OAKLAND — Tilden turned the standard special-education model on its head when it opened as an elementary school in 2004. Rather than place children with special needs in a mainstream environment, it created a new one, by enrolling children with wide-ranging abilities.
At Tilden, the non-special education students would be the ones fitting in to a different culture, one that valued "multiple intelligences." Normally, it is the other way around.
Joslin Johnson, Tilden's founding principal, said some parents were thrilled simply to know that their children would eat in the cafeteria and play in the yard with everyone else — "that they were included in normal things."
Less than five years later, however, the Oakland school district is poised to give up on its special-education experiment. The school board votes tonight on a proposal to close Tilden in 2010 and take its 125 children and 16 special education programs and divide them among six elementary schools: Bella Vista, Brookfield, Burckhalter, Garfield, Howard and Markham.
District staff members say Tilden, located in a leafy neighborhood near Mills College, has far more special-education children in the kindergarten through third grades than it was designed to admit: 64 percent, instead of 40 percent — a ratio that potentially violates federal disabilities law.
Another concern is the school only goes through the third grade, and it doesn't have the ability to expand. Two sections of the school's aging campus have recently been vacated for safety reasons, including a lack of a functioning alarm system, and the district won't provide the money needed for renovations.
Gary Yee, an Oakland school board member and former principal who once managed the private Raskob Day School for special-needs children, said he pushed for Tilden's reopening in 2004. But the school has lacked the resources and perhaps the district leadership to become the "model inclusion school" he had hoped to see, he said.
"The problem was, over time, it became seen as just a special-education school," Yee said.
That's true, Johnson said. But, she added, that didn't happen on its own.
Over the years, the district continued to send Tilden special-education programs from other Oakland schools, Johnson said. Those decisions, often made on an emergency basis, skewed Tilden's special-education ratio and filled its empty classrooms, leaving the school with little room to grow as planned, she said.
Even if enough general-education children enrolled tomorrow to balance the numbers, Johnson said, there wouldn't be anywhere to put them.
Kristen Zimmerman, whose 4-year-old son has Down syndrome, said she doubts school district officials ever believed this unorthodox educational model could work. "I feel that there's an embedded assumption that people will not come to a school that centralizes the needs of kids that are different from the mainstream," she said.
Troy Flint, a spokesman for the school district, said district staff members tried to recruit more general-education students, with limited success. As staff members worked to redesign the school — a plan that was not fully implemented — some parents of Tilden's non-disabled children said they wished the curriculum were more rigorous, he said.
Still, parents and teachers interviewed said Tilden has thrived, despite its challenges, and its teachers work extraordinarily close with one another. Some say they are open to the possibility of moving the school, or splitting it into two schools, but that such a transition must be done carefully, with the insight of parents and teachers.
Tilden was originally slated to close this spring, but parents and teachers quickly mobilized and persuaded the school board's subcommittees to recommend giving the school another year to create a favorable resolution.
Flint said at the moment, however, there isn't a school campus — or even two — that could accommodate all of Tilden's students through the fifth grade with the proper balance of students.
Jawwei Wang, a preschool teacher at Tilden, acknowledged that the situation was complicated. On one hand, "The quality of services they get is really exemplary," she said. "It works, as a whole."
On the other, she said, it's important for the elementary school children to be in an integrated environment where they could stay for up to six years — an opportunity most families take for granted.
"It's really a hard decision to make," Wang said.
Federal law requires public schools to give disabled children exposure to their mainstream peers. The law was written to protect children with disabilities from segregation, but sometimes that happens anyway, some advocates say.
Zimmerman said she transferred her son to Tilden's preschool program last fall after a difficult experience at another Oakland school. There, she said, the special-education children were in a portable classroom far from other students, and they played on a separate yard.
"It felt like it was like a little island on the campus," Zimmerman said. "Which is the irony: You're in a school with more general-ed students, but you're more isolated."
Yee said no matter what happens, the Oakland school system should take care not to let the expertise of Tilden's teaching staff slip away. "You don't want to lose that," he said. "I think the lessons they have learned and the curriculum they have developed is important to the entire district."
Yee added, "Looking back, I think it was a good idea. It's important work. Maybe it's the kind of thing that will re-emerge, two or three years down the line."