varied needs. These offerings, which include a new onsite adaptive classroom for high school students and an innovative speech-language therapy delivery method have been implemented with fidelity to meet the needs of our students.  Classroom accommodations In addition to providing students with special needs in the least restrictive environment, it’s a goal to keep students in the district throughout their academic career. This, of course, means there must be the appropriate accommodations and learning environments in place to support them.  Before last school year, students with severe disabilities had to go to a neighboring school district once they reached ninth grade because our district didn’t have a classroom at our high school to meet their needs. We understood moving to an out-of-district school was not ideal for students who have formed longstanding relationships with their peers and wanted to continue their schooling alongside their friends. Through comprehensive planning and budgeting, our district created a new classroom at our high school to alleviate this issue.  The centrally located classroom is both accessible and large enough to accommodate adaptive furniture and equipment. In addition to the physical space and the ability for students to stay at school with their peers, students with special needs can participate in general education courses they may not have access to elsewhere. This also includes participation in our Career Technical Education pathways and groups such as Future Farmers of America.  The new high school classroom and its ability to serve students in-district additionally enriches the social aspect of students’ educational experience by allowing them to partake in events such as attending a football game or going to homecoming with their friends.  Having students with special needs stay on campus is also beneficial to our general education students, as it teaches them about the importance of inclusivity. Overall, it’s been truly remarkable to see how accepting and kind the entire student body is with each other – from helping one another navigate campus, providing peer tutoring in a given lesson, or something as simple as including everyone in a lunchtime discussion. This is the type of kind and accepting culture we always strive for within our schools.  Teletherapy Regardless of where a student with special needs goes to school or resides, they must receive quality services. These services, however, can be challenging for school districts to provide when there is a shortage of highly qualified special education providers. Santa Paula USD was no exception when it came to our ability to fill special education positions, including Speech Language Pathologists, within our schools. There were often few candidates for positions and we found it increasingly difficult to compete with jobs in the clinical setting.  Our district sought an alternative and partnered with PresenceLearning three years ago to deliver speech language services to students remotely via teletherapy. Through this delivery method, students – 90 the first year, 110 the second year, and 135 this year – receive therapy via a secure online platform from one of PresenceLearning’s nine contracted SLPs dedicated to our district. The remote SLPs serve students in three elementary schools, as well as our one high school.  The SLPs provide comprehensive services, just as an on-site SLP would. They conduct initial assessments, attend IEP meetings, prepare student documentation, work with on-site speech-language pathology assistants, collaborate with other general and special education staff, speak with administrators regularly, and more – they just do all of this remotely.

Another area of concentration for students in both general and special education is providing mental health support, especially for everyday issues like stress, which can often be overlooked.
Involving parents in the implementation process was a priority for us. We and PresenceLearning conducted a parent night before student implementation to ensure parents had a forum to ask questions, get information, and see a demonstration of the platform in action. This helped establish a comfort level with teletherapy and helped get our parents on board, which is essential with any new initiative. Once we started services, students really took to teletherapy almost immediately because of their familiarity and comfort level with technology and online environments, as well as how it engaged them in the therapy process. Now, we can continually provide students with the services they need to succeed, which is essential to delivering a comprehensive and equitable learning experience. Technology The use of technology with students with special needs is not limited to the teletherapy sessions. We are very intentional to make sure the use of devices is evenly distributed among all students as part of our 1:1 initiative. From Chromebooks to iPads, students have access to a variety of technology as part of their learning experience. These devices are integrated into lesson plans and the curriculum as a way to meet current learning needs and trends, and to keep up with what students are already doing naturally outside of school. The use of technology has helped our students better interact with content, build skills, and engage in more self-directed learning. This, plus incorporating Universal Design for Learning principles, gives students with special needs an equal opportunity to succeed. Mental health support Another area of concentration for students in both general and special education is providing mental health support, especially for everyday issues like stress, which can often be overlooked. Our district works to teach students about coping mechanisms and ways to achieve positive outcomes. We also focus on teaching appropriate behavior versus focusing on discipline. To provide these supports to students, all levels of our staff – from the cafeteria and janitorial staff to teachers and administrators – receive mental health and crisis training. As there is no certainty when or where an issue may arise, everyone who is around students must have the right toolset to help. The district has additionally brought in a team of licensed social workers and counselors to provide training to small groups of staff and teach them how to look for warning signs. We also provide direct student mentorship and support as needed. With all of these initiatives, parent involvement and communication is critical. The district is very intentional about providing ample opportunities for parents to know what is going on in the classroom and to be an active part of their child’s educational experience. Educators and administrative teams in the district will regularly hold workshops and parent meetings regarding new initiatives, as well as about classroom instruction, the Local Control and Accountability Plan, how to help ELLs at home, and how to support their LGBTQ child.  The strength of Santa Paula USD is that all means all. Regardless of a student’s level of giftedness or cultural, socioeconomic, or personal background, they should always feel welcome and supported and have the most equitable educational experience possible. This is an ideal that we continue to strive for every day.  Resources California Department of Education (2019). Special Education – CalEdFacts. Retrieved from

Katherine Aguirre is the executive director of special education and student support services at Santa Paula Unified School District in Santa Paula, CA. She has worked toward bringing equity to the underserved populations in the greater Los Angeles area for nearly 20 years in both site and district positions. 

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Association of California School Administrators