Special Education in the Berkeley School District

Parent Q&A

BUSD SpEd Inclusion Programs: what's the real story? Sep 18, 2019 (3 responses below)
Incredibly frustrated with BUSD - sexual assault victim Aug 16, 2019 (10 responses below)
Education attorneys for child not being served by BUSD Jul 10, 2019 (1 responses below)
  • Dear Parents,

    I'd be very grateful to hear from families who have kids in Berkeley public schools, especially elementary schools, who have kids with Selective Mutism, with either a 504 or full IEP.

    I'm particularly interested in hearing how teachers and administrators have treated kids with SM and their parents. For example, what sorts of accommodations were, or were not made? Did teachers or others at the school respond appropriately when other kids may have been inappropriately aggressive, bullying, etc., towards kids with SM or anxiety disorders? Did teachers disbelieve the SM diagnosis and act as if they thought the student was willfully  uncooperative, instead of suffering from an emotional disorder?

    Input on experiences at privates/independent schools are welcome too.  I can privately/offline share experiences with one private/independent east bay school.

    Thanks in advance!

    I'm posting anon, so in your public message, LMK you want me to contact you and I'll reach out to you!

    I work at a BUSD school and have seen several kids with selective mutism over the years.  The teachers have all been very patient and accepting in the classrooms, finding the child's strengths and not pressing them to speak.  The child works on speech with a pull-out speech teacher. One family moved to a private school after kindergarten, so I can't speak for them, but the other children all improved greatly over the years.  They first begin speaking only to one or two trusted adults, and slowly their circle of trust and speaking widens.  The other kids in the school understand and accept the mutism for the most part.  The SM is generally explained to the other kids so they understand that the child can hear, and can understand, but just does not speak.  Knowledge is power; if it's age-appropriately explained, there is no fear nor mystery.  Our SM kids had friends, and were accepted socially.  

    It's been several years since we had a child with SM in the Berkeley public schools. Our kid has overcome SM and is now a graduate student. I fervently hope that things have changed for the better since we were directly involved with the district, but I'm still connected to SM resources and am happy to be contacted about our experiences. Our child's IEP specified many accommodations regarding social interactions, alternative means to demonstrate academic accomplishment and to participate in class discussions, participation in music and drama, reticence affecting self-expression in writing, and social anxiety issues around eating and modesty. We also negotiated provisions for educating teachers and staff about SM, some of which were more successful than others. We also had experiences with some independent schools in the east bay. Willing to discuss any of this if you want to reach out.

  • Hi Berkeley Parents Network
    We're trying to figure out where in the East Bay we should put down roots. Our 3 year old son has autism, and so the biggest factor is whether he'll have the support to thrive in school. We've heard very polarized opinions about the inclusion programs in Berkeley; we understand that among parents of special needs students, BUSD has a poor reputation, but it is starting to look like BUSD is the surest bet to get our son into a well resourced inclusion classroom. We are currently in Oakland, and while OUSD has some very good inclusion schools, they also have many under-resourced schools, and even if we moved into the hill areas near the good schools, it would still literally ba a lottery to get him a good placement. Whereas it seems like Berkeley has more consistency across programs, and so moving to Berkeley would be a safer play. I wonder if BUSD's poor reputation stems from the fact that they have ONLY inclusion programs and no special day classes, so parents who need their kids to be in a more restrictive environment don't really have anywhere to turn, and that would be deeply frustrating. But if that's the case, and we are looking for an inclusion classroom, then wouldn't BUSD be a reasonable choice? I'm looking for parents who have experience with BUSD inclusion to offer a more nuanced take than what we've gotten so far. (We know Piedmont is the best but we're not sure we can afford it.) Thank you!!!

