LAUSD’s independent study program is overwhelmed. Students with disabilities pay the price

Rena Tafoya with her daughter, Maya Flores, 11, a deaf student in LAUSD’s City of Angels independent study program. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Maya Flores looked at her laptop screen, watching her teacher guide her classmates on how to complete homework online.

But there was a big problem. Maya, 11, is deaf. Her teacher does not know American Sign Language. For more than two months, Maya waited for a sign language interpreter to help her because she didn’t understand how to participate in the Los Angeles School District’s online independent study program. She began to fall asleep during school hours. Eventually, she stopped connecting.

Her mother, Rena Tafoya, who has health issues that could threaten her life if she contracts COVID-19, had to keep Maya at home and believed her daughter would receive the necessary services, including an ASL interpreter. Maya received an interpreter on October 25, but the toll is immense because she is weeks late.

“It’s not fair to her, it’s not fair to any child,” Tafoya said. “They are losing their education.”

Maya and her mother’s experience is emblematic of the dozens of disabled students enrolled in City of Angels, LA Unified’s independent study program. Months after the start of the school year, many are struggling with non-existent or slow-to-arrive housing and services, such as helpers, interpreters and therapists, according to interviews with parents and teachers. Children like Maya face huge gaps in their schooling, despite federal law requiring schools to provide free and appropriate public education to students with disabilities.

Rena Tafoya with her daughter, Maya Flores

Rena Tafoya with her daughter, Maya Flores, who is eligible for services as part of her Individual Education Plan. Tafoya says her daughter is being left behind in an independent study program, which became the only LA Unified distance learning program this year. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Since the start of the school year, the City of Angels has faced shortages of teachers and staff and ill-prepared to deal with a surge in registrations. But the situation is particularly alarming for many students with disabilities, who are disproportionately enrolled, representing 16% of the enrollment, or around 2,600 students. Students with disabilities make up 13% of the district’s total population, and many have health issues that prevent them from attending classes in person.

Parents said frustration compounded the lack of timely responses from administrators, leaving them in the dark for weeks about their children’s schooling. Teachers said they too found it difficult to navigate the system amid confusing and often contradictory directions, especially for their students with disabilities.

The independent study program existed long before the pandemic, serving around 1,000 students per year, mostly those with unique schedules, such as child actors. Students mostly work alone, completing 30 hours of class independently and meeting weekly with a teacher. This option remains available.

When the state legislature ended pandemic-forced distance learning – in which students would receive live instruction on Zoom and other online platforms – it forced districts to expand the study independent as a remote alternative. Districts were also required to provide more live education in their independent study programs. Many districts in California, including LAUSD, have complained that they don’t have time to prepare for the onslaught of students.

In November a federal judge upheld the grievances children with disabilities enrolled in such programs in Los Angeles and elsewhere, ordering the state to act immediately to force districts to meet their needs. The move, in the form of a temporary injunction, came after 15 families, including seven from LA Unified, filed a lawsuit against California, claiming their children were denied their right to an education.

“There are students who are at home and not receiving any services… They are not learning,” said Claudia Center, legal director of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, who signed the lawsuit. Students involved in the lawsuit are also attending Anaheim Unified, Capistrano Unified, Long Beach Unified, San Diego Unified, and San Francisco Unified school districts.

The ruling only applied immediately to students directly involved in the litigation – and it’s unclear how far the order will extend to all people with disabilities. A parent, Anjure Johnson, said the lawsuit was the only way to allow her daughter, Eden, access to independent study at LAUSD after the district denied her placement in the program. Eden, who suffers from Down syndrome and other health issues, needs services such as help, occupational therapy and speech therapy, which she received virtually last year.

“I hate that it had to be this way, but they violated his civil rights,” Johnson said.

Los Angeles school officials have yet to decide whether to extend the court order beyond the seven district students named in the lawsuit to all students with disabilities, said Shannon Haber, spokesperson. district word.

