Dr. Gary Waddell

Candidate for San Mateo County School Superintendent – June 2018

Statement on Special Education

Ensuring innovative, effective systems that meet the needs of students with special needs is a top priority in our county. My passion around our creating powerful systems to effectively address special education is fueled by my experiences, background, and training throughout my career.  Getting this right is absolutely critical if we are to effectively serve the 12,000 students with IEPs in San Mateo County public schools.

Background and Current Work Related to Special Education

My professional work has been dedicated to serving all children and youth well; prime among them has been a commitment to serving students with Special Needs well.

I spent many years early in my career as a School Counselor and am a former statewide Counselor of the Year and worked closely with aligning special and general education to better serve all children.  For example, for many years, I chaired site-based CARE Team (pre-referral) teams, trained staff on 504 and inclusion, served on IEP teams, wrote and delivered behavioral or mental health plans, and conducted classroom observations and consultations.

My personal engagement in issues around special needs deepened when I became a therapeutic foster parent.  I was licensed through mental health and provided a home for two boys who were both served through special education.  Both were identified as having a range of disabilities including Behavior-Emotional Disabilities.  Both were classified as “Willie M” students in North Carolina. This class of children is described below.

In Services for Violent and Severely Disturbed Children: The Willie M. Litigation – By Mark Soler and Loren Warboys, the authors describe, that the children are “hard to place” because appropriate services and placements often do not exist. They “fall through the cracks” because their problems cross many agency lines–mental health, social services, juvenile justice, education–and the agencies frequently bounce the children back and forth until they really do fall through the cracks and are lost forever… they are violent or aggressive…their behavior leads to rejections from placements…Their mental health and behavior problems varied substantially, but all demonstrated some level of chronic mental illness and/or mental retardation and aggressive behavior that made them very difficult for service providers to manage.

The years that I spent as a foster parent to these adolescents were transformative for me.  Not only in how I understood the work that I was doing as a Counselor on a daily basis, but also the very real challenges that children, youth, and families face when living with a disabling condition and the very real hurdles that our system of schooling too often puts up before children and families.

I was an advocate for inclusive placements for these children, seeing only too clearly the benefits that they garnered from engaging in their regular education peer group with appropriate supports and systems in place.  I fought many battles for them. They were in and out of special schools, placements that I worked hard to make temporary until they could return to the regular school environment.   I spent years advocating for them every day.  I was struck with how very hard it was for me as someone working as a Counselor within the systems in which I was advocating – and what incredible hurdles we put before parents who don’t have that level of access.  This framed my position as an advocate for families and children that would follow as I moved into the Principalship.

I served as Principal of two schools that were special education hubs.  The first hosted the district’s TEACHH classrooms for students with autism.

The second featured an inclusion model while also hosting the districts’ SDC classes for students with severe/profound disabilities. It was an honor to partner with the students, parents, and teachers of these classrooms to provide state-of-the-art programs and services while remaining firmly committed to inclusion of these students with severe physical and cognitive impairments in the general education program.  Doing so was of immense benefit to both groups of students and was transformative.

In my roles at the San Mateo County Office of Education, as Deputy Superintendent and formerly as Associate Superintendent of Instruction and Curriculum Administrator, I have led countywide initiatives such as teacher and administrator professional development, STEAM programs, preschool/early care and education, Outdoor Education, school improvement services, and oversight of Williams and English learner programs and accountability.  Equity has been a lens into the work of my division and that has explicitly included consideration of students with special needs.

With my CBO counterpart, I oversee our support and approval processes for Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAP), which includes planning for services to students with special education needs.  The newest phase of this work, Differentiated Assistance, works with districts identified by the CA Dashboard as requiring County assistance to address performance measures.  A number of these have emerged in special education, to the extent that we have redefined one of our staff positions as a Special Education position and are currently seeking a coordinator to join the management team to work with districts in the areas of SPED planning and implementation.

As County Superintendent, I will continue to work actively as partners with parents, educators, students, and the SELPA in the best interest of students.  I believe in getting the very best, smartest people in key positions and applying forward-thinking approaches to find new solutions that make a difference for children and youth.

I believe in engaging deeply with partners in planning initiatives and services and not creating those solutions in isolation.  It is my view that we need to both work at the local program level to ensure excellence and equity, as well as at the policy level to ensure legislation, funding, and political will to create new and dynamic systems to support our students with special needs.

SNKIDS.ORG Questions

1. If elected, what is the one thing you will do to help get better outcomes for all special needs kids in San Mateo County? 

