Ethnicity, Language and Special Education

I still remember at East School, my first year as a principal, I made a few changes. I learned that you don’t make changes overnight. I finished that year, but I didn’t make as many changes as were needed. One of my biggest concerns was that more than half of those kids at East School were in special education. Two hundred or more in special ed! Not all Mexicans are dumb and justified in being special ed. I know that all of us feel that because we are Hispanic, because of the accent—and I tell people “I have a strong accent and I’m proud of it.”--just because you are Black or Mexican are we going to put you in special ed?

Do you know how they are in following procedures in the special ed classroom? There are forms the teachers get together to fill in. The first change I made in that year was that every referral [for special education] had to come through my desk. That made it a little bit tougher for staff. They didn’t feel that I should get too involved. But I told them “I am because I don’t feel that all these kids need to be in special ed.” I believe that once you label a kid special ed, they’re labeled forever. You could put the label on their forehead.

We got it down from—we used to have three special ed teachers, which was a big percentage--and I just hated that with a passion. By the time we moved to Mesquite [from Palo Verde] we were down to probably fewer kids in special ed than ever before because of my procedure, everything through me. And some people say “You like to have control!” I say, “Yes, I’m responsible for it. As long as I can justify what I’m doing I’m going to continue to do it.”

Camilla: How did you deal with kids the staff identified as special ed that you didn’t believe…
Dave: We would hold tests. They had to justify to me that it actually wasn’t just the language. Some did qualify, but not just because of the language.
Camilla: And you think it was primarily because of the language?
Dave: Yes! [An interruption due to a phone call.] I would go through the tests and really talk to the parents. Then I would tell the parents “yes” or “no” your kid belongs in special ed. And the staff began to accept it. It ended up I didn’t find more and more [referrals being submitted.] And also, through the years, Palo Verde grew so much. I think maybe I’m not following a pattern, but it’s hard to follow a pattern with what was going on. By 1995 we had four hundred and fifty kids. So we had a more well balanced school than it was before. One of my purposes was to balance the ethnic breakdown of that school. I still believe to this day that we have to balance the ethnicity. I know in those years when Palo Verde was just a Mexican and Black school, and even to this day—what is it, 2004?—we still consider that.