A large budget deficit is forcing Oakland Unified School District administrators to make cuts, and according to school employees one casualty could be the district’s highly touted, 16-year-old special education reading clinic.
Founded in 2001, the clinic provides direct instruction to 72 special-education students from 46 different public and charter elementary and middle schools. It survived OUSD’s tumultuous finances of the early 2000s, when the budget was in shambles, as well as the state’s takeover of the district.
But now, according to clinic staff and letters to parents reviewed by the Express, it appears that the reading clinic could close by the end of this year.
[pullquote-1] “It’s shocking that it’s not surviving the budget cuts now,” said one staff member, who asked to remain anonymous because they didn’t have permission from school officials to speak on the record.
Micaela Reinstein, a teacher at the clinic, says eighth graders often come to her functionally illiterate, but she is able to teach them how to read in just a few short years. “Being able to read is a survival skill,” she said. “They can be independent in this world.”
Sources say the acting directors of the clinic surprised staff last Wednesday when they announced that the reading clinic would permanently close at the end of this academic year.
Although the district hasn’t finalized its budget for next year — it must be approved by June 28 — administrators of Oakland Unified’s Programs for Exceptional Children, which the reading clinic is housed under, plan to close it and transfer its teachers into other classrooms.
According to one staffer at the clinic, the six certificated special-education teachers and other aides employed there will likely be moved to regular special-needs classrooms, which already face teacher shortages.
Administrators plan to open 24 more special-education classrooms across the district next year.
The clinic has made a meaningful impact during its 16 years in operation, say parents. Lisa Blakely says it helped her intellectually disabled daughter make “leaps and bounds” as a reader. Her daughter, a sixth grader in age, was at a second grade reading level — within two years she advanced nearly four grades.
The reading clinic was the lone special-education program in OUSD Blakely’s daughter had a successful experience with, she said. According to Blakely, special-ed classrooms haven’t been able to provide consistent support for students, and the district has struggled to retain special education teachers. For example, Blakely’s daughter had 14 substitute teachers in one classroom in one year.
“The reading clinic has been admittedly a high cost,” said Trish Gorham president of the Oakland Education Association. “But it also works miracles for students.”
It makes no sense to eliminate a program that has been an “unqualified success,” Gorham said.
School administrators cite rising costs of Programs for Exceptional Children as one of the reasons for the large budget shortfall this year. Oakland school board chairman James Harris has said previously that controlling special-education program costs, and understanding why they continue to rise, is a challenge for Oakland schools.
Teachers and parents complain that Oakland Unified is not equipped to serve the city’s large population of special education students. They cite a high turnover rate for teachers, and the fact that students with intellectual disabilities don’t receive enough individual attention. Many of the district’s certificated teachers are fielding far more cases than they should be.
Oakland Unified’s population of students using special education services has grown by the hundreds over the past few years. Currently, there are another 800 students in the pipeline being assessed as to whether they also need special education services. Clinic staff say a meager 24 more classes is not going to plug this hole, therefore cutting their reading center makes for an ineffective allocation of resources.
The district has not yet officially notified parents, and special education department administrators did not return phone calls seeking comment.
“This is so consistent with [OUSD], in that there has been no communication,” Blakely complained.
Before joining the clinic, she filed complaints with the district, asking that it acquire better resources for her daughter. “I’m going to have to expend energy to fight for my daughter again if the clinic is closed,” Blakely said.