Destination transformation
Educators learn strategies for supporting every student at ECC Symposium
January 22, 2024
The road less traveled is that way for a reason.
Educators who choose to work in student services and special education are on a difficult path that is not taken by many. More than 1,700 teachers, administrators and specialists who are walking that same road recently came together for ACSA’s 2024 Every Child Counts Symposium, titled “Destination Transformation: Embracing the Journey on the Road Less Traveled.”
Presenters shared their inspiring stories and best strategies for staying on this journey and embracing every minute of it. The annual conference, which was held Jan. 10-12 in Palm Desert, is planned by ACSA’s Student Services and Special Education Council.
Conference Planning Committee Co-chair Eli Gallup thanked attendees for transforming the lives of the students in their care. Gallup shared his personal story of being 8 years old, without a fixed home and in need of an IEP. Then he entered Mrs. Dolores’ third grade classroom at Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary School in San Francisco, and the trajectory of his life changed.
“If you are in this room, you are a Mrs. Dolores,” Gallup said. “I wouldn’t and likely couldn’t be here today without someone like you helping me out.”
During the 2.5-day conference, attendees had access to more than 80 sessions aimed at helping them better serve their students.
In a session titled “Co-teaching: A School’s Implementation Story,” presenter Bhavna Narula shared Hillsborough City School District’s journey to create conditions to support co-teaching.
“Somehow, students with disabilities were OPP — other people’s problem,” she said about the district’s culture before co-teaching.
Narula reviewed ways to support a successful co-teaching launch, such as having common prep time for teachers. She also dispelled myths about co-teaching, like it’s an “extra set of hands” in the classroom or that it’s “push-in” support.
In the session “Student Services Administrators’ Journey: What You Need to Know!” administrators were given scenarios and asked to evaluate whether students were given appropriate accommodations.
“We don’t just want to give out all the accommodations. ... We are adjusting how a student learns, not what they learn,” said presenter Linda C. Pete, assistant director of student services from Mt. Diablo USD. She cautioned administrators to be specific about “extra time” accommodations on 504 Plans and urged them to use evidence to determine if the student’s disability affects an activity. “An accommodation should never change the rigor or the grading on the assignment,” she said.
Former MLB pitcher Dave Dravecky drew cheers from San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres fans during his opening keynote on Wednesday. He asked educators to “push the pause button” on their job titles and reflect on the significance of their own stories.
Dravecky lived his dream of being a professional baseball player in the 1980s. His life was built on success and accomplishments — he was an All-Star and played in the 1984 World Series. But all that went away when he was diagnosed with cancer in his pitching arm, which eventually had to be amputated. Today, he defines success as living a life of significance.
“It’s not what you do that matters most, it’s who you are,” he said. “And when you begin to understand who you are, it will affect everything you do.”
LMFT/Counselor Emily Gallup’s session on “Herding ‘Therapist Cats’” provided ways that administrators can support mental health professionals, who come to the world of education with different training and may not speak the same lingo as teachers. She shared that one time she was asked what she thought about the overlap between PBIS and SEL.
“I froze. I had no idea what that meant,” Gallup said, showing a slide with a funny cat picture to convey how she felt.
Gallup shared strategies for bridging the gap between mental health and education, such as providing therapists with training in classroom management if they will be doing push-in lessons.
Many presenters shared personal stories of how students changed their lives. David Diehl, a director in Selma USD, related how he went from being a police sergeant to being a teacher in Salinas, where gang activity contributes to one of the highest teen homicide rates in the state.
“I lost 21 students to murder,” he said.
In “Engaging All Students: Lessons Learned From Incarcerated Youth,” he shared his doctoral research on improving cultural competencies and building relationships with these “street socialized” youth to prevent incarceration.
“If there is a school-to-prison pipeline, we are complicit if we’re not helping these kids early on,” Diehl said.
In “Dismantling Ableism – How to Shift Disability Narratives,” presenter Karen Taylor spoke about the need for students to have “mirrors and windows” into disability in the curriculum every day and for them to have agency in their education.
“Are students with IEPs included in leadership?” she asked. “Couldn’t we ask kids — what would be helpful to you? Are we doing something to kids versus working with them?”
Keynote speaker Diana Pastora Carson challenged the audience to move beyond awareness of disability to true acceptance and inclusion of individuals with disabilities.
She told the story of her brother Joaquin, who endured neglect and indignity during the 15 years he was institutionalized in a state hospital. Her family petitioned to bring him home and now he enjoys a life surrounded by friends, family and neighbors.
“What changed about Joaquin? We knew everything about Joaquin’s diagnosis. His label didn’t change, he was not cured of autism ... but something changed that gave him an opportunity to grow and begin to heal. He did not change at all, but his community did,” she said. “We changed everything about our ableist attitude. ... We saw our role as supporters, not judges, not controllers — we saw our relationship to Joaquin as equals, noting that his role in our life was just as important as our role in his.”
Christina Zavala, SELPA Director with Imperial County Office of Education, said she has been coming to this conference for around eight years.
“I love the focus on the realm of special education. The Every Child Counts Symposium has a really comprehensive list of sessions that cover everything from IEPs, 504s, inclusion and supporting staff. I’m always taking resources back to my staff and colleagues,” she said. “It’s a conference our SELPA values.”
“We saw our role as supporters, not judges, not controllers — we saw our relationship to Joaquin as equals, noting that his role in our life was just as important as our role in his.”
Diana Pastora Carson, Disability advocate speaking about her brother Joaquin, who is autistic
To close out the conference, attendees heard from keynote presenter Jacob “Ten20” Thompson, who shared how being diagnosed with a rare disease gave him an opportunity to give up on his dream of being a professional athlete.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” he said, quoting boxer Mike Tyson.
The award-winning recording artist and author who was diagnosed with Friedreich’s Ataxia at age 24 told his inspiring story and shared his wisdom with attendees.
“People go through life and they are looking for three things and they’re asking three questions: They’re looking for identity — asking who am I? They are looking for belonging — where do I fit? And they are wondering about purpose — do I matter?”
Quick Takes: What was a standout session you attended at Every Child Counts?
“A Year in Review” presented by Adam Newman and Kristin Myers (AALRR)
“You want to think like a lawyer, so it’s good to go to the legal [sessions]. I do a lot of advising on wording on things to teachers who feel very insecure because they didn’t get to go to [this conference]. This makes me feel confident in what I’m telling them.” Laura Owens School Psychologist, Placer UHSD
“Student Discipline: Am I doing the right thing? How do I know?” presented by Sherman Garnett and Donald English
“Everything he was saying was like, oh my goodness — I need to revise a few of our policies. I really want to review the documentation of suspendable offenses and how we record that. It was something that was definitely eye-opening and I will share with my administrative team.” Matthew Bandy Assistant Principal, San Ysidro ESD
“Guidelines for School Administrators: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Parents” presented by Laurie Reynolds (F3 Law) and Sarah Garcia (Lozano Smith)
“I liked it because it was not a formal presentation. It was kind of like an open mic — people could ask questions. The ability to be able to say, ‘This is what I have going on in my district – what would you do?’ was good ... it’s nice to get that perspective.”
Tigest Nealy Program Specialist, West Contra Costa USD
“Dismantling Ableism – How to Shift Disability Narratives” presented by Simi Sardana and Karen Taylor
“I was really touched and blown away by their presentation because it’s something that’s kind of endemic and we really need to break down those barriers. ... They had lots of amazing videos ... showing students with disability pride. That had a big impact and reminds me going back to my site that one day is not enough — [disability awareness] is something we have to trickle in every day.” Sara Marin Principal, Santa Ana USD