State questioning Santa Ana school over special-ed classes

Times Staff Writer

The state Department of Education said Thursday it was investigating special-education instruction at a high school in Santa Ana, the latest controversy to dog the city’s beleaguered school district.

The probe was prompted by complaints from two teachers at Valley High who alleged that special-education students were shifted to regular classes because there was not enough room to offer them separate classes.

“Their education, because of this stupid move, has been totally destroyed this year,” said Tyrone Borelli, who along with his wife, Alice, teaches at Valley.

The Borellis’ complaint, filed with the state May 10, alleges that the district violated federal law and the state education code.


The Santa Ana Unified School District was shaken this year when it lost $2 million in state class-size reduction funding because it bungled its implementation of the program in kindergarten through third grade.

The state launched its probe of the Valley special-education program May 23, and a report is expected in late July, according to state education officials.

Principal Fred Gomeztrejo said Thursday afternoon he was unaware of the state investigation and referred questions to a district spokeswoman.

The district received a copy of the complaint May 31, Santa Ana district spokeswoman Angela Burrell said, and state officials visited the school this week.

“We anticipate [the California Department of Education] will issue a finding of full compliance with state and federal laws and regulations,” Burrell said.

The Borellis alleged that the problem was prompted by construction at Valley High School, which forced the 3,100 students to move for the current school year to Godinez Fundamental High School, which was built for 2,500 students and was to be empty until its fall opening.

To squeeze all the students into the school, district officials moved special-education students into regular classes, the complaint alleges.

Teachers were asked to get parents’ approvals of the moves in early September and felt “ ‘railroaded’ into having these parents [agree to the switch] without looking at the individual educational needs of each student,” the complaint states.

A special-education student’s placement should be based on the student’s abilities and needs, “not the availability of space or for administrative convenience,” the complaint says.

Barbara Glaeser, an associate professor of special education at Cal State Fullerton who trained Valley teachers for the mixed classrooms, said Thursday that the district’s former special-education director told her that the shift was prompted by a lack of classroom space.

Glaeser added, however, that she saw great successes in moving some special-education children into mainstream classrooms.

One boy who was taking an anatomy class told her, “I feel like I’m part of the school now.”

The program might have been more successful if the school had planned the shift for a year before implementing it instead of a month; had more thoughtfully scheduled the special-education students in specific classes based on their needs; and had provided more training to instructional aides, Glaeser said.

Documents show that district officials have long been aware of concerns about the program’s implementation.

School board member John Palacio raised the issue in an e-mail to Supt. Jane Russo in October and at board meetings.

“They were overcrowded, and they had to figure a way to put kids in classrooms, so what they did is got all the special-ed kids and placed them improperly in [traditional] classrooms. Everything was driven by economics,” he said Thursday.