    Our experience in BUSD inclusion was that it's a lovely idea that requires huge sums of money to actually implement well, money they don't have. So our child was tolerated in his gen ed class, but he wasn't given appropriate services or supports. Our advocate actually said she thought OUSD was better than BUSD for special ed. I think a lot depends on the school you get assigned to (Berkeley is a lottery system based on zones) - some are probably better than others. Our principal was fine with restricting my son's recess if he didn't complete his work, which was a violation of the district's recess restriction policy. She was also fine with him eating by himself every day at lunch rather than have a goal for him to eat with peers. His teacher put him out in the hall by himself with the classroom door closed when he was misbehaving (he was 6, he has ASD). I could go on...we got an attorney and and eventually we felt like it was a lost cause and we moved to another district. My son went from 180 minutes of aide time a week in Berkeley to 640 minutes in the new district (he's still in gen ed). He got a Behavior Plan. It was night and day. I like to believe that most people in BUSD want to help kids, but in our case they didn't seem to have either the will or the resources to provide my son with appropriate services and supports. If you can, I'd research how much they pay for legal costs every year related to special education...if they provided the services they should, they wouldn't spend so much on lawyers and settlements...

    We have a child in BUSD with multiple LD’s, sensory issues, and some behavior challenges.  

    Our child is not making meaningful academic progress.  District services have not been sufficient to provide our child with the type of instruction they need to do so.  We’ve had an independent neuropsychological eval and it was recommended our child receive Non Public School placement because the district program is not/has not been sufficient for them.  Our child is now so far behind peers remediation in math and spelling is needed, though district won’t acknowledge this.  

    We’ve spoken with a few special education attorneys, all of whom say BUSD is the very worst district to work with if you have a kid w special needs.  They will fight you to bitter end before agreeing to pay for any services your child needs and will insist they can provide them. Though, their special ed teachers well meaning, they are not trained in research based methodologies for LDs like Linda Mood Bell or Making Math  Real and have overloaded caseloads. We have not had positive experiences with our process with the district and are at our wits end, thus calls to attorneys. 

    Also, there is a class action lawsuit in progress against BUSD for their systematic failure to identify and support kids w dyslexia.  

    I hate to be so negative but I’d strongly caution you against BUSD. 

    My child had a 504 plan in BUSD and our experience (3-9 grade) was that BUSD did the bare minimum. They talked the talk, touting the belief that all children can be accommodated in the regular classrooms, but they did not walk the walk. It was left to us parents to negotiate with individual teachers. Repeatedly we had to educate teachers about our child's disability and explain what he needed to succeed.   Kids that needed targeted support were placed in classrooms with teachers who had no specialized training or even a basic understanding of learning differences.  My child, who had significant problems of his own, was in a class in the 3rd grade that included 5 children who required full-time aides, including one child who was non-verbal and prone to violent outbursts such as throwing chairs and stabbing classmates with a pencil. This child spent most of the day doing busy work on a computer while the rest of the class carried on. No kids benefit from this kind of approach, special needs or not. My takeaway was that BUSD doesn't want to spend the money to train teachers or provide programs for the kids who need extra or specialized help. It's one size fits all in BUSD.  I think any other East Bay district would be better than BUSD if your kid has special needs.

  • My daughter came to live with me this summer. She was previously out of state with her other parent. What precipitated the relocation was her being the victim of sexual assault. I am currently in the process of developing a treatment plan for her with the Center for Child Protection at Oakland Children's Hospital, who were referred to me by Bay Area Women Against Rape. The crime is currently under active investigation. Given her current fragile psychological condition, as well as her unfamiliarity with navigating Berkeley, I believe it is crucial that she goes to school as close to home as possible; she has a pretty high level of anxiety at this point, and does suffer from trauma due to the assault. Her stepmother and myself are both teachers, and will not be able to drop her at school on the other side of the city due to our work hours, and I do not feel comfortable putting her on a bus, given her current state. However, BUSD is telling me the school close to us is full and they cannot put her in it due to union rules and told me I just need to get on the wait list, which I've done. But surely she is not the only student in BUSD who has a critical need to attend school close to home! Is there anyone out there who can suggest how to get around this madness? Thanks.

    I would initiate the process of getting an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Students with "severe emotional disturbance" can be eligible for an IEP. It is a complicated process, but the excellent people at https://dredf.org/ can help you get started.

    Some people register for public school, but then put their kids in private school. You might want to try keeping her home for a few days after school starts, and see if there are any openings at your preferred site. I understand the reasoning behind busing kids, but I do believe that there is value in neighborhood schools, especially in situations like this. 

