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Recently, I was asked to participate on a virtual panel of special education directors for new or aspiring special education administrators. One of the questions was for us to share “our most challenging time as an administrator”. Over the course of my 35+ year career, I can with confidence say, “this pandemic”! While there have been other challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has required all of us to think differently, teach differently, learn differently and continue to do our best in support of our students and families, while making sure we take care of ourselves and those closest to us. I continue to revisit a few words Dr. Janney shared in early April, “we need to be flexible, patient, reasonable and know it’s not going to be perfect”. Much has changed in our world of special education and education in general the past few months, and while the pandemic continues, we will also continue to learn and grow to meet the needs of our students and families…and it may be messy at times!

Special education supports and services during the pandemic have focused on what we could make accessible and what was reasonable given these unique circumstances, and what was appropriate given each student’s individualized education plan. Four Priorities for Special Education were established that are in alignment with State and Federal guidance. Listed in the order of importance they are:

  1. Focus on the safety, health and welfare of students and staff members in our community.
  2. Provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education – Deliver services to as many students as we reasonably can in the best way we know how.
  3. Document our efforts; make sure documentation is focused, consistent, detailed and demonstrates good faith effort to provide good services.
  4. Compliance during the pandemic – Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA Federal mandate) wasn’t built for this.

All schools and service providers have been making good faith efforts to comply with IDEA timelines, IEP meetings, etc., and all procedures related to these and other compliance requirements have been followed to the best of our ability. When thinking about special education compliance during this pandemic there is one key question we need to ask ourselves: What is the purpose of the procedure and how can we achieve that purpose in light of the current circumstances and each student’s unique individualized needs. While we are hoping for additional leniency in regards to IDEA requirements, at this time none has been granted.

The year has come to a close much differently than any of us would have ever expected. I hope that you are able to spend some time this summer to rest and rejuvenate – self-care is essential!

Take good care,

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Helping Students with Cognitive Disabilities Understand Coronavirus and School Closure

For many children with significant cognitive disabilities, changes in routines and schedules can be difficult. In the classroom we try to maintain daily routines as much as possible in order to minimize student anxiety and increase learning.

These last two months have brought significant disruptions to everyone’s daily routines-- schools are closed, we can’t go to our favorite restaurants and shops, we’re not able to visit family and friends, and we have to wear face masks when out in public.

Because we’re able to understand the reasoning for these changes, we know that they’re being put in place to keep us healthy. Children with cognitive disabilities may have a harder time understanding the “why”-- from their perspective a lot has changed very suddenly and many of the routines they’ve relied on have been completely upended.

Social skills are always an area of focus for teachers in the Moderate and Moderate/ Severe program and during these past weeks they have been helping their students to understand this “new normal” in a way that will make sense to them. Using social stories and visual supports, teachers have introduced concepts like the coronavirus, social distancing, and face masks to their students. These lessons will make it easier for the students to adapt by explaining the new rules and expectations in a format that is accessible to them.

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CoughDrop - The Google Drive of AAC Software

Many of our students need the assistance of technology for their voices to be heard. While there are a variety of different software and device options that support alternative and augmentative communication (AAC), some of them can be difficult to use, hard to configure, and a challenge to ensure team success. CoughDrop is a new AAC application that solves some of these challenges: CoughDrop is cloud based, just like Google Drive. This means that the application can be accessed on multiple platforms (e.g. iPad’s, Lenovo’s, desktop computers, phones, etc.) at the same time, on or offline. The application is simple to use, easy to modify, and quick to learn. The key to effective AAC implementation is a strong team of competent communication partners. We learn to communicate by listening to others speak, and individuals who use AAC are no different - they need to have communication partners who model effective communication using their ‘language.’ CoughDrop ensures that all individuals that support students (e.g. parents, teachers, SLP’s, OT’s, instructional assistants, etc.) have access to their own ‘supervisor’ account. This allows for ‘supervisors’ to model effective communication using the symbol based language that their students are learning. The broad access for ‘supervisors’ also allows teams to program a student’s communication device remotely without having to take the device away from the student - allowing the student to never lose access to their ‘voice.’ Teams can create boards remotely in minutes, sync to each user, and share between coworkers without ever removing the device from the student. Additionally, the software allows for transparency between team members and encourages generalization of communication skills across settings and communication partners with features like: supervisor notes, goals, and data collection features. Another fun feature of this app is that it is text message compatible. For our teens and young adults, using functional language in a socially appropriate way is a great way to increase independence and include peers and family members in the process. Check out this video to see how easy it is to create a simple communication board: CoughDrop Demo If you are interested in seeing how CoughDrop might work for you, check out their 2 month free trial! While CoughDrop is a great new tool, please keep in mind that decisions about a student’s need for AAC at school are individualized, and are best informed by input from IEP team members with expertise in the area of AAC.
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Making Distance Learning Safe, Predictable and Positive!

