An appropriate education | January 13, 2023 | Pleasanton Weekly | |

Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - January 13, 2023

An appropriate education

Concerned parents critical of prolonged process for improving PUSD's learning disability support system

by Christian Trujano

For Betsy and Jamison Cummings, their daughter's education means everything. But as 13-year-old Piper looks to her future high school days, her parents are fearful that she won't get the help she needs for her learning disabilities.

"We've had the acknowledgement from teachers within Pleasanton, who have said, 'She's very fluent in what she's learning and how she learns,'" Betsy Cummings said. "So we want for her to be a member of the graduating class of 2027, at Amador -- we are just fearful that they are not going to work with Piper in her advocacy and how she learns."

Piper Cummings has been diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia, which are learning disabilities that affect how she learns how to process both words and numbers. She also has dysgraphia, which can cause difficulties from physically writing words to issues with organizing and expressing thoughts in written form.

Because of that, her parents said it's been hard managing her way through elementary and middle school -- mainly, they contend, because the Pleasanton Unified School District hasn't given teachers the proper training in teaching kids with learning disabilities.

But the Cummings family aren't the only parents who have had issues with PUSD's efforts in implementing programs to help their kids with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

"It took him a lot at first to get him out of Pleasanton to go to this other school," said Nancy Larson, a parent of three children, when talking about her son who has dyslexia. "Then it took a lot to bring him back because he knew how they weren't serving him the first time. Then once he came back it was off to a really bumpy start. Gradually it was getting a little bit better and then it just tanked again."

Larson argues that the district has failed in several aspects, and while district officials say they have been doing the work to help students with any and all learning disabilities in the long term, she referenced back to the past couple of years the district had to fix these issues.

But did PUSD fail these families, and is the district actively addressing its strategies and skills for teaching these students? To fully understand, one must go back to 2017, when the issue really came to the forefront.

PUSD's plan for dyslexia support

According to DyslexiaHelp, a website designed by the University of Michigan, dyslexia is thought to be one of the most common language-based learning disabilities.

"It is the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties," according to the website. "Of people with reading difficulties, 70%-80% are likely to have some form of dyslexia. It is estimated that between 5%-10% of the population has dyslexia, but this number can also be as high as 17%."

Because of recent state-led efforts to address the topic of dyslexia, PUSD approved its Dyslexia Awareness Month resolution back in 2017. As a part of that resolution, the district made a commitment to implement a Dyslexia Action Plan, which was going to outline how the district was to implement programs to help teach students with dyslexia.

Think tank meetings were held and handfuls of teachers began getting training on the Wilson Reading System, which is a curriculum meant to address dyslexia -- the district had adopted the system in 2016.

Fast forward to May 2022 and the same action plan was brought up again during a Board of Trustees meeting where several parents, including Larson, criticized the district and how long it was taking to fully implement the Wilson programs and get the teacher training that was promised in 2017.

But as the years passed, district officials told the Weekly that they wanted to shift to a broader focus to include other developmental disabilities and to focus more on addressing the learning issues at an early age.

"One thing that we realized in working so closely together, and in reviewing the Dyslexia Action Plan, is that special education can't have an initiative toward managing dyslexia without a comprehensive literacy instruction and strategy," said Jeni Rickard, senior director of special education at PUSD.

Rickard, who joined the district in 2020 amid the pandemic and remote learning, said that since then the district has been putting resources into training special education teachers and providing the materials through the Wilson system.

"Oftentimes, we hear Wilson, and we think it's just one thing -- it's for students with dyslexia, but it actually is a comprehensive program," Rickard said. "Any student who is experiencing; first of all, a need for reading instruction; second of all, a need for reading intervention; and then third of all, the most intensive intervention for students with significant decoding problems, Wilson can support all of that."

She said before she was hired, several large cohorts of PUSD teachers underwent a three-day Wilson training that taught them how to implement teaching strategies that help those students who need the most intensive intervention.

There's also more cohorts of teachers currently going through the training.