    Hi, I hope you might find a solution.  I don’t have an answer, but just wanted to say that likely a very high percentage of families want their child(ren) in the school closest to them, which of course BUSD can’t accommodate for everyone.  I’m not sure how old your daughter is, but there are great after school programs (or clubs, if she’s in HS) at all the schools, which accommodate parent schedules, since not all of us are lucky enough to have one parent not working outside the home.  I sincerely hope your daughter finds the support she needs, even if not at your closest Berkeley school.

  • Hello,

    Have you worked with education attorneys Natashe Washington or Roberta Savage?  If anyone has worked with either of them, I'd love to speak with you, especially if you had a child within BUSD.  We are not being appropriately served in the school environment, there are compliance issues, and we are being stonewalled. 

    I'd prefer not to leave my name here but if you'd be able to share your contact, I'd be so appreciative.

    At the end of my rope. 

    Although I did not hire Natashe Washington, I had a very positive experience talking with her, which led to a decision not to file a lawsuit. Our son had an IEP and needed residential treatment, which the school district (not BUSD) did not agree to. In our case, she would not require an up front fee to take our case, but would be paid out of the legal fees, if we first followed the process she recommended and she thought we could win. Her advice was very valuable and put us in a good position to have most of our costs for residential treatment covered by insurance, the Adoption Assistance Program, and the school district, without a lawsuit.

Parent Reviews

I don’t have experience with the Albany school district, but I do have a good friend who has dealt with IEP’s for her daughter from 1st grade through high school. She has had to sue the Berkeley school district 3 times to get her daughter an adequate IEP. We’ve had many discussions about it because my daughters went through the Orinda school systems where IEP’s are virtually non-existent. She told me that the schools districts are just set up that way; you have to sue in order to get one that actually works. Each time she’s sued she has won, which means the school district had to pay not only their attorneys but had to pay for hers as well. Each time she’s told them that if they just give her what she’s asking for instead of dragging their feet and making it difficult at every turn, they would save so much money, because all she’s ever asked for is what the school district is supposed to provide anyway. 

Her attorney was willing to wait to get paid in fill until after the suit was settled, after the initial fee which is generally $5000.

i hope this helps. 

 Hi -  I can speak to obtaining an IEP for my son from the Berkeley Unified School District after he was placed in a residential treatment program (that had a school component.) The law, and it's a FEDERAL law, requires that the school district send someone to evaluate your child if they're not local, which is what BUSD did for my son. Also, you probably know, but the law requires that the school respond within a certain amount of time to your request. In the end, the IEP was granted and from that date on, BUSD picked up the cost of the program. I can't speak to COVID issues, but under normal circumstances, it isn't necessary that your daughter be in Albany. I was warned about this tactic, and others in the stonewalling and footdragging department, but BUSD did us a solid. We didn't end up using a lawyer but I spoke with several and got a lot of good information. I'd be happy to talk to you about this if that would be helpful. 

We moved from Oakland to Berkeley for the schools. My son is partially deaf and qualifies for an IEP but has no learning issues associated with it. The IEP process at our Oakland elementary school was kinda non-existent the first year, but when a new principal came in, it was just ok.

I have to say that the quality of the IEP process and follow-up at Berkeley is incredible, but again, my kid does not have learning disabilities so I can't speak to that. But the organization and teamwork has been amazing. That said, the school is huge!!!!! 1,300 kids!!! Lots of room to get into trouble, but lots of great kids, too. Also, parent involvement really steps down in middle school, there is so much more responsibility given to the teen and it was a rough transition for my son. 

Berkeley is crazy expensive to buy a home in. We were lucky to get in before it got really bad. But you don't have to buy- our friends from OUSD are renting out their Oakland home (to cover their mortgage) and then are renting an apartment in Albany to send their girls to school there. They plan on renting in Albany until their youngest graduates high school, and then moving back to their Oakland home for the rest of their days- they love their home and could not afford to buy it again.