I have spent my career in the service of equity and inclusion. As County Superintendent, it is my commitment to extend that work by creating systems that serve all children well.  Vis-à-vis special education, this means ensuring that the County Office is collaborative, and partnering with LEAs as well as community organizations, parents, and advocacy groups. It also means maintaining a commitment to a forward-thinking vision of a powerful, single, coherent system that articulates well and breaks down silos. The yardstick by which we will measure our progress is the impact on students and creating dynamic and responsive systems in which all students can grow, learn, and thrive.

It is challenging to say one thing that I will do, as there is no silver bullet. Instead we need to commit to effective, responsive systems that provide the services and supports that students with IEPs need.

Having said that, I will work at the policy level to ensure forward-thinking legislation and policy around serving students with special needs; fight for additional resources at the policy/legislative level; and work as active partners with our SELPA and local districts to provide innovative service models that support and deepen the quality and scope of services to students with special needs.

2. What is the biggest gap that you see in programs for special needs kids?

A gap area that requires our best thinking and imagination is the teacher shortage in special education.  I have already been working closely with our teacher pipeline project over the past few years, an initiative that needs to continue to grow and expand over the next decade.  Some early models of new thinking have emerged.

Supporting districts around accountability for students with special needs continues to be an area where the County Office of Education can make a direct impact on outcomes for students and provide support services for districts who are the direct provider of services.

The future of special education services offered through the County Office of Education continues to be an area that we must address. A model that is a blend of direct service, support services, and modeling of best practice seems to offer the best potential for growth.  However, it is my view that we need to engage in a deep conversation with stakeholders across the county–county special education teachers and service providers, districts, parents, and students–to map a system of service that meets the diverse needs of students, is financially sustainable, and works in collaboration with other services provided in the county.  This conversation must necessarily focus on student needs, district capacity, service quality, and cost.

3. In your current position, what one accomplishment has made the most impact on special needs kids or adults? 

My style of leadership and governance is grounded in my training and experience as a counselor, facilitator, and convener.  It is my view that a leadership ethic which involves getting the very best, smartest people in key positions – people who understand that the most essential leadership function is the ability to bring together constituencies with varying points of view, to think outside the box, and create new models to change outcomes for students is the way that we will see real change for students.

My work and experience at the state level, as a recent Chair of the statewide Curriculum and Instruction Steering Committee, provides me with a unique perspective into large-scale systems change.  This statewide committee works as partners with the State Board of Education, the CA Department of Education, and all 58 County Offices of Education to implement education policy across all content areas.  I note it here as this level of broader leadership and coordination is central to the future areas of focus that I project that require building partnerships and collaborative systems to serve students with special needs.

I am most proud of the equity focus that I have brought to the San Mateo County Office of Education and the Instructional offerings that we provide.  That focus has been the work of my career, and it is the focus and priority that I will continue to hold as paramount as County Superintendent of Schools.

4. What do you see as the role of the County relative to the individual districts for special needs kids today and what will change under your leadership?

The County Office of Education is uniquely situated to work as partners with local districts and the SELPA to ensure that San Mateo County leads the way in service to students with special needs.

In my role overseeing curriculum and instruction, I am proud that I have assembled a dynamic team of equity-minded professionals who understand the role of the County Office of Education as one to support local practitioners, maintain a focus on children first, and lead with equity – including employing a daily lens of looking at the many services that we provide and their impact on special needs students at all the grade levels. This is a way of working that we should do more of across the various divisions and programs of the County Office of Education

Additionally, dispute resolution has been a highly successful model implemented by the San Mateo County SELPA. This is a prime example of a service that is philosophically sound, models ethical practice, and is sustainable in terms of cost: benefit in the long term.

5. Given the current budget and legal constraints of our education system to support special needs kids, what do you see as needing to change at the local, state, and federal level to improve the situation and how will you help make that happen?

California has been marking its transition to a single, coherent system of education between both state and federal systems as well as articulating between general and special education. The existing silos, while serving needs in some areas, need to shift to create broader systems with greater articulation.

California’s 2015 Special Education Task Force noted this need for a shift to a culture of collaboration and coordination.  The partnerships that are so critical to effectively creating wrap-around services for our children and youth are examples of the areas that we need to continue to grow and expand in the next decade.

I am a consensus builder and believe in forming strong coalitions.  I have strong relationships with our local legislators, which are the foundation for enacting change at the state/policy level.  For example, I have been endorsed for County Superintendent of Schools by US Congresswomen Jackie Speier and Anna Eshoo; Assembly Members Kevin Mullin, Phil Ting, and Marc Berman; State Senator Scott Wiener; and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, as well as four San Mateo County Supervisors and hundreds of educational leaders across San Mateo County and California.

The ability to bring a coalition together and work collaboratively with partners who bring unique perspectives to the table is critical in the years ahead as we reimagine our work for the children who most need us to be our very best.  Doing that is why I am seeking the office of County Superintendent of Schools.

Campaign Web Site

Gary Waddell

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