Which Public School District for Special Needs Kids?

Parent Q&A

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  • My husband and I are currently in the process of finding a school district in the bay area that will meet all of our children's needs.  Currently, our children attend a private school.  Though this school has offered our children an array of support, both academically and emotionally, along with providing exceptional extracurricular activities and small class sizes, we believe our children would benefit from services (OT, counseling, resource room) that this private school isn't able to provide to the extent a public school can.  This is why we are considering looking into the public school sector.  My oldest child has dyslexia, and ADHD, along with anxiety and has an IEP.  My other child has ADHD, sensory issues, and anxiety and would like a school district that provides services to meet their individual needs along with providing them with the academic and emotional support they have come accustomed to by being in the private school environment.  

    We have heard that Lafayette, Albany, and Berkeley provide great support for students with IEPs along with Mill Valley, but we really don't know much about any of the school districts as a whole.  Next year, my one child will be in 6th grade while my other children will remain in elementary.  

    Can you please provide any feedback on any of the school districts listed or any other districts not mentioned to see if they would possibly be a good fit for my children?  My husband and I are willing to move to provide the best possible experience for our children.

    Thank you for your time and recommendations in advance.

    I work in the school district at the high school level that connects to Mill Valley, though in Marin it's a bit odd because all the elementary, middle and high school districts are all on their own. So while I can't speak to every small district within Marin, I can say that special education program at the high school that I work at (Archie Williams HS in San Anselmo, in the same district at Tam HS in Mill Valley)) is EXCELLENT and I would assume it's similar across this high school district. I've worked at schools in San Francisco, Oakland, and Richmond, and the program here is in an entirely different category. I know many families that move to this area for the schools.

    I am also looking into this.  Areas I have heard that are great in addition to Albany and Lafayette are Belmont and Palo Alto. I wanted to mention that you may still be eligible for services, even if you are not attending a public school. It is a logistical issue for parents/kids, but private school kids are still eligible for public funds for special education purposes, you just have to be available and get there. My non-verbal son was inexplicably not accepted into the public, inclusive preschool, but they still need to provide the services that the state gives them money to provide. I would start at your local district now, and request an IEP meeting. Moving house may take a long time, and getting services set up stat would be helpful down the road if you do move, and build a proper case in your new district. Get an advocate. Don't accept what the public school says as fact; often they turn away deserving kids who need help and it is extremely frustrating. If your local district cannot provide FAPE to your kids now, and that is why they are in private school, that does not preclude their legal obligation to provide therapeutic services to support them. A local advocate can best direct you, and save you a lot of time and anguish. I advise you to start consulting with the advocate very soon after requesting IEP meetings, so you know your rights before engaging with them. 


    We live in Lafayette. The best support is a speech therapist for Dyslexia or something like Lindamood Bell. School speech therapists address enunciation.  OT, Physical therapy and counseling are done through your medical or privately.  Its my belief, and experience, that kids benefit from outside supports.  While it is costly the public schools do not really provide beneficial support for this. The school are not really there for remediation and you will waste your childs developmental time.  A good nueropsych (sp)can be helpful if they can suggest supports for remediation. 

    I am sorry I cant be more positive about this but you can get good care outside of the schools. 

    If your private schools are kind I would stay there.

  • We are currently in Fremont now and schools are extremely competitive here. My son is in middle school and has IEP because of his ADD and LD. FUSD does not provide electives for kids with IEP! During the elective period he has to Sit in resource room. My son is extremely social and creative, but he gets easily distracted in classroom and zones out a lot of things doesn’t interest him. We want to move out , trying to find a place in bay area where the special ed is good and give equal opportunity to every kid in the school and appreciates individual strengths and needs.
    appreciate any suggestions and advice. Thank you 

    Sadly this is not too uncommon at middle school - taking away an elective to provide services. One question is what services is your son actually getting (if any) in his resource class?? Another question is, can you find him a school that offers two elective periods, so he can be in a resource class (if necessary and useful) AND have a free choice class? When we found out this was the situation at our son's upcoming middle school, we hired a tutor to scaffold him in his area of weakness and switched school districts to one that offered two electives, just in case the tutor wasn't enough to keep him afloat and out of the resource class. Expensive, and sucks socially, but worked academically.