Hope everyone is staying safe while developing a new skill set of effective teaching strategies. One of the BeST objectives during the Covid-19, is to support teachers and parents in maintaining continuity of classroom expectations for distance learning and online learning environments. With a few adaptations, teachers are learning to use a variety of on-line platforms to make Distance Learning safe, predictable, and positive.

Students who present challenging behaviors could use Distance Learning to develop executive functioning skills such as organizational and prioritizing skills.These skills could help all students become more productive once they return to the physical learning environment. Unfortunately, some students are struggling to adapt to remote learning through no fault of their own: Digital access and connectivity remain a pervasive equity issue; stay-at-home orders have magnified existing problems in families throughout our district. Many teachers and students are struggling with how to replicate the engagement and spontaneity found from an in-person classroom.

Nevertheless, as BeST provides support during Distance Learning, increasingly, teachers are reporting that a handful of their students—hyperactive, shy and highly disruptive students—are suddenly doing better with distance learning than they were doing in the physical classroom. Without the time constraints and distractions of a physical school environment, along with modifications to assignments, some students with behavior challenges are more engaged in independent learning and research. These students are developing the much needed metacognition skills to become life-long learners.

It's exciting to learn that some students with behavioral challenges are learning how to organize and complete their school work. In addition, so many of our students are learning how to prioritize — a skill essential to time management and college success. Teachers should continue to explore why some students who are participating in distant learning are becoming more successful with assignment completion and how they could take their growing self-confidence and newly developed skills into the coming school year.

The BeST belief is that the end result of all our efforts will not only be improved academic and self-control skills, but also increased self-awareness and intellectual curiosity for both teachers and students.

BeST is committed to supporting teachers during Distance Learning in student-centered planning with the objective of making progress toward IEP goals and independent functioning in their current classroom environment. Our intention during Distance Learning is always to encourage staff to promote and maximize student learning in a safe, predictable and positive environment.

Reid Burns, BeST Lead, BCBA

Referral for BeST for Distance Learning

Distance Learning Resources:

Ten Guidelines for Positive Behavior Supports Parents for Distance Learning:

  1. Establish routines and expectations.

  2. Define the physical space for your child’s study.

  3. Monitor communications from your children’s teachers.

  4. Begin and end each day with a "check-in" to review assignments/progress.

  5. Take an active role in helping your children process and own their learning.

  6. Establish times for quiet and reflection.

  7. Encourage physical activity and/or exercise.

  8. Remain mindful of your child’s stress or worry.

  9. Monitor how much time your child is spending online.

  10. Keep your children social, but set rules around their social media interactions.

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Celebration of Success

I would like to take the opportunity to celebrate a couple of my students who I have had the privilege to work with in CCI (California Career Innovations). My mission through CCI as a career coach is to help each of my students create a personalized plan, to assist them as they transition to meet their post-secondary high school goals.

The first student I would like to recognize, is Ian Andrews, a current senior from Olympian High School. He enrolled in my program because he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to learn about all of the transition resources that were available to him, and the chance to have a career coach who would work with him, since he was not really sure what career path he would select. From the outset in our meetings, he looked forward to the chance at work-based experiences, as well as attending field trips that would help him gain more insight on the career opportunities available to him. After participating in several CCI field trips, he was more determined than ever to pursue his goal of becoming an engineer.

His most recent experience attending the Employment Recruitment event was a positive one, which resulted in him being offered a position from all four employers he interviewed with. By the end of the day, Ian had accepted one of the offers, and was scheduled for an orientation date for his first job at the San Diego Zoo. Although COVID-19, put a halt to his ability to attend the orientation, and the start of his first job, he felt good about being offered the opportunity.

