Students at East Oakland School Left Without Special Education for Months

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Community United Elementary School is on International Boulevard in East Oakland. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

More than halfway through the school year, Oakland Unified School District still has teacher vacancies, and that's had an impact on special education students. As of February,  the district had 14 teacher vacancies, six of which were for special education teachers. There were also 16 vacancies for special education aides.

Vacancies in special education leave some teachers with huge caseloads. At Community United Elementary School on International Boulevard in East Oakland, teachers and parents report kids with special needs spent months without the help they need.

Take 8-year-old Juan Diego. He's in second grade at Community United, known as CUES. His mom, Veronica Velasco, says last year a special education teacher pulled him out of class regularly to work with him one-on-one, and it really helped him begin to learn how to read and manage his emotions. But this year, she says, he hasn't gotten as much special attention, and she’s seen him fall farther and farther behind.

"Since the teachers are busy with other kids, too, they work hard with him for the few minutes they can one-on-one, but it’s hard to keep him focused," said Velasco in Spanish. "If things seem hard for him, he loses interest and he’s just lost in the clouds."

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Juan Diego’s second-grade teacher, Pablo Pitcher-Deproto, along with several other teachers at this school, say none of their students were regularly pulled out for help, from the time school started in the fall until February.

"As a teacher I’m trying, but I know I’m providing absolutely nothing to that student except safety, security and a place to be," Pitcher-Deproto said.

The Oakland Unified School District says the special education teacher assigned to CUES went out on medical leave the first week of school. So kids with special ed needs were assigned to Kimberly Lum, a special ed teacher at Futures, the school next door.

"Last year I was only assigned to Futures, so I had about 15 students," Lum said. "But then this year, they said, 'OK, well, we’re also going to throw in CUES as well.' So it’s been very stressful."

Lum’s caseload basically doubled. To complicate matters, she had no aide this school year. She had to juggle 28 students, the legal limit in California. She says at least 10 more students were left without any services at all.

"What I’m most mad about is the students are losing out," Lum said. "Invariably the child either sits and struggles to work or just doesn’t do the work, just sits there crying and saying, 'I can’t do the work,' which they can’t."

By January, teachers at CUES were increasingly frustrated. They say they sent letters to Oakland’s superintendent and to the California Department of Education, but received no response.

"This wouldn’t happen at some other schools in the district, but because we are out in East Oakland, where a lot of people maybe aren’t going to speak up, this continually happens," said first-grade teacher Sarah Fuller.

Students at CUES are overwhelmingly from low-income families, most are Latino and African-American, and many have immigrant parents. The neighborhood is fraught with gun violence. Fuller says that, if anything, the district should pay closer attention to this school.

"It’s a systemic problem. It’s not the students who aren’t making progress. It’s the grownups who aren’t giving them the tools to make progress," Fuller said.

In January the district finally assigned Lum an aide and in February hired a new special education teacher to see kids at Community United a few days a week.

"We really, really care," said Neena Bawa, director of schools for Oakland Unified's Programs for Exceptional Children. "We really are trying our best and we really know that it’s important and a priority to make sure that all of our students, among all regions, all of Oakland Unified, all of their needs are being met."

Bawa says it’s hard to find special education teachers, so the district is starting to recruit early for next year. And she says all the students who didn’t get services this year will be compensated with extra time.

"We’ll have the teacher calculate how many minutes have been missed and we meet with each family to determine how we can provide those minutes, whether it's in after school or at home, and get those services made up," Bawa said.

Teachers at Community United question whether that’s enough. Even if the students get an hour of services each day, they say, there’s no way they’ll be able to catch up.