But she said instead of focusing on getting those teachers fully certified in the Wilson program, which can take about a year and a half of instruction, Rickard said it's more important to first build a strong foundation at the general education level.

"If special education says, 'We're gonna get all of our teachers trained to implement this intensive intervention program mandatory, every teacher has to do it', and we don't have a corresponding foundation of core instruction and intervention, then this top-tier strategy for special education isn't going to be effective," Rickard said.

PUSD is also currently working on training its teachers in the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) program. The two-year college level course teaches the science behind reading and how to teach reading within the classroom.

"We actually are following through with teacher training, and also with what we call structured literacy approaches, which is explicit in structured teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics and the sound to letter symbol combinations of how people learn to read," said Shay Galletti, coordinator of early literacy and numeracy.

Galletti is no stranger to the early teaching intervention world, having previously held the title of director of elementary education before taking on her new role.

According to district officials, this new role was created last year to further help address literacy at an early age through a multi-tiered system for all students.

Two years ago, Galletti sent a team of intervention specialists to become trainers in LETRS -- once they were trained, they began teaching cohorts of teachers starting last year. This year they have a new cohort of 40 teachers following the previous 80.

She added that the goal is to have every teacher up to the fifth grade trained in LETRS so that the district can intervene early on in a child's learning career and help them get up to par in reading to minimize the amount of students in special education.

This is referenced as tier one intervention.

"If you look at dyslexia best practices, almost all of our reading difficulties for about 85% of our children can be handled with proper instruction in tier one," Galletti said. "So that's where we're really focusing on how do we even negate the problem before it gets to be a problem and how do we teach students and then identify those who do need help?"

But even through all the work that the district says they are doing to better screen and help children with learning disabilities at an early age, the Cummings and Larson families still believe that nothing up to this point has been followed through with fidelity.

Parents' distrust of district

Larson told the Weekly that she had first noticed something different in her son, Jason, when he was in kindergarten.

"I noticed that he was struggling," she said. "The teacher was kind of working with me to get him some extra help ... and then it just gradually seemed to be getting worse."

Larson officially found out that Jason had dyslexia in second grade, but like many other parents she didn't really know what to do after the diagnosis.

When a child has things like learning disabilities, the parent and the child must go through what's known as an individualized education program.

IEPs are legal documents governed by federal and state law to ensure that students with disabilities get a mapped-out plan for how they will receive proper instruction based on their needs.

"If there's a concern with a student's educational performance, we are required to assess a student in any area of suspected disability," Rickard said. "We're not assessing a student for special education because they're not performing academically; it's because we suspect a disability."

So naturally, Larson went through the process with her son, but she said her mistake was trying to do that on her own.

"When I was trying to advocate for Jason on my own at his IEP meetings, I would spend so much time trying to figure out what I need to go to them about, how do I get him help," Larson said. "And then I went to the meeting, and I was just basically told 'no' in whatever I was asking for."

After that, she decided to get help in the form of an advocate who helped Larson pull her son's files -- which the advocate told Larson contained several red flags.

"It got to the point where there were so many red flags in his file that she said I'm probably going to need an attorney because things that he was tested for his IEP, the testing data wasn't complete," Larson said. "They left out certain parts and some of those certain parts were parts that would have diagnosed him with his dyslexia."

That's when Kristin Springer came into the picture.

Springer is an attorney who has helped Larson, a longtime friend, and the Cummings family as well.

"I stay very busy in Pleasanton because there's a lot of kids that are not being served -- and that's just dealing with the dyslexia side," Springer said. "In Pleasanton, I've probably handled 20-25 students that have dyslexia and dyscalculia."

Because of Springer's help, Larson was able to kick start her journey of getting her son the help he needed -- but at a different school called Raskob Learning Institute and Day School in Oakland.

She said the nonprofit, which specializes in teaching children and adults with learning disabilities, helped address Jason's self-esteem and anxiety issues that stemmed from his learning issues.

Larson said he even gave a speech during his middle school graduation ceremony.