    Hello Fremont Family,

    It is illegal for the school district to prevent your child from having access to electives, just because he has a disability.  Of course this is not the reason that they will give as to why he is being excluded, but you are right that it is happening.  You can request an IEP meeting in writing to address this right away.  They have to hold the meeting within 30 days since your child already has an IEP.  

    Choose the elective(s) now that will fit into your child's schedule.  Then figure out exactly what type of support he will need to access this curriculum.  If he would need a Para or Instructional Aide to help him integrate into the elective class, then request this in writing ahead of the IEP meeting.  If he would need an escort to get to and from class, request that, too.  Request whatever it will take to allow him to access the elective class(es).  Including prompts or assistance from the gen ed teacher to keep him on track.  Don't leave it up to the school district to figure out how to make this work, and do not take "NO" for an answer!  The parent and student are the most important and knowledgeable members of the IEP team.  The District does not always have the best solution.

    We live in Oakland and the School Board recently passed a Resolution (OUSD Board Resolution No. 2021-0159 - Ensuring Access to Social-Emotional and Academic Supports for Students with Disabilities) to allow children with disabilities access to all school-based activities.  This includes many activities that our children have previously been excluded from, such as:  field trips, afterschool programs, science fairs, clubs, tutoring, college prep, work experience, etc.

    Attend your Community Advisory Committee for Special Ed so that you can make this injustice more widely known.  There are other families in the same situation, but it can be difficult to connect with families who have students with disabilities.  It is unfortunate that parents must fight for services for their child to succeed, but do not give up. Best of luck.

  • Hi-I am returning to the Bay Area after 3 years in NJ.  I'd like to talk to parents about schools and districts.  I imagine that there are tons of posts but haven't been able to find any recent ones. So my apologies if this is a recurring theme.

    I have twins, boy/girl, currently going into 5th-last year of elementary.  My son is in a STEM magnet and my daughter is in Special Education classes. She has ADHD, Dyslexia, Sensory Processing Disorder.  She is concrete and gets two 1/2 private lessons at school to understand nuances and be able to follow multiple directions given at the same time.  She is mainstreamed with an aide (paraprofessional) for Science and Social Studies.  She is in the resource room for Language Arts and Math.  She is at grade level for Math but learns differently.  For instance, she will never be able to memorize the multiplication table but can calculate quickly using her fingers or manipulatives.  She is a year behind in reading but is progressing nicely. She has difficulty with her peer group as she hasn't quite figured out the "girl rules" though she understands things way beyond her years.  She has no behavioral problems. 

    I am looking for a  public school/district that can accommodate both kids before we decide where to settle.  So - essentially - I am shopping for schools - in particular 6th grade and up as I have a year to figure this out.  We can't afford private.  The special education departments won't talk to me until I am a resident of the district.  But I can't settle in one area until I am comfortable that my children will thrive emotionally in the schools.  So I in a bit of a bind.  I don't think we could afford Lamorinda unless I am missing something in the real estate market.

    Schools and community are my number one priority.  Then distance from work. I commute to SF, sometimes to Silicon Valley and work from home.  My husband commutes to San Mateo and to job sites around the Bay.  We do have a bit of flexibility with hours.  We can handle up to 1.5 hours of commuting each way (we do more to go the NYC now.) 

    Please help. Personal experience, examples, resources to get information would be so appreciated!



    Albany, if you want to live in the East Bay. Lafayette on the other side of the hills. I don't know the districts on the Penninsula, but given your commutes San Mateo might be a logical place to check out.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Best public schools for special needs kids

Sept 2013

Hello bay area community and thank you for welcoming us into your Berkeley parents network. We're planning a move to the Bay Area in summer 2014 from NYC. Our 8 year old has been diagnosed by his neuropsychologist as having dyslexia paired with ADHD. He's currently enrolled in a wonderful public school in TriBeCa and has had an IEP since kindergarten. He's in what they call an ICTclass where part of the class is general ed mixed with special needs with two teachers and an assistant in the classroom. It would be helpful if anyone has had experiences that they could share in regards to which areas have the best resources for public schools. Any information is appreciated and welcomed. We are flying blind and are overwhelmed with the abundance of schools. It's difficult to feel the pulse or narrow our options from the east coast.