But the Oakland schools...well, out of 63 5th graders in our elementary class only 3 of them enrolled in the local public middle school. Oakland still has a terrible problem with the schools, and I admire the amazing teachers who stay despite the lack of pay and resources. None of us should have to make this agonizing choice about educating our kids- shouldn't our local schools be able to support all kids in a safe and nurturing environment??? Yeah, we can dream. But in the meantime, good luck to you guys. Just please don't move to a crappy, homophobic place where you are gonna be unhappy for 6 years or more. You didn't mention jobs... but if there is any way that you could live an hour from SF, have you checked out Petaluma? It is so great!!! I have heard that their schools are awesome. Our in-laws moved there and we have been spending time there and I really like it. Best to you guys!

Archived Q&A and Reviews



Will BUSD help pay for therapeutic boarding school?

Jan 2016

Our 15-year old daughter has dropped out of Berkeley High School due to anxiety, severe depression, suicidal ideation and other related issues. After two years of seeking local (excellent) therapeutic solutions for our daughter and family, we are finally sending her to a therapeutic boarding school. It has been chosen for it's humane approach and targeted therapeutic offerings. Our daughter was relieved when her neuropsych evaluation recommended that she spend a year in treatment away from home, so please do not reply if your opinion is that a teen should never be sent to therapeutic boarding school--with all due respect, I have already read those posts.

Our question is: Has anyone in a similar situation ever had any success in getting BUSD to help pay for therapeutic boarding school? Or tried and failed? We know that school districts are under a mandate to provide access to education. Given her issues, our daughter would not be an appropriate candidate for BUSD independent study program--at least until she has been in treatment for awhile. I should add that unfortunately, we do not yet have an IEP for our daughter yet. We have the name of a good educational advocate and a lawyer (based in the Walnut Creek area) and are already working with an excellent educational consultant. We are also members of Willows in the Wind (support group). However, before we seriously consider approaching the district, we would like to hear about other parents' experience with BUSD. Also, if you were successful in working with BUSD and would be willing to share the name of your educational advocate/lawyer, that would be great. I tried to research this issue on BPN but couldn't find anything (search error?) Thank you in advance for any assistance you can provide.

Seeking access to education

Mike Zatopa is the attorney we (successfully) used with BUSD. We had a very complicated case. He would be able to give you an idea of whether you had a case. Typically, the school district likes to use their own resources before recommending residential care. If you have already decided upon that path it may be harder but I would still go ahead and ask. anon

Dear parent looking for therapeutic boarding school. I was able to get BUSD to pay for what is called a ''Non-public school''. These are schools/therapeutic treatment centers that partner with school districts to provide services of just the sort you describe: Helping children who cannot otherwise attend school for psychological, addiction, or other related issues.

You will need to get an IEP and will need to get a recommendation that she attend such a school. The process can be tedious. You MUST ask for an IEP in writing and you must do everything in writing. You must advocate strongly that she needs this (not the silly independent study or other options they will recommend).

You are unlikely to be able to send her to an out of state private boarding school -- and you might be glad of that. Some of those are quite abusive and hardly regulated. I would be very careful about sending a child to any of those. Check it out first.

The IEP process will take time - so start immediately and follow up at every turn. make sure they follow guidelines about when they will complete assessments, hold meetings etc. but each time they usually get 50 business days so it can really add up.

Best of luck to you and your daughter.... Been there

Speech therapy in BUSD? 

Jan 2015
My kindergartener has a mild speech impediment that has always been the source of gentle teasing but is not correcting as he approaches 6. I would like to have him evaluated for therapy but have no idea where to start and can't find any info on the BUSD site. Any help appreciated. Thanks! tongue tied mom

