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Administrator Guides Santa Barbara District’s Special-Education Department in New Direction

Kerri Mills has put her mark on major improvements for a program recently plagued by a scathing FCMAT report and high leadership turnover

Two years after a blistering report recommended an overhaul of the Santa Barbara Unified School District special education department, new leadership is working on lasting improvements.

When Kerri Mills came to the district three years ago, she worked under then-director Tom Guajardo, whose job was to implement the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team action plan. Guajardo left after seven months, joining the department’s revolving door of administrative leadership that saw at least 11 directors or interim directors come and go since 2002. Some withdrew just a few days after being hired.

As the assistant superintendent of special education, a position created for her, Mills has put her mark on every aspect of the department.

Frustration from parents — often culminating in lawsuits — has long plagued the department, and one of the biggest deficiencies FCMAT pointed out was the lack of communication between district staff and the community. There was low staff morale, no central organization and a lack of resources, according to confidential surveys taken by FCMAT staff.

“For me, coming into a district like this, the biggest thing is to develop trust,” Mills said. “And I think that’s huge, so we try, we try very hard, to get that trust. It’s still a work in progress, we’re still working on it, but I try to model for the staff. We try to work things out with the parents, meet with the parents, answer their calls, and it’s the same with staff; we just go that extra mile to communicate.”

The district has created two advisory groups, one that still meets regularly. Parent representatives share information with their school sites to keep all stakeholders in the loop, Mills said.

Parents Marcia Eichelberger and Lynn Rodriguez are co-presidents, and parent Cathy Abarca is the group’s parliamentarian. At the last meeting, the group voted that inclusion should officially be part of the department’s philosophy, and Mills says they are going to send a letter to that effect to Superintendent Dave Cash.

“Our parent advisory committee recommends having training for general education staff and administration on inclusion. I would love to; I think that’s an audience that we really need to tap into,” Mills said. “Dr. Cash and I have already talked to administrators about how we might pull that off.”

For parent advocates such as Eichelberger and Abarca, who have been attending school board meetings for years, the unflattering FCMAT report came as no surprise. But they had hoped it would look further into areas that weren’t in the scope of work requested by the school board.

“We looked at those issues and now we’re at a point that we want to start building a philosophy of what special education is for this district,” Eichelberger said. “We want to see the paradigm shift.”

Eichelberger’s 19-year-old son, Jared, is in the district’s transition program, and Abarca’s 11-year-old son, Angel, is a student at Kellogg Elementary School in Goleta and will come to the Santa Barbara district in two years.

Going forward, their goals for the district are on par with Mills’ action plan: ongoing professional development for staff members from outside experts and maintaining the collaborative relationship between the parent advisory groups and the administrative leadership to keep the positive momentum going. To move toward inclusion, having behavioral support for students is essential, Abarca and Eichelberger said.

“They’re the hardest-working kids. They deserve to be respected, educated and part of their school community wherever they are,” Eichelberger said. “The days of isolating special-education students should be in the past. We all need to be focusing on appropriate inclusive practices.”

They support Mills and her new team, but are concerned that outside forces — including the inability to mandate trainings for staff members — could stop department personnel from moving forward as quickly as they may want to.

“We have gone from zero to 80, but it’s always the last 20 percent that’s most difficult,” Abarca said.

Notably, the department is fully staffed for the first time this year, including 22 new staff members, some in positions Mills created to fill needs identified in the FCMAT report. Previously, the district would have been missing instructional assistants or even teachers as the school year started.

Mills credits the success to working closely with other departments, Human Resources especially, which wasn’t done very much before.

“I have very high expectations, which I’m sure any of my staff will tell you,” she said with a laugh. “And I’m very picky about selecting staff. I interview and sit on all interview panels for certificated staff, so if I’m not satisfied with the candidate pool, I will go out again and keep interviewing until I get the right person.”

It has garnered her a bit of a reputation, but she says she doesn’t mind.

“It’s worth it, because teachers for sure make the difference in the classroom — not me, and not my staff,” Mills said. “So, I make sure I get the absolute best, qualified teachers and psychologists and speech therapists. Once they’re here, I want to support them.”

For professional development, Mills said she wants to bring more expertise in-house to make the district more self-sufficient. Directors have been certified in assistive technology, and, according to Mills, the district finally has a bilingual speech therapist, speech aide and an interpreter/translator position to help with Spanish-speaking parents, assessments and translating documents for the website.

“What they did before, I’m not quite sure, but it wasn’t working very effectively,” she said.

Mills created training sessions for new and veteran teachers, but because of union contracts, she can’t mandate these after-school sessions even if she paid employees to attend.

“I would like to mandate it for some, but I’m hoping people who really need it will sign up,” she said. “But yes, it’s a challenge.”

Since many teachers use different methodologies for reading, Mills arranged for training with Lindamood-Bell to implement one effort among all school sites and classrooms. Thirty-eight special-education staff members were trained, including program specialists, with at least one per school site.

In this effort, the support of parents could be measured in dollars. The district planned to send teachers to the center in San Luis Obispo until parent Cheri Rae persuaded Lindamood-Bell to come to Santa Barbara instead, saving the district about $40,000 in travel costs.

Rae is already familiar with the programs because Lindamood-Bell was brought in to help her son, who has dyslexia, when the district didn’t have its own resources to help him.

Now, in more efforts to bring more expertise in-house, the district has completed training and is implementing the programs in nearly all of its schools, Mills said. There will be follow-up sessions via video conferencing and other meetings.

Rae commends Mills and Cash for pushing forward with the trainings.

“What a big step in the right direction this is,” Rae said. “After those dark, dark FCMAT days, they’re making changes that are going to make changes in kids’ lives.”

In the next year, Mills said her goal is to work on overall trust and satisfaction. She wants staff members to work as a team instead of in isolation, since there are always multiple employees working with one student. She has seen people working with the same student meet for the first time at an Individualized Education Program meeting.

The district is also dealing with the big changes from Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment of mental health services. All funds go through the county Special Education Local Plan Area instead of the Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services, but Mills welcomes the change.

“We’re actually really excited about it,” she said, “because we have a lot more flexibility and a lot more say in the process than we used to.”

Now, if ADMHS declines services, Mills added, the SELPA and district discuss other options, instead of that being the final decision.

Special-education students make up about 12 percent of total student enrollment in the district for the 2011-12 school year, and both the elementary and secondary Academic Performance Index scores for special-education students were above the state averages last year.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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