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June 29, 2022

District downsizing Ohlone special education program

WATSONVILLE—The special education program at Ohlone Elementary School is facing major changes next year after Pajaro Valley Unified School District shuffled teachers and services at the school.

The school currently has three separate programs for its special ed students, the first of which is a Resource Specialist Program (RSP), in which students who need extra help are pulled out of their traditional classroom for part of the day. Next is the “moderate” or Special Day Class. These classes are being combined into one, with one teacher.

The district is canceling the school’s “severe” and “life skills” class, which is for students facing a wide range of serious challenges. Some are nonverbal and use speech devices. Academically, most work on their “ABCs and 123s,” with a kindergarten reading level, special education teacher Marcy Mock said. Most are in adaptive physical education programs.

PVUSD Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Kasey Klappenback says the shift came due to declining enrollment—just four students are projected for next year’s severe class. He added that those numbers are not expected to increase.

The loss of the school’s severe class—and the consolidation of the others—is a concern for teacher Melissa Dennis, who has been active in highlighting pesticide exposure and how it affects students living around agriculture fields. Almost all of these students live in PVUSD’s south zone, making the need for special education programs critical there, she says.

“I draw a direct connection between exposure to toxic, brain-harming pesticides and the amount of special ed services that are needed,” she said. “Seeing cuts happen in the very place where special ed need is the highest makes no sense at all.”

In addition, Dennis says that the low enrollment in the special education program is misleading.

She explains that it takes time it takes to evaluate students, and many who are recommended for some type of intervention have been recommended for years.

“When they are finally assessed and qualified for special ed services, former teachers feel exasperated thinking, ‘of course we knew this years ago,’” she said. “Too bad they didn’t receive services when the critical interventions could have made a bigger impact on their future academic trajectory.”

In addition, Dennis says that the evaluation process of recommending a student for some type of academic intervention moves more quickly in the north part of the district. This is possibly a result of parents in the north zone understanding how to advocate more vociferously for their children, she said.  

All of this will also be a problem for the combined program, Dennis said.

“We believe that by combining it, future students that qualify for special ed won’t get the services because there won’t be enough manpower,” she said

The cancellation of the life skills class at Ohlone leaves the south portion of the district with no comparable program. There are two in the north zone and two in the central part of the district.

About three dozen people gathered at Pajaro Valley Unified School District headquarters at the intersection of Green Valley and Holohan roads Wednesday to protest the district’s moves. Many held waves reading “invest in kids” and “don’t cut special ed” as dozens of drivers honked in approval.

There were also people there protesting the dismissal of Pajaro Valley High School Bike Tech instructor Lorenzo Holquin.

Mock will finish the year at the school where she has spent the past 20 years and start next year at Bradley elementary School.

She worries about her students transitioning to a new class and a new teacher, where their special needs are understood. She also mourns the move away from Ohlone, which has integrated the special education students into its fold. This includes a reading buddy program with the third-grade classes and inclusion in school performances and events.

“We are such a centralized program within the school,” she said. “They are very accepting and caring to our students, so it promotes a very amazing environment for our students to be in.”

“Leaving really saddens me,” she added. “I have a really accepting loving community of students and staff, and that’s not something you find at every school.”

Klappenback says that the district has not made cuts to its special education program in the last two years years. These changes, he said, were a way to bring students closer to home.

“Our goal is to try to get students to receive services at their home school, with the students in their community,” he said.

Ohlone, Klappenback said, currently has four students attending away from their home school.

“We can’t have a class with four students,” he said. “If there is a need, then we are going to have to adjust where we put services and move them over there. So we’ve just been aligning our resources this year based on where the student need is.”

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