Congratulations on your upcoming move to the Bay Area! I am a mom living in the East Bay with a son who has very mild ASD. We have found, and have been told by several professionals, that our school district, San Ramon Valley USD, is well regarded for its special education department. The school district supports students living in Alamo, Danville, Diablo and San Ramon. I do not have personal experience with the schools in the Peninsula, but there seems to be a large special needs community in that area, and I believe the schools are very supportive. Best of luck to you and your family! You are welcome to contact me if you have any questions about the SRVUSD. Stephanie

CH (Communication Handicap Class) for 5 y.o

Jan 2009

I am looking for a Pre-K CH class (Communication Handicap) for my daughter who will be 5 y.o. May 2009. Does anyone know of a city that has one? I heard Oakland has one but I heard they were closing Tilden. I was wondering if anyone's child has attended one in either Oakland, Berkeley, Alabany, Alameda, or the LaMorinda area. Judy

There are CH classes throughout the Oakland schools, from Marshall to Bella Vista to Tilden (which I hadn't heard is closing) and beyond. The OUSD team that meets with you will make recommendations for placing your child. If you'd like to talk with parents who have been through the same thing, you might come to a support group organized by two OUSD moms; the next meeting is Thursday, January 29, from 7:00-8:30 PM at Communication Works, 4400 Keller Ave., Suite 200, Oakland. If you want to connect online, try the social networking site 8 Second Rule, also created by an OUSD mom, http://8secondrule.ning.com/ . --Sarah H.

Good school district in bay area for special ed?

June 2010

we are in oakland right now, want to move out , trying to find a place in bay area where the special ed is good and the school district understands my kid with asd and his needs. We want to use our energy to work with my kid instead off losing it all just dealing with the school district. a mom

Hi, New to group! Does anyone know of a good school district for preschool to kindergarten (major plus if good elementary school, too) that has worked for you or others you know for INCLUSION of your child into typical classrooms. Our daughter (has Down Syndrome) will be heading to preschool next year Fall and we are figuring out where to relocated back in the city (currently we live outside the State). We know about Hope Tech and Milestones in PA. We will be renting and need to find an area that is some what affordable too. Our goal is to really try to give her chance to experience the typical classrooms. I keep hearing even with an IEP, parents are still having to fight/struggle to get more than 30 mins in any inclusion class for their child. That's not what we want to deal with. Thanks all for your suggestions/replies! lils

Others may disagree with me, but I've been happy in Berkeley. You're going to have a lot of work to do no matter what district you're in, but my experience so far has been good. Jill

I hear Davis has a very good special ed. program. It is just outside the main Bay Area, but folks do commute in from there. anon mom

After 4 years in the San Juan School District (Sacramento) my 12-year-old son has completed two years in the Moraga School District. Moraga has been fantastic. The district is small, and Sharon Pinkus, the SE director, is very hands-on, responsive, creative and empathic. We've had amazing services, teachers and aides. To say we've been pleased is an understatement. Diane

I don't know much about special ed in Berkeley, but Mira Vista Elementary on the El Cerrito border with Richmond (West Contra Costa Unified School District) has special ed classes for preschool through 6th grade. The preschool is also open to a few typically developing children in addition to the special needs kids, I think possibly on a parent co-op basis, so there is informal mainstreaming/integration of special and typical needs kids. The elementary special day classes are divided up k-1, 2-3, and 4-6, and depending on the kid's IEP/readiness for a regular class, etc., some kids were mainstreamed from an hour a day to the whole day. The school has some wonderful teachers in both the special ed and general ed classes, and a great school community in general. teachergram

Evaluating School District Speech Therapy Programs

May 2008

We have an almost three year old who has been diagnosed with Apraxia (a type of speech delay). He has been in private speech therapy since turning two. He has made some great headway, but still remains 'behind' his age group. We are considering relocating to the East Bay. As I understand, speech therapy services fall under the domain of the school district once the child turns three. I've seen a lot of posts about children under three, but am specifically looking for any wisdom out there regarding how to find out more about the school district programs in different areas (we're looking at lamorinda, albany, or pockets of oakland as possible places to live), as well as if anyone has any recommendations of particularly good programs. Speechless

I think you may not want to look at programs per se, but at the specific IEP goals addressing your child's speech issues and then making sure that they are met, especially via progress reports in between IEP meetings. My son's apraxia was not diagnosed (we're in Oakland) til he was 7 and a specialist with rehab experience was called in. In my experience SLP's are young, enthusiastic and have experience with pragmatic language issues but not necessarily with apraxia or dysnomia. anon

