Whittier school district receives national recognition for innovation in special ed.

The National School Boards Association on April 1 awarded Lowell Joint School District in Whittier, California, with a 2021 First Place Magna Award — reserved for districts across the country for programs that break down barriers for underserved students — for its Special Education Blue Ribbon Action Team.

Lowell Joint SD’s Special Education Blue Ribbon Action Team uses data to drive and guide the program toward its goals of meeting the needs of students with disabilities, which has helped reduce challenges for students with disabilities, leading to an increase in the number of students mainstreamed along with their age-appropriate peers.

Mainstreaming is the practice of including special needs students in general education classrooms and giving them the exact same academic and social opportunities as their non-special education peers.

Local educational agencies had been making progress toward improving and increasing inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms prior to the pandemic, but with widespread distance learning came extreme difficulties for these students and their families.

While many children found virtual schooling difficult, those with needs that require services or accommodations to surmount were especially harmed by the lack of in-person instruction. Additionally, among students who struggle with attention, intellectual functioning, language, self-regulation, or a combination of these challenges, remaining focused on the screen could be more challenging.

Efforts like those in Lowell Joint SD to improve services for children with disabilities could not have come at a more necessary time.

“2020 was a year like no other,” NSBA Executive Director and CEO Anna Maria Chávez said in a statement. “The 2021 Magna Award-winning districts represent the enormous efforts of school leaders during the pandemic to continue removing barriers to achievement for their underserved and vulnerable students.”

The Special Education Blue Ribbon Action Team

Lowell Joint SD established the Special Education Blue Ribbon Action Team in the 2016–17 school year as part of its effort to ensure students in with disabilities in the K-8 district receive the best education in the least restrictive educational environment.

Research has long shown that when all students are engaged and challenged in the least restrictive learning environment, higher rates of attendance, a sense of belonging and academic achievement follow, as do lower rates of discipline. Lowell Joint SD’s own data reflects that.

In 2015, the year before the team was formed in the approximately 3,000-student district, 114 students were not mainstreamed. That number is now down to just four — the result of the team’s work to strengthen and enrich the overall program to best support the district’s most academically and medically fragile students.

In the last five years, the team has reviewed, researched and rewritten all board policies and administrative regulations related to special education, the Student Study Team and the 504 process. It also reviewed and redrafted all individualized educational plan assessments and protocols and created a staff development “Special Education 101” series.

Additionally, the district’s special education director transitioned the special education transportation system from buses to taxi cabs driven by certified and specially trained taxicab drivers. This not only provide vulnerable students with safe transportation equipped with air-conditioning and video security but has also cut student travel time from an average of 30 minutes down to seven to 10 minutes and has reduced the annual special education transportation costs from $360,000 to $80,000.

A similar approach to developing its own in-house program with highly qualified staff has allowed the district to provide high-quality instructional programs that meet the individual needs of students in the Mod-Severe Medically Fragile program and the Applied Behavior Analysis program closer to and within their own homes.