A very good friend works as a speech pathologist at BUSD. I relayed your question to her and she wrote this back: It depends on what sounds your child is having difficulty producing. Some sounds are later-developing (i.e. not expected to be perfected at age 6), such as ''r, sh, ch, j, s, z, v and th''. If it's one or more of these sounds, you can ask the school Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) to observe your child. What she/he will likely do is see if your child is able to produce the sound when given cues (e.g. ''put your tongue behind your teeth like this, when you say an 's' sound''). If the child is able to produce the sounds when given cues, the SLP can send home worksheets for the child to practice (that way your child won't miss class in order to go to the speech room, but will still get the practice he/she needs). Or the SLP might see your child through a program called Response to Intervention (RtI), which is a way to work with kids who don't have a ''disorder''. If your child is producing more sounds incorrectly than the ones stated above, or if your child is unintelligible much of the time AS WELL AS having these problems negatively impact his/her ability to meet educational goals, the SLP would then evaluate the child. The evaluation will determine if your child has a speech disorder or not. Summary: Start by asking your school's SLP for an observation, and see what she/he says. Hope this helps!

My son received speech therapy from BUSD for a couple of years. For that to happen, he had to get an IEP (individual education plan). You can request IEP on your own (google IEP letter request and a bunch of examples come up). Your school can also recommend getting an IEP. The thing with the school district is that they would only provide therapy or accommodation or whatever else they decide is needed for the child to be able to perform at school and do school work at the appropriate level. So, I would word your IEP request around that, rather than saying your child's speech defect is a source of mild teasing. Teasing is bad, but doesn't interfere with school work, or at least it's a stretch to argue that it does. You can also get your child evaluated at her health provider. I did that at Kaiser, in addition to getting an IEP from the school district. It was good to have both, and it gave me confidence in the assessment done by the district, and helped me as a parent work with my child on my own. Speaking of which, speech therapy is great, but it happens once or twice a week, or whatever the frequency, but then we parents are able to help our children the rest of the time. It was very helpful to me to watch how the therapist worked with my child, and then apply her technique on my own. By the way, the speech therapist at BUSD was phenomenally great, but she's retired since. I am sure the new one is good, too. good luck!

Special Needs PreSchool for Deaf & PDD-NOS

March 2011

Hello, I need any personal recommendations or experiences if you've had a special need's child and has dealt with BUSD. I'm new to the area and I'm curious what programs are out there and I've done some research but it seems like it's difficult to find information on PreSchool or programs headed by BUSD for special need's kids. My son is about to transition to IEP. He's bilaterally CI'd (cochlear implanted) and was diagnosed early with PDD-NOS and is getting treatment that is home based. I know of CEID but there's a long wait list. I'm a worried mom not knowing what programs are out there that I can look into so I have my questions prepared for the programs they present. I also want to arrange tours if that's even possible. Thanks in advance for help with this. Also, any advice through the IEP process would be extremely beneficial and helpful! Thanks again! mamatoadeafboy

Have you read the Nolo Press book on special education and IEPs? It would be a good place to start, And focus your energy on the educational effects of his disability. http://www.nolo.com/lawyers/attorney/neil-allan-rones-4934.html -neil rones neilrones [at] mac.com

Contact the Berkeley Special Education Parents Network (BSPED) http://www.bsped.org/ We are a group of families of students in the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) who have special educational needs. -Jill

Which Central Zone school for special needs child?

Nov 2010

hello there BPN ers,

my sweet almost 5 year old is entering K in the fall of '11; which school in the central zone, in your opinion, is the best for her needs of partial hearing impairment/fine motor impairments?

She is in private speech and OT programs. Her hearing problems are not correctable, and I am struggling with BUSD to have her issues evaluated (and wow, they are not real helpful).

My little one is cheerful and motivated to learn despite her hearing loss and motor issues, and we are hopeful that there is a school in the central zone that would welcome her and her involved parents. We will happily take her to which ever school serves her needs best, and she is really excited to be going to K!

Any suggestions? gratefully, G's mom

Welcome to Kindergarten!! I think the quality and availability of services is going to be the same at all the schools, for the most part, because they're in the same district and the district determines services for an IEP. That said, my son has an IEP and goes to BAM and I have been VERY happy there. The staff has been very available and willing to work with us, we have a new Inclusion Coordinator this year who is great, and he has a district aide, actually two of them switch off working with him, and they are absolutely fantastic. Come by when we have our Kindergarten tours, you can chat with our principal and a parent volunteer, or contact me directly for more information.

