Special Education

‘Last year was devastating’: San Francisco’s special ed challenge

Havah Kelley was more than ready to get her son back to in-person school. Learning through a screen for over a year intensified difficulties with reading for her son, who has dyslexia and is now in fifth grade at Sunnyside Elementary.

But instead of finding revamped services coming out of a challenging year, the first week back was another disappointment in her journey with the San Francisco Unified School District’s special education services.

“Socially and emotionally, last year was devastating for my son,” said Kelley, a single mother living in the Bayview. “I know everyone is trying their best, but I’m upset that more programs to address the ground he’s lost have not been implemented.”

Over the last year, school days at home were met with pure frustration. “My son is very smart and he doesn’t want to fail at anything,” she said. “Last year, he just gave up. He stopped trying.”

Her son is not alone. Students across The City and country struggled with distance learning. With the start of a new school year, observers are beginning to see the impacts of the trauma they experienced.

Kelley now fears for the uphill battle that this year will bring.

“Now he’s back in school almost as if nothing happened,” she said. “I was hoping they would start the year a little different and address some of his regression.”

Kelley is part of a growing chorus of parents and education advocates who want to see more screening and remediation for young students in SFUSD, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

In San Francisco and across California, which does not require universal screening for dyslexia, disabilities can go unnoticed until students are severely behind their peers academically. That can have enormous impacts socially and financially for students and their families.

“It’s likely many students were missed during online school. It’s so hard to pick up reading difficulties on Zoom. Kids can duck away from what they might have been called on to do in class,” said Dr. Robert Hendren, head of the Dyslexia Center at UCSF. Hendren specializes in the psychological toll that learning disabilities can have on a student.

When Kelley began noticing her son struggle with reading and writing, she had to do something. What she didn’t expect was a disappointing response from the school district.

“I was put in a series of meetings and enormous pressure to back off. It broke my heart. The school is great and I love it, I just didn’t understand what was happening,” said Kelley, adding that she adores many of the school staff who have supported her. “It taught me that things are not as lovely as I had thought.”

Kelley considers herself one of the lucky ones. She was able to convince the school to assess her son back in first grade, an age many experts say is an ideal time to identify learning disabilities and provide a targeted intervention with students who struggle differentiating letters and words, because it’s when most children are still learning to read.

But for many across the nation, school closures interrupted disability assessments and other special education evaluations. In the spring, SFUSD opened an in-person assessment center at O’Connell High School to clear a backlog of requests. Since March 15, the district has evaluated nearly 335 students, according to officials, but a backlog remains.

Megan Potente runs a parent support group for parents in San Francisco with children with dyslexia. When her son was identified as dyslexic, she made the tough decision to pull him out of SFUSD after finding the services he needed were limited.

“For him, the issue was that the teachers weren’t trained in structured literacy, a proven method to support students with dyslexia,” said Potente, referring to a reading teaching strategy that has shown success among students with dyslexia. “The services weren’t provided with the intensity he needed. It wasn’t daily.”

Seventh grader Gianluca Potente, who has dyslexia, uses an audiobook to help him with reading comprehension.<ins>Examiner)</ins>

Seventh grader Gianluca Potente, who has dyslexia, uses an audiobook to help him with reading comprehension.Examiner)

Students in SFUSD with dyslexia can qualify for an individualized education program to meet their needs, and “are provided multisensory instruction,” according to district spokesperson Laura Dudnick.

Screening for learning disabilities at a young age can be pivotal. If overlooked, downstream impacts include anxiety, depression and behavioral issues, often disproportionately falling on students of color. Students who are dyslexic but undiagnosed also are more likely to be placed in special education. And nearly 85 percent of all youth involved with the juvenile court system are unable to read, according to the American Bar Association.

But many studies show that students who are screened, identified and provided with support early on can successfully keep up with their peers.

That rings true for Potente and her son, who is now on grade level. Potente, who runs a statewide advocacy group called Decoding Dyslexia, would like to see more early reading remediation so fewer students need to be placed in special education.

Without universal access to screening and treatment, an equity gap in San Francisco schools has emerged. Students with wealthier and more highly educated parents are more likely to have the resources to advocate for their child to get early intervention services, as well as afford outside therapy and remediation.

One mother of a dyslexic student told The Examiner she spent over $100,000 in two years getting her son extra care to keep him on track prior to and during the pandemic.

That’s not an option for most parents in SFUSD, where more than 50% of students come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, according to the California Department of Education.

“I cannot afford outside services for my son. If they denied the assessment, I couldn’t pay for private tutors. The public school system is all I have at this point,” said Kelley. “It’s really hard for me to understand why everybody is so behind in this area. Reading is everything.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is dyslexic, is a proponent of increasing screening and remediation services for students with learning disabilities. But progress has been slow. Senate Bill 237, which would require California schools to implement universal dyslexia screening for young students, failed to make it through the state Assembly in July.

The proposal faced opposition from groups including the California School Boards Association and the California Teachers Union, which expressed concerns over potentially overidentifying dyslexia in young students and cutting into limited instructional time for the testing.

“It could have a really large impact. The issue is, how to do we do it?” Hendren said about universal screening. “Some of the testings can take hours and can cost a lot of money.”

Researchers at UCSF are trying to answer that by developing a game-based screener teachers can use to identify risks associated with dyslexia and other learning challenges. “This is not about screening to find and label a dyslexic kid. It’s about screening for risk — short, simple measures that look at predictable factors,” said Potente.

Several experts have criticized the school district’s system for screening for learning disabilities including dyslexia, known as Fountas & Pinnell, which “the field considers to be a highly flawed screener,” according to Steve Carnevale, founder of the UCSF Dyslexia Center.

But the solution must go beyond screening. Teachers must be trained and supported, and strategic remediations and curricula must also be implemented.

There’s a long road ahead, but things are slowly beginning to shift.

The district is using some COVID relief funds to add 13 new psychologist positions, as well as a supervisor, to address the lingering evaluations backlogs. Due to a shortage of school psychologists across the state, however, vacancies remain.

“A decade ago I don’t think the education system got it,” Carnevale said. “But I’ve been working closely with the president of the San Francisco school board and other parents who are involved, and everybody is on board and starting to work closely with UCSF and we’re having deep conversations about how we do all of this.”

sjohnson@sfexaminer.com