Ian will be graduating his senior year with straight A’s, which says a lot, considering that three of his 6 classes, are AP courses: AP US Government, AP Calculus, and AP Physics. On top of this he scored well on the four AP exams he completed during the shutdown. He received a variety of acceptance letters from universities and has decided on attending UCSD. I am very proud of all he has accomplished. I look forward to the opportunity to continue working with him as his career coach, as we work together to ensure his transition to the university is a smooth and successful one. Congratulations Ian!

Another one of my students that I would like to highlight from CCI is Leonardo Urrutia. Leo graduated high school in 2018, and despite having to attend the learning center to recover credits in order to qualify for graduation, he was determined to complete three classes more than the average student would need his last semester as a senior. He did well in his final classes, and even managed to get a job to help pay for his senior expenses. He received great reports from his employer, and by the time he graduated he was enrolled in CCC (California Conservation Corps) and participating in work- based learning that paid with Cal Fire. While in the program, Leo received several certifications, and awards. Once he completed his training, he received scholarships to pursue college courses, which he is currently attending. Although before COVID-19, he enjoyed the hands- on certification training he was receiving through his courses, as well as his job, he has continued to stick it out with his schooling, and is doing really well in his courses. I am very proud of his determination to stick with completing his certification despite the current circumstances, as well, as always remaining positive, and being such a delight for his employers, who continue to express their desire to have more workers like him. Way to go Leonardo!

These are only two of our 225 students working hard to meet their post-secondary goals in CCI. I am proud of my students as they continue to work towards accomplishing their goals, despite the current circumstances. I look forward to continuing to embark with all of them on their journey and getting past the tough times brought on by COVID in 2020.

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Meaningful Inclusion in Unique Times

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and inclusion are hard concepts for many teachers to implement day in and day out. We have tests to create and grade, homework to review, parents to contact... the list goes on and on. But the more we see others doing amazing work, the more we understand and are inspired to try stepping out of our comfort zone.

Now distance learning brings additional challenges. We must teach content while understanding that our students may have limited access to technology or even food. Kids may be watching their siblings, or worrying about their parents’ jobs. So as we decide how to teach our next distance learning lesson, let's think outside the box and try to connect to the situation at hand. Let’s consider the needs of all of our students during this crisis. Here is one teacher’s story:

During regular times in my art class, I always make sure that I pay attention to every student's needs and abilities. Some students have special needs that are listed in a legal document, but other students have special needs that are not actually in writing anywhere. My goal is to learn about all of these needs by reading what's available, but also by observing and interacting.

I have a variety of learning levels in my classes, so I’m always prepared to make modifications. The way I do this is not by modifying the lessons, but by modifying my expectations. I expect EVERY student to try their best and I push every one of them to improve, but improvement looks different for each person. It depends on their starting point. A student classified as mod may be very skilled at art, and I will push that student to go beyond what others are doing. Or for the student who struggles to hold a paintbrush, I shower praise for their first really straight line.

For distance learning, I started on the very first day of quarantine. I messaged students and families every day with optional drawing prompts and encouraging messages. I wanted ALL students to know that I was still there for them. I knew it was especially important for my kids who really crave routine. I also wanted the kids to feel connected to their community, so I began an optional project for students to create “happy” art and messages for others. Partnered with Meals on Wheels and Any Budget Printing & Mailing, we had over 3,000 images printed and distributed to San Diego clients of Meals on Wheels. Because the theme was just "happy" art, this was accessible to everyone. Shown here is an artwork from one of my mod students. I hope that this project not only made some elderly people happy, but also made my students happy.

As we continue distance learning, I try to maintain the same positivity and accessibility for all. The projects are fairly small and are entirely focused on using unconventional materials to make art. I don't want ANY student to feel that they can't participate because they don't have the "right" materials. We have learned to make lines out of pet food or candy wrappers or dirt, and we have learned to make a "painting" out of colorful clothes or toys or fruit... among other things.

Overall, I just try to be as positive and understanding as I can with every single student. I email or call when I haven't heard from them, and I always try to use a positive tone when I do hear from them, even if they are not doing the actual work. Some of my kids just email me to say hi or that they hope I'm doing ok, and I always respond to them with as much love as I can… because really they mean just as much to me as I hope I mean to them.