City of Angels students with special educational needs benefit from services identified through individualized assessments, Haber said. But the district has refused to release data on the number or percentage of students who are not receiving all the required housing and services.

Scott Schmerelson, a member of the LA Unified School Board, who chairs the special education committee, wrote in an email that he had “serious concerns” about factors beyond the district’s control with City of Angels, such than scaling a once obscure program to serve 16,000 students. while an acute shortage of staff and educators continues. He said in January that the committee “is planning a significant part of the agenda … to address the issue of making the City of Angels program a better and hopefully temporary option.” His email did not suggest specific actions for improvement.

“We need to make it as easy as possible for parents to work with their child’s teacher to discuss any concerns and unfortunately parents will sometimes have to be persistent which should not be the case,” he said. declared. “There is still a lot to do in difficult conditions.”

Shawn fornari

Shawn Fornari is a teacher in the City of Angels program. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles special education teachers, including Maya’s teacher Shawn Fornari, said they felt poised for failure after weeks of conflicting or shifting directions and the lack of timely responses from administrators. Others feel very stressed and work long hours to keep up with a disorganized schedule.

“With a lack of support it’s impossible to ride [the program] effectively, ”said a special education teacher.

City of Angels director Vince Carbino was not available for an interview, Haber said. Carbino did not respond to requests for comment.

The high enrollment at City of Angels is not expected to decline over the next few months, as the district anticipates a further increase in January when unvaccinated students aged 12 and older will be excluded from campuses. End of November, until 44,000 eligible students had missed the district deadline to receive the first of two shots. Failure to meet the anticipated deadline has no consequences. The district has not released updated student immunization figures.

For parents, the frustration begins when they ask for help – and no one responds.

One mother, Evelyn, has said she needs to keep her son Gabriel in distance learning as he suffers from autism, epilepsy and health issues that could make teaching in-person risky. She asked that her full name not be used to protect her family’s privacy. Gabriel needs help transcribing essays and sessions with an occupational therapist – he hasn’t had any since the campuses closed in March 2020. For months, she couldn’t reach anyone at City of Angels to acquire help.

“I’ve left messages in different places,” said Evelyn, who is looking for a virtual assistant to help her. “Crickets”.

In Maya’s case, the district said the several-month delay was due to a shortage of sign language interpreters. Maya’s mother Tafoya said she wished the district had been upfront about the shortage.

Another parent, Rebecca, said her sixth-grade son had trouble concentrating in school and she tried to get him assessed so he could get support. But his school only offered an in-person assessment, which seemed dangerous – his son was not vaccinated and they live with his 85-year-old grandmother. Rebecca refused and instead started coaching him through missions.

But without specialist support, the 12-year-old struggled. Her first ballot came back with no notes, just rows of question marks.

“That’s why I signed up. I have to support him, but it’s such a ridiculous workload than it should be because City of Angels dropped the ball,” a- she declared. Her son is now vaccinated and she decides to send him back to school in person.

After a Times reporter inquired about Evelyn and Rebecca’s situation, district staff reached out to families and said support services would be provided.

Of a dozen teachers surveyed for the story, many said the program lacks basic focus and early training on how to adjust online platforms to meet the needs of students with disabilities, who sometimes need extra time and reduced workloads.

Training was provided to all City of Angels teachers to show them how to use these accommodations in Edgenuity, the main online learning platform. But several teachers said it was too late in the semester and they went weeks without knowing how to help students.

Others said that many of their students fail on the basis of online programs and that they are not sure they can catch up even with additional help.

The students of Fornari also fail. Even with extra time to improve the notes, he worries they will run out.

“My anxiety level is getting high because I feel like I’m failing… There’s no way they’re going to be successful this late in the game,” he said.

For families who still struggle to access services, Maribel Luna, senior director of LAUSD’s special education division, said parents can call the department for help. The number is (213) 241-6701.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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