If you're struggling with the district to get an evaluation, you might consider hiring an advocate or contacting DREDF at www.dredf.org. Also, join BSPED; more info here: http://www.berkeley.net/index.php?page=bsped Hope this helps! Jill

Definitely be persistent, yet respectful, with the school to get an evaluation. (as a heads up to other parents reading this, you can get an evaluation while your child is in preschool, and it is a good idea, since the waiting periods for getting the student an IEP assigned to speech therapist or other specialists can take some time. AND, they can get services even before they enter elementary school. Start ASAP with your district to avoid the kindergarten bottle neck.) For your little girl going into kindergarten in 2011, have you checked out John Muir Elementary in the south zone? and would it meet her needs? I recall that John Muir is where many of the children with hearing impairments go. If that would work for you, ask the district for her to be placed there. It may be way easier to get services on a regular basis there.

If you are still interested in central zone schools, each of them have great programs and access to special assistance. Schools are very good at keeping the kindergartners in their own area away from the big kids as needed. Some of the on site specialists change from year to year, as do the teachers, as do the principals. If you are intending to use an after school program, you can look into what is offered at each site. If you want something within walking distance, you may want to pick a closer school. Other than that, set up school visits - including John Muir, keep on the IEP folks and ask them about access to John Muir. Anon

We live in the central zone. It is a good idea to look at all the schools and rank your choices but you should be aware that you will not be able to pick which school your daughter goes to. The district will assign her to one of the schools. You can appeal the assignment after that but you can't count on getting into your top choice or even 2nd or 3rd choice. We were assigned to a school in the central zone that we did not even list as one of our choices. Also you should ask the district how special needs kids are assigned, because we found in our school a very high proportion of special needs kids compared to other schools in the zone. This may work in your favor or not, depending, but it is something you might want to know about ahead of time. anon

Move special ed child from private school to King?

June 2010

I would like to hear from parents with recent experiences with King MS in Berkeley for students with Learning Disabilities. I have a son with several LDs including ADHD, dysgraphia, slower processing speed and verbal fluency issues. He is super bright but getting words on a page is super difficult without loads of one-on-one help. Has anyone had recent experiences with King and accomodations for LD kids? I know that BUSD and King have a Special Ed team and that support staff / resources are supposed to be available for identified LD kids. How does this translate into real accomodations in the classroom and other learning support? Would love to hear recent experiences as I am needing to decide between keeping my child where he is and paying private tuition and extra tutoring support or moving him to King and eventually to Berkeley High. Am recently divorced so money is a real issue but do not want to make the move if the services required are not going to concretely be there for him when dealing with actual teachers, classroom situations and homework. Single Mom of 2 kids with LDs

Hi! You should consider joining BSPED, The Berkeley Special Education Parents Network, which represents families of students in the Berkeley Unified School District who have special educational needs. More info at www.berkeley.net/index.php?page=bsped Jill

BUSD inclusion programs

Nov 2007

I'm looking for information on special ed inclusion programs in Berkeley. My child with special needs will be entering the district next fall and we'd love feedback on other parents' experiences with the various inclusion specialists and programs in Berkeley. Our gut feeling is that we need a small school with a really supportive inclusion program where special ed teachers, regular ed teachers, parent and kids are supportive and accepting of kids with learning, physical, and speech differences. Our child will be in a regular classroom but will need a lot of support in many areas. Thanks! anon

My son is in Kindergarten at Berkeley Arts Magnet with his own 1:1 and I absolutely couldn't be happier. He's thriving there, his teachers are great, the other kids are great, I love the environment there, the other parents (for the most part) have been supportive. I like the principal, I like the Inclusion Support Teacher, and the best part is that he's actually learning. Feel free to contact me directly for more info. Jill

We have a child in inclusion at Le Conte. The inclusion specialist there is very dedicated, and the staff, especially the principle, are very supportive. It rubs off on the kids, too - my child has lots of friends who engage him on the playground or just yell hi when they see him passing, even though part of his disability is that he is nonverbal and has difficulty with eye contact, etc. I could write a book about our experience if I had the time. Please email me if you'd like to talk more on the phone. Jessica