My son recently completed 4 months of speech therapy with a therapist associated with the hospital (for an articulatory issue). I spoke at length to his speech therapist about her work; she told me that based on her own experience working in schools vs. private practice speech, therapy in schools is - in her words - practically futile. The schools are always understaffed, so the therapists must meet the children in groups, so meeting 6 children once a week for 45 minutes goes nowhere. The children can't focus, the context is too distracting, no one gets individual attention, there's little individual assessment and drill time. In short, if you are planning on relying on the schools, you should rethink this plan. Private or hospital practice really is the only effective means for children, especially those with more serious issues, to succeed. My son had to work hard for 4 months to eliminate his lisp. I can't imagine him trying to get that work done with a distracting group of children and a harried therapist. Been there

If you are able to get into the Lafayette School District - that would be a good first choice. They have a wonderful program and have very dedicated speech therapists. Anonymous

I don't have experience in any of the school districts you mention, but I just want to clarify/correct one of the statements you made.

School districts are responsible not only for providing speech therapy for children 3 and over, but also for children aged 0- 3. These 0-3 services are under the umbrella of ''early intervention'', which is a federally-mandated program. You must contact the school district to get started, but parents with children in this age range can also qualify for FREE services for younger children.

I have two children with IEPs who are now 6 1/2, but they both started services through early intervention at age 2. Lisa


Better school district for special needs kids?

Nov 2007

My son has global developmental delays, hypotonia (low muscle tone), and PDD- NOS (basically ''autistic like''). He is currently receiving 21 hours of ABA therapy a week, plus one hour each of speech, OT, and PT. He will be 3 in July, and I'm trying to figure out which school district we should be in at that point.

We are currently in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. I am interested in hearing from parents who have experience with special education in this district, as well as surrounding districts (Albany, Berkeley, Alameda, etc.). It would be especially helpful to hear from parents whose children are on the autism spectrum, but I would love to hear from parents of children with a range of disabilities as well.

What are the strengths of each district? Weaknesses? Are some better for preschool but less desirable for grade school, or vice versa? Are certain districts easier to work with than others? Do any offer augmentative communication classrooms? Etc, etc. Please share any and all experiences. I really appreciate your insight! This is a complicated maze to navigate, and it seems to be never-ending.

Thanks in advance! Amber

Hi- The answer to your question is, hands down, Castro Elementary School, in El Cerrito! The special needs children are fully integrated into the mainstream classes, and both teachers and aids alike know how to create a beautifully run full-inclusion program that benefits ALL of the children at the school, special needs and mainstream alike.

This unique program has been 20 years in the making, and is a model of what full inclusion can really be. Other schools say that they have full inclusion, but from what I have seen, only Castro understands what this really means, and has been able to enact it in wonderful and powerful ways. The mainstream children really learn how to treat all people with respect and honor--something that they carry with them throughout their whole lives.

This wonderful school is a true jewel in an otherwise problematic district. I urge you to visit this school, and inquire about this program. It's not a fancy school, and unlike some other schools in El Cerrito, it has not been rebuilt. But, hidden behind those walls is an example of what every school should strive to be like. A proud parent at Castro

After trying several schools, we landed at Castro Elementary School, in El Cerrito. Many people had told us that this was the school to be at, but it took us a while to actually try it out. We thought that the ''nicer'' schools might be better. Boy, were we wrong! Our child also has autism, and this school has been a life saver for us (and our daughter). The teachers are excellent, and really know how to work with all kinds of children. I cannot believe that this school does not get more press; people seem to find it by word of mouth. Frankly, it's the best kept secret in West Contra Costa!

Good luck! We hope to see you there next year! Third time is the charm!


Moving to the Bay Area - best special ed district?