Sesha Haynes, TOSA

Special Services Department

Andrea Arroyo

Art Teacher, Eastlake Middle School

2019/20 ELM VAPA Department Chair

2019/20 SUHSD Visual Art Council Chair

2019/20 SUHSD District Teacher of the Year

Pronouns: she, her, hers

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Distance Learning and the Visually Impaired

In recognizing how these past couple of weeks have truly been life changing to our Sweetwater community, our various departments have needed to rise to the challenge of offering an education via pretty limited parameters. When it comes to providing services and instruction to students with Visual Impairments, our department has needed to carefully re-assess our students’ technology skills but most importantly, bring to light the skills we still need to teach effectively and to tackle the many websites, platforms, and medias that are not accessible. However, our team has been busy attending many webinars and learning about different software to help facilitate our students’ access to their curriculum inside and outside of the classroom. Our continued goal is to give our students the tools and opportunities that are afforded to their sighted peers.

Here is a list of some of the software and resources we are learning about:

Mathpix Snip - allows you to scan and copy math problems to paste into a software that is accessible for to visually impaired


Braille Blaster - Free braille translation program by APH


NVDA - Free screen reading software for Visually Impaired


Genius Scan - App that allows you to take a picture using your phone and convert to a pdf file. Available on Android and iOs.

Here are a few websites with webinars

National Braille Association


Arizona Deafblind Project https://www.nationaldb.org/media/doc/AZDBP_Newsletter_032720_English.pdf

Eyes-Free Fitness for All

Downloadable mp3 files of exercises, meditations, and stretches described through an audio recording

Blind Alive

California Department of Education: “Resources for Remote Learning for Students who are Blind and Visually Impaired.”


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Zach Valdez is a 2010 graduate of Sweetwater High School. After high school, he served in the U.S. Army for four years and was deployed to Afghanistan. Zach has been able to travel to 37 countries and recently graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in both History and American Studies from The University of California, Berkeley. He was recently accepted to Cal State East Bay's Credential and Masters Program for Special Education. We caught up with him to learn more about his journey and future goals in supporting students in the SUHSD.

What contributed to your success in Higher Education?

Coming from the military, I was indoctrinated with a ‘Mission First’ mentality that transitioned over to my time as a college student. My course assignments and exams became my mission, and I utilized all resources at my disposal. Some of these resources included disability accommodations and assistive devices such as dual monitors with my laptop, a Text-To-Speech app called Voice Dream, noise-canceling headphones, and a spelling/grammar program called Grammarly. Having a desk as my dedicated work and study space was important to me as well.

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For students headed to Higher Education, would you recommend they disclose disability to professors?

I would definitely recommend disclosing that you are “Differently Abled” and applying for accessibility services. When I was a student at Southwestern College and UC Berkeley, I received accommodations. To be honest, if it were not for these accommodations, I would not have been successful in higher education. I genuinely believe that accommodations make education more equitable for “Differently Abled” persons.

Can you share a time you had to advocate for yourself in high school or college?

When I was at UC Berkeley, I had a professor deny me one of my accommodations. I chose not to argue and instead informed the professor that my counselor would be contacting her to discuss the matter. My counselor was able to resolve the issue, and my accommodation was honored.

You've said your goal is to return to National City and teach. Why is that important to you?

I want to return to Sweetwater because I want to be an inspiration to my students. I want to show them that I once sat in the exact same seat as them, and I made it and accomplished so much despite my Learning Differences.

What advice would you give to students exiting high school?

First, if you believe an accommodation would help in your educational success, have it documented in your IEP prior to graduation. Those supports documented in your IEP may be granted to you in college. Second, stay in contact with those who can support and be a possible resource for you. Third, while I am a strong advocate for traditional education, I understand that college is not for everyone. Please consider Vocational Education, apprenticeship programs, the military, or anything else that sparks your interest. Lastly, you don’t have to have your future set in stone. When I was a senior, my goal was to retire from the military, but instead, I left the military to become a Special Education Teacher with the goal of traveling to every country in the world.

