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Marin parents say physical education lacking in county program

Marin Independent Journal - 11/29/2021

Nov. 30—As with many Marin 9-year-olds, Elena Ncho-Oguie has more than enough energy after school to ride her bike, jump on a trampoline or walk around her Novato neighborhood with her mother Alicia.

What the fourth-grader, who is on the autism spectrum, doesn't have, is specific in-person physical education training that could help her learn how to throw a softball, be on a sports team or dribble a basketball.

Even though Marin schools are back to in-person learning this fall, Elena has so far only received one 30-minute class per week in what is called adaptive physical education — or APE — at her special education class at Edna Maguire Elementary School in Mill Valley. The class is run by the Marin County Office of Education.

In addition to that being only half of what Elena's individualized educational plan requires, the 30-minute class is remote on Zoom, not in person, and is with a teacher from another county, Alicia Ncho-Oguie said.

"If you can imagine, adaptive physical education on Zoom," Ncho-Oguie said. Because of the lack of in-person contact, the teacher who calls in on Zoom usually just asks mother and daughter to toss a ball with each other.

"And then she puts on a video that Elena is supposed to watch about stretching," Ncho-Oguie said.

Elena is not alone.

According to the most recent pupil count, in fall 2020, 3,840 Marin students had IEPs — or individualized educational plans — for special education, said Jonathan Lenz. He administers the Marin County SELPA — or special education local plan area — for the county education office.

Of those, Lenz could not say how many have APE approvals included in their educational plans, because the number was so low "that it may be considered a breach of confidentiality," Lenz said.

"We — and the California Department of Education — do not publicly report student data sets that are less than 11," he said.

In addition, "not all students with IEPs receive APE services," Lenz said.

"APE is recommended by a district when a student has been determined to be unable to participate in general education physical education or a modified physical education program," he said.

Of the apparent handful of Marin families that do have approvals for adaptive physical education, their children are either getting the APE online on Zoom — or not at all, parents said.

"Our family chose to continue working with his provider in this manner as there are currently no other options available which would allow our son to receive all of the minutes agreed to in his IEP each week," Kentfield parent Jenny Novack said of the online classes.

Novack's son, Phillip, 9, receives two 30-minute physical education classes per week. Both are on Zoom — one during the school day and the other one after school to accommodate the teacher's busy schedule.

"We really feel that we have no choice," Novack said.

At issue is that Marin has not been able to hire anyone to fill the one full-time adaptive physical education teacher slot that is available, Lenz said.

Because there is not enough demand for each Marin school district to hire its own full time APE specialist, the one position is a shared job that is pooled among the various county districts. Some school districts might only need an adaptive physical education teacher for two hours a week, for example.

"In order to address this need for a qualified provider, the districts have partnered to combine their individual APE staffing needs into one shared position that would serve all of the APE needs within the districts collectively," Lenz said. "Unfortunately, that position is currently unfilled. "

Marin school districts and the county education office are aggressively recruiting for the spot — but with no luck so far, said Mary Jane Burke, Marin schools superintendent.

"We have a million openings in a variety of positions in special education," Burke said. "These are specialized positions. We're doing everything we can to get them filled."

Marin parents, meanwhile, worry that their children will miss out on learning motor skills and athletics team socialization that could help set a foundation for them to participate in lifelong sports and exercise activities.

Kira Cordasco of Corte Madera said her son, Hudson, 11, who is in sixth grade at a county-run class in Fairfax, was supposed to receive two 30-minute APE classes a week. So far this fall, he has received none.

"They said they don't have a therapist available," Cordasco said. "So it's been 13 hours missed."

Accordingly, Hudson is "not getting the PE that other kids are getting, and that which is required by law," Cordasco said.

"He's not building fundamental skills — ball-playing, throwing, motor coordination — lifelong skills that he will need to be able to engage with his peers," she said.

Cordasco said she thinks there are many Marin parents who don't even know their children could be receiving APE.

"They don't know they can ask for it," she said. "I'm advocating for my son, and I'm advocating for all the other kids out there who should be getting specialized physical education with an adaptive PE therapist."

All California public elementary students through sixth grade are supposed to get a minimum 200 minutes of physical education every 10 days. Starting in seventh grade, students are supposed to get 400 minutes every 10 days.

Even if all the Marin adaptive physical education classes took place as planned, they would still fall short from what was required by state law — and they still would only cover a fraction of the total special education students in the county. Lenz said he had no word on what the state might do to hold school districts accountable if the situation in Marin is not resolved.

"If the district does not provide the required compensatory services, the district can be found out of compliance," he said. "The California Department of Education may engage in monitoring activities to ensure the district is compliant."


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