The Mountain View Los Altos High School District Board of Trustees at a Nov. 8 study session reviewed data from the state that identified MVLA as enrolling a “significantly disproportionate” number of Latino students in special education.

Teri Faught, associate superintendent of educational services, said the numbers include Latino students who both qualify for special education or are referred by teachers. The disparity has existed for three or more years, she noted, and the imbalance caught the attention of the state.

“It’s important to note that this is not a special-education issue,” Faught said. “This is a challenge that is happening at the general-education level, where the interventions are not supporting the struggling students, so struggling students in general education are referred to special education and tested and sometimes qualify.”

To counter the trend, Faught introduced an intervention plan that would target vulnerable students while they are still attending general-education classes, rather than after they are referred to special education. The proposal also includes addressing the root causes behind Latino students’ struggles.

The data Faught presented at the session covered the 2017-2018, 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years at Alta Vista High School, MVLA’s continuation high school. During the years in question, Latino students made up 73% of the student body, while whites and Asians made up 18% and 5%, respectively. Faught shared the data alongside the specific learning disability (SLD) data; unlike physical disabilities, testing for an SLD – defined as a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language – is more subjective. Faught’s report stated that 54.5% of SLD students were Latino, 21.9% white and 2% Asian.

The state report revealed that 111 students were referred to special education in the 2020-2021 school year: 45 white, 38 Latino and 23 Asian; 53 students were ultimately assessed and 32 qualified for special education. Of the 32, 11 were Latino students, 10 white and 2 Asian. A total of 98 freshmen entered the district with an Individualized Education Program, developed for each student who needs special education; 40 of the students were Latino.

The referral and qualification process typically involves either a parent reaching out with concerns about his or her child’s academic performance or MVLA’s Student Support Team intervening if a student shows signs of struggling with the curriculum.

Root causes

In partnership with the state, Faught said MVLA identified three root causes behind the high numbers of Latino students in special education: “the lack of targeted interventions to support academic and behavioral development, the lack of equitable educational experiences due to cultural dissonance and implicit bias, and the lack of engagement and relationships with Hispanic/Latino students and families and our partner districts.”

“Some (Latino) students felt uncomfortable approaching their teachers, feeling like they’re not connected to their teachers, feeling like they’re not connected to their peers,” Faught said. “Parents also don’t know how to reach out to their teachers or if it’s OK to reach out to teachers, and email is not the most effective means for our Latino population. We are on a communication platform that is not the communication-type platform for all of our families.”

Trustee Sanjay Dave said the board should approach the data with caution, warning that they may not necessarily be looking at the report correctly and should avoid drawing broad racial conclusions from it. Additionally, he reminded the board that an audit conducted two years ago contended that the learning disparities were socioeconomic in nature.

“That’s the real factor that we have to look at, and not make it so race-based,” Dave said.

Faught disagreed with Dave. She noted that the race-based aspect of the data is important because more than 80% of English-language learners are Latino, and stressed the importance of keeping a close eye on the Latino student population. Considering the racial composition of the student body in this way and for this purpose, Faught added, enables MVLA to better produce an English-proficient population, as “there are very specific needs unique to the (Latino) population.”

Superintendent Nellie Meyer suggested taking a closer look at students who are succeeding, and then determining the reasons behind their success.

“If they’re having the same struggles, and they have the same demographics and they’re succeeding, there’s data in that,” she said. “But also look at those that are not, and it helps you hone in and support them.”

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Staff Writer

Angela Tam covers local schools as the Town Crier's education reporter.