For California’s new head of special education, ‘nothing is insurmountable’

Heather Calomese started in August as California's new director of special education. (Photo courtesy of the California Department of Education)

Special education in California may face vast challenges — funding shortfalls, teacher shortages and distance learning, to name a few — but Heather Calomese is undeterred.

Calomese, the state’s newly appointed director of special education, has an ambitious vision to improve equity and outcomes for the state’s 800,000 students enrolled in special education.

Social justice, enhancing online education and improving conditions for teachers are among her top priorities.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond appointed Calomese on Aug. 14 to fill the position formerly held by Kristin Wright, who resigned in the spring. Calomese was formerly the executive director of special education for the Illinois State Board of Education and served for almost a decade as a special education teacher in Chicago and Iowa.

Thurmond called her “a strong advocate and champion for all students” who has extensive leadership experience and knowledge of special education policy.

Approximately 13% of California’s 6 million K-12 students are enrolled in special education in California, receiving services for conditions such as dyslexia, autism and Down syndrome. The Department of Education’s special education division provides resources and guidance for the state’s 1,000 public school districts.

Calomese talked to EdSource last week about her goals and vision for special education in California. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSource: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you become a special educator?

Heather Calomese: I actually came to this field as a former journalist. I worked as a reporter and editor at a small weekly paper in New York. While I enjoy journalism, I just didn’t see myself in the newsroom long term. Education had always interested me, and so I entered the special education field through a program at the University of Iowa.

Special education has allowed me to be part of the lives of so many students and families. I have grown so much as a person by being a part of this community. And to me, the students and families that I have served with over the years are always close to my heart and continue to drive my work. Supporting and being of service to others and really maximizing independence for students and families is what drives me in this role.

From your perspective, what are the biggest challenges right now in special education, not just here but across the country?

Calomese: I think one of the main challenges is providing a free, appropriate public education while school campuses remain closed. As we know, distance learning can present a hurdle for students that receive support and services.

But I will say that in my brief time in this role, I have seen our talented community come together to collectively address these really deeply complex issues. As special educators, we are used to being flexible. It’s who we are and what draws us to the work. And I have seen encouraging practices. It’s an incredible challenge but I know that we’re here to solve the problem.

Some of these problems seem almost unsolvable. For example, how do you provide occupational therapy over Zoom? 

Calomese: Nothing is insurmountable. There is a lot of talent and expertise across our state. We can engage in partnerships and dialogues, and really try things out and learn from one another during this time. And when we find successful practices, can we elevate and amplify those practices so others can experience that success as well.

Districts, individual schools and even individual teachers have a lot of latitude as to how they want to proceed with distance learning. What do you see as the state’s role right now?

Calomese: First and foremost, the state’s role is to provide relevant, timely guidance, thought partnerships, support and resources, technical assistance and general oversight. I really want to emphasize and underscore relevant and timely guidance. That’s what districts need, that’s what they want. So it’s incumbent upon the special education division to really be nimble and flexible and responsive to the field during this time.

What can the state do to make sure students’ individualized education programs (IEPs) are followed during distance learning? 

Calomese: The federal guidance states that schools must meet students’ IEP requirements during distance learning. Parents and schools should collaborate on what those services look like, but it’s the state’s expectation that IEPs are followed.

I hate to ask this question because you’ve only been on the job since August, but what do you see as priorities in California, given the variety of needs?

Calomese: A mentor once said to me that a flower doesn’t always bloom on your watch. I’ve really committed myself to creating the right conditions in California so flowers can blossom not just right now, but into the future. It’s clear to me in just in my short time here that California is really committed to ensuring that the needs of students with disabilities are at the forefront, and we can come up with creative solutions to address the issues that have faced our community for decades. So that’s very exciting for me.

An overarching goal is that we, as a state, improve outcomes and opportunities for students with disabilities. That, for me, is the ultimate North Star. There are opportunities in the system from pre-K to postsecondary to make progress, and I want to continue to refine those systems and collaborate with the many agencies that play a part in the lives of our students and families.

Another goal of mine is to bring conversations about race and equity to the table. We need to continually examine our system and address issues that oftentimes have an adverse impact on our students and families of color.

And finally, I’m interested in elevating best practices for supporting English learners with disabilities. This is an area for growth that I’m very interested in.

In California, there are many issues related to special education and race and inequity. For example, students of color are more likely to be improperly placed in special education, and also less likely to receive the services they need. Can you talk about what you see as the main challenges?

Calomese: We see these issues play out very early on, oftentimes as early as pre-K, and can spiral from there. The issues bubble up in terms of identification, suspension, discipline, expulsion. But I also see it play out through implicit biases in school settings, and in philosophy and belief systems. And we see the disparities in graduation rates as well as college and career outcomes. Even beyond that, we can look at unemployment rates for adults with disabilities, limited career options or high rates of incarceration and substance abuse.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has launched initiatives looking at student discipline, school policing and a variety of race and equity issues. Do you see special education as being part of those conversations?

Calomese: Absolutely. When we look at exclusionary practices — suspension, expulsion, restraint — I think special education is certainly an important part of that. We have the research, we have the data. It’s really incumbent on us to take a hard look and engage in a broad conversation about how we can improve these systems. It’s the right thing to do, and I’m absolutely committed to doing it.

How important is inclusion, the idea that students with special needs spend as much time as possible in mainstream classrooms?

Calomese: Students need to be with their peers, make those social connections, have access to that curriculum and learn in the least restrictive environment possible. There will always be a continuum, because we do have students that need intensive supports. However, we have to ensure that students are being educated with their non-disabled peers as much as possible. And sometimes that means taking risks, right? Obviously, we want our students to be supported, but it’s also important to push students out of their comfort zone (with supports) so that they can continue to learn and grow and develop.

What will you do to address the special education teacher shortage?

Calomese: As you know, the shortage of special education teachers is a nationwide issue, and one that’s very concerning for me. We need to attract people to the field, but we also need to look at the bigger picture. We need to look at ways we can support new teachers and provide opportunities for mentorship, and also support teachers who are well established. We also need to consider how we support our special education administrators. We need to look at ways to attract and retain our special education workforce at all levels, because we have teachers leaving the profession at concerning rates.

Story originally published by EdSource.

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