Springer said these cases should be getting more attention from the district, which led her to join Betsy and Jamison Cummings in their cause in getting PUSD to properly address the situation of taking too long to implement any programs that will help students today, not years down the road.

"Somebody should have been saying this was a critical issue we need to address," she said. "(According to the MAP scores), you have 36% of your students with disabilities fall below that 20th percentile, which is the most critical and in-need students."

Where things stand

Last year, the Cummings family spent a lot of time in court after first having filed a request for a due process hearing where they alleged that the district denied Piper her Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

On Feb. 24, Administrative Law Judge Charles Marson, who's been with the Sacramento regional office of the Office of Administrative Hearings since 2005, ruled in favor of Betsy and Jamison.

"The Feb. 24, 2022 decision found PUSD failed to have an IEP in place at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year producing 'a series of results damaging to parents' participatory rights,'" according to the publicly obtained court file. "The Feb. 24, 2022 decision found that PUSD's significant violations left (Piper) with a program that was obscure and staff were left wondering what program to follow."

The family then filed a separate federal appeal case in April. According to the court documents, Springer had sent a demand letter to the district to seek reimbursement of attorney's fees without having to incur additional costs, which the family claims the district has ignored.

They plan to seek reimbursement of legal fees incurred and to obtain reimbursement on the due process fees.

The appeal document also states that the district allegedly did not reach an agreement with the Cummings family regarding Piper's services.

It was also during these hearings that the family was being assured that Piper would get the help she needed moving forward, which is why Jamison and Betsy decided to stay with PUSD -- to give them another chance.

"In her mind, I think she felt secure, because we had been promised certain things," Betsy said. "It wasn't necessarily our ideal situation, but we knew that we had to give them the chance to prepare her for high school."

But she said Piper didn't receive any of the extra support in terms of even just simply checking in on her mental well-being when she wasn't doing well in her math class.

"She ended up having three full blown panic attacks at school," Betsy said.

That was almost the same thing that Larson said she was worried about when her son Jason said he wanted to come back to PUSD to play football at Amador Valley High School. She said that even though he himself was a bit hesitant on going back to a district that even he himself knew wasn't serving his learning needs, he still wanted to come back.

Larson said that even though she has lost her trust in the district, his current team at Amador and his teachers seem good. All she can do now is try to help advocate for other parents going through the same.

PUSD director of communications Patrick Gannon told the Weekly that while the district isn't able to speak publicly on any active litigation, they understand that they still have work to do and are "committed to moving forward."

"We are pleased to have filled a newly created position last year to help lead our work (coordinator of early literacy and numeracy) to support all students," Gannon said.

As that new coordinator, Galletti said that implementing these types of programs and teaching methods takes time and even if it might take longer than expected, she and Rickard want to do the job the right way.

"Telling families don't worry, we have a plan, and we're in it for the long game, doesn't help their students that day in their classroom," Rickard said. "We know that we're in it for the long game and sometimes that means that we're not going to put a Band-Aid on something that needs a more comprehensive strategy but that doesn't mean that we're not going to support our students."

"My worry is when you say, 'Oh, it's a long-term plan,' it's like we're putting things off. Nothing is being put off," Galletti added. "We're actively working daily, to ensure our teachers are trained in the science of reading to make sure they have the materials. (To make sure) principals and teachers are actively working every day to pinpoint students who are struggling, and then to provide that intervention for those who are struggling, whether it be reading math, socially, and emotionally."

But as the Cummings family and Larson previously said, they feel like they can't trust the district and that they have shown time and time again that they have not been able to properly serve their children.

They also wanted to make sure it was clear that they had nothing against any teachers as Piper has had numerous great teachers -- their main issues are wanting to see those teachers, and more, getting the training they need to teach their daughter and other children with learning disabilities.

"Piper is her own advocate and so she has left her mark on dyslexia and has changed people's minds and changed some educators ... so there has been some impact ... but it's not enough to help Pleasanton," Betsy said. "(PUSD officials) have had so many chances to fix a problem that is bigger than they realized. They could have saved so much money and they have really failed so many kids in this system and it's the biggest tragedy."


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