Feb 2006


We are moving to the Bay Area in Aug. 2006. Our 2 1/2 year old son was just found eligible for services through our current (East Coast) school district. His issues are in the areas of speech, fine motor skills and sensory integration. He also has a very short attention span. He's a very happy and social kid with great gross motor skills. We have quite a bit of flexibility in where to live after our move. We'd prefer being near a BART station, but our son's education is a very high priority. Any suggestions as to which public school districts might best meet our son's needs would be much appreciated. We would also consider private preschools. Thank you, Catherine

I do not have a child with special needs but want to point you toward the Lafayette school district and, specifically, Burton Valley Elementary. My two children attend BVE and have had special needs kids in their classes every year. The challenges that these kids face vary, of course. Some just require individualized education plans, some need an all-day aide with them. In every case, the administrators, teachers, students and BVE families enfold him/her into the sc hool in the most natural, genuine way. Our sons have developed lots of empathy and have learned that every one of us has different learning strengths and weaknesses. They've also gotten very good at meeting their peers ''where they are'' and celebrating their shared humor and humanity.

On a more technical note, the parents of special needs kids have been thrilled with the education their kids have received. They come from far and wide for the care and attention they receive. I'm proud of how our community embraces differences of all kinds and encourage you to check us out. (I always chuckle at the pride with which Berkeley private school parents talk about ''diversity'' in their schools. Their diversity may include color or family income but not political opinion or abilities!) - Hearing Good Things

We reside in Albany California which is nestled inbetween Berkel ey and El Cerrito in the Bay Area. Our son also has language delays and SI issues. He is in 2nd grade now and we have been very pleased with the services and support he receives. There are three elementary schools in our District. The speech therapists are great and the OT's are dynamic. They have all really helped our son. I don't know what services are like at the middle school or high school level. I can only speak about the elementary schools. Good luck to you. anonymous

I guess I didn't read your question clearly. Your son is 2 1/2. Our son also went through the preschool special ed. program in Albany and we were very pleased with the program. The teacher is fantastic and her staff is great. Same OT's as some of the elementary schools but I'm not sure about the Speech Therapist . You should contact our Special Ed. Dept. anonymous

Catherine, I can't speak for the district as a whole, but Harding Elementary in El Cerrito (East Bay) has 5 special day classes, 2 of which are for hearing impaired. It is my understanding that there are intervention or pull-out services for kids who need help but are not in special day classes, but I'm not completely knowledgeable about what exactly is available for special ed kids and those who are mainstreamed. I suggest that you contact our school principal, Mrs. Taylor. Please check our Web site, hardingpta.org, for more information. Harding fosters a sense of compassion for the special ed kids (the goal is to mainstream them in the regular classrooms), which I believe is an asset and something I want my son to develop. In addition, it is near the El Cerrito Plaza BART station, and the housing is relatively affordable compared to other Bay Area cities. Good luck with your move.

Districts with better special education resources?

June 2005

My son has communication delays, not completely assessed yet. He is receiving some services through the Oakland School District. I'm curious about special education services in other local districts. Are there any school districts where special education services are more plentiful, easier to obtain, more individualized than in Oakland? I've heard good things about Piedmont...any feedback on special education there? How easy/hard is it to obtain a paraprofessional to work with your child in a mainstream classroom?

Berkeley, is by far the best district. If you are looking for a district that will make decisions that are fair and in the best interest of the child, Elaine Eger is amazing! I founded A Brighter Today, which is a center based program, and non public school (Special Education) for children that are both medically fragile and developmentally delayed. Remember that if a school district cannot meet the needs of your child. You are entitled according to the (IDEA) Individual Disabilities Education Act a free and appropriate education at the publics expense. Please contact Laura Quesada at A Brighter Today: 510-704-0266. We have a great parent support group.


Best school district for special ed?

Feb. 2004

My husband and I are committed to sending our little boy to public school, and--like most parents--we want ''the best'' school district for him. The only twist is, our son receives special-ed services from OUSD. Are there any special needs parents out there who moved away from Oakland because they wanted a SELPA with a fatter budget? Or more experienced therapists? Sweeter facilities? Mainstreaming with extreme sensitivity and support? If so, how is it working out for you? We'd consider any area, from the Peninsula to Marin to east Contra Costa county. Thanks, Mom of Soon-to-be Kindergartner

I would suggest that you contact a support group for the type of disability your child has. Family Resource Network, an offshoot of Bananas, has an office and newsletter that can connect you with other parents dealing with the same issues. Their phone number is (510) 547-7322. I have a 13-year old son with Asperger's syndrome and I gave up on public education 4 years ago. However, every disability is different just as every child is different and you have to do what you feel is right for your child. Good luck. Nancy