Latinx students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District are three times more likely to be identified as having a learning disability than other groups, according to the California Department of Education

That determination is based on the number of Hispanic students with individualized education programs in the category of “Specific Learning Disability” for three consecutive years, in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

The school board will talk about the matter and discuss ways to reduce the number at its meeting Tuesday night. 

“We have to do better and we know it,” said board President Laura Capps.

At issue is whether Latinx students are correctly being identified for IEPs, or if the problem is simply a language issue, and teachers, staff and administrators lack the expertise to understand the difference. 

“The overrepresentation of Latino students is not a reflection of anything about the students themselves,” said board member Kate Ford. “It is a reflection of our continuing inability to meet the needs of these students, as now called out by the federal government.”

She said there is no magic bullet or single approach to change the direction. 

“Our leaders must be determined and adamant that special education referrals are the absolute last step after every other strategy has been tried and there has been a ‘whole child’ approach to the challenges that many Latino students are facing,” Ford said.  

The district is required to set aside 15% of its federal special education funding— $371, 278 — to use for comprehensive coordinated early intervention Services.

So far, district officials have identified several reasons why they are over-identifying Latinx students in need of individualized education programs, among them “conscious or unconscious racial and linguistic biases negatively influence perceptions of student abilities,” and gaps in administrator and teacher knowledge.

According to the district’s staff report, they have identified emergent language learners in second and third grade at Cleveland, Franklin and Monroe elementary schools. 

Among the solutions on the table include developing “a culturally and linguistically responsive system for intervention when students are experiencing learning challenges,” at a cost of $240,000.

In addition, one of the proposals is to “review and revise district procedures and protocols for assessing Emergent Multilingual Learners (English Learners) referred for special education evaluation. Include a procedure for more clearly explaining special education eligibility to families.”

Ford said there must be early and meaningful intervention for struggling Latino students.

“This means we must provide the professional development for teachers to better address second-language learning, systematic reading instruction, and trauma-informed instruction,” Ford said.

Among the other ideas is to “adopt a district-wide multi tier system of support framework to be implemented at all school sites and train administrators.”

The district also wants to spend $20,000 to “continue and expand professional learning related to conscious or unconscious racial and linguistic bias for all Santa Barbara Unified staff.”

Superintendent Hilda Maldonado said the mission of the district is to provide opportunities for children to improve their lives. 

“This state report affirms our need to do better by children, and our system is committed to doing so,” Maldonado said. “When the school system over identifies a group of students in special education, it signals a lack of understanding of how to serve these children best.

“This state report affirms our need to double down on our commitment to Hispanic students in SB Unified and deliver on our promise to provide them those opportunities to improve their lives.”

Rose Munoz, a board member, said the issue is about equity and inclusion. 

“The change needs to be systemic and research based,” Munoz said. “The parents need to be included. W will only be successful if we address the root causes of the disproportionality.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.