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Congratulations to Manny Lopez, TPP Program Facilitator

Earlier in February, Manny received an award from SELPA for his collaboration, and great success in helping students with disabilities transition, either in finding work or vocational training. They awarded his collaboration with them through the regular meetings he has with the SELPA team in helping with placement of students, for successful transition after high school. SELPA is responsible for monitoring compliance with state and federal mandates, and they selected the work Manny did as ABOVE and BEYOND for providing great transition resources to their leadership teams, as well as valuable references for students and parents. Great Job Manny!
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Dream Manager,

With all the chaos surrounding the current outbreak of the COVID-19 virus can you offer any advice on approaching my colleagues in the public school setting that feel an obligation to come to work rather than stay home? How can I stay safe from catching this virus?

-Virus Fighter

Dear Virus Fighter,

With the spread of the COVID-19 virus spreading all over the world it’s important to take steps to prevent catching and spreading this virus. It is also important to prevent catching and spreading cold or flu ourselves. Motivating others to do something, they don’t really want to do can be difficult, especially when they feel strongly about their position. It is a good idea to try to see the situation from the other’s perspective. Rather than approach others from a negative approach, we can motivate others subconsciously by helping them see what may be the obvious and likely obscure consequences of their actions. This would include consequences to self, coworkers, students and their families. Obscure consequences that may not be considered are their finances, reputation and the quality of work. When we help others see and feel the consequences, people often change their desire to act in certain ways.

Let’s address the issues in this case. Your coworker is coughing, sneezing, and trying to decide if they should go into work. What are the consequences of staying home? The Positive consequences are that they will feel better physically. Relaxing at home won’t infect anyone else. However, your coworker is not sure that they are that sick and they assume the probability of getting others sick is low. The negative consequences include exceeding available sick leave, not getting full pay. They may miss important meetings, and have work deadlines; catching up will be difficult. While some people might have bad thoughts about them coming into work sick, they can purposefully avoid those people. Even if they can’t be avoided, they probably won’t say anything any way.

Weighing the value of the anticipated consequences makes their decision easy. If they do go to work their paycheck will not be affected, important work with students and staff will be done, and it is highly unlikely they will get anyone sick. Most importantly, no one will say anything to discourage his or her decision. So as someone who cares about the consequences of spreading germs in this global pandemic, what do you do?

Here are some suggestions:

First: Manage expectations as a group about not coming in when sick. Our best performance begins with clear expectations. When we make agreements, we often agree on who, what and how, but we can improve our motivation when we focus on why. Hold a group discussion about the reasons you are making this agreement and clarify the possible positive and negative consequences. Why should people stay home when they are sick? Why should they get immunized? Consider your actions from the perspective of the sick. What will they lose? What will they gain? What will happen to coworkers, students, and their families? Share the facts, share real stories of what has happened or is happening around you.

Second: Hold each other accountable to uphold the expectations your group has set for each other. Speaking up and holding others accountable is not just the boss’s job, it is everyone’s responsibility for the welfare and benefit of all those around us at work and at home. When we make agreements, clarify expectations, outline natural consequences, and feel able and motivated to speak up we can reap the benefits of the mutual understanding we have developed with our colleagues. The difference between good teams and the best teams is how rapidly and respectfully problems get resolved. Individuals in the best teams don’t let issues grow and irritate it’s members and they don’t let issues destroy relationships. Best teams quickly and respectfully put issues on the table and reach a resolution.

To protect ourselves we should personally adopt established safety procedures recognized to prevent the spread of this virus.

· Wash your hands often

· Cover your coughs and sneezes

· Avoid sharing personal items

· Avoid large crowds

· Clean often touched surfaces everyday

· Call ahead before visiting your doctor

· Stay socially distant from others

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I have been receiving informational requests regarding the status of trainings. I have been in close contact with CPI and with the Administration at Special Services. We will not be scheduling ANY trainings until we have a better picture of what our NEW PROCESS will be for attending trainings. Just like most everything we need to revise our practices to ensure the Care, Welfare, Safety and Security of everyone. In that light, there are no scheduled trainings for the foreseeable future. Please know we are doing our best and are in contact with CPI and all the essential government entities to ensure a safe transition back to training with appropriate safeguards in place. Thank you for your patience and understanding as we move ahead with an overabundance of caution and care.

Colleen Finn

Administrator CPI/NCI

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