Lafayette Elementary

This San Francisco Unified School Shows What Great Special Education Can Look Like

More than 80% of students with disabilities can meet the same academic standards as other students with the right support. But right now, most are being left behind by a system that doesn’t meet their needs.

The good news is that far better is possible and there are schools, like Lafayette Elementary in San Francisco, that are showing the way. We would love to see their success in serving students with disabilities replicated to other schools within SFUSD and provide the district with ideas on how to better serve other marginalized student groups.

This school profile is part of Innovate Public Schools’ guide for advocates highlighting research on what works in special education. Innovate is a nonprofit organization working to make sure that all students in the Bay Area — especially low-income students and students of color — receive a world-class public education. Read more about what works in special education.

At Lafayette Elementary School in San Francisco, principal Heath Caceres stresses this to his staff: “Everybody has a disability. At some point, everyone has struggled to understand or accomplish something without extra support.”

It’s this culture of embracing difference that has led to Lafayette’s school-wide success in special education. At Lafayette, students with disabilities are an integral part of the community, and their needs are openly discussed. A disability is simply seen as part of a student’s unique expression of their strengths and weaknesses.

It’s no surprise then that students with disabilities at Lafayette outperform their peers elsewhere in the district and state.

Lafayette is one of the city’s oldest schools, established in 1867. When their enrollment dropped in the 1970s, they developed a range of programs to attract more families, including one for special education. Lafayette now serves around 550 students from kindergarten to fifth grade, and 16% of students at Lafayette receive special education services. Around 30 of these students are deaf and hard-of-hearing.

As of the 2016-17 school year, around half of Lafayette’s students with disabilities were on grade level in math and reading, compared with about 18% of students with disabilities in the San Francisco Unified School District and just 13% statewide. By third grade, most of its deaf and hard-of-hearing students are reading and doing math at grade level and beyond.

In 2016, these strong results helped the school earn a rare Blue Ribbon award, honoring schools that “have demonstrated considerable improvement in the performance of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

What is the secret to success?

There are many things that the team at Lafayette does that drive their school’s success. Most important: it’s not just one teacher doing this all by themselves. Every single person on the team works together to help serve students best and they’ve built strong systems to help them do that.

Inclusion makes every student feel welcome

Inclusion is at the heart of Lafayette’s culture – both in word and practice. The school’s goal is for students with disabilities to be in general education classrooms with other students as much as possible. When you look into a classroom, it’s hard to tell which students have disabilities. About half of deaf and hard-of-hearing students spend their entire school day in general education classes and activities, with a visiting teacher who occasionally provides specialized instruction for students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. The other half split their time between special classes with their deaf and hard-of-hearing peers and general education classes. Each year, Lafayette participates in national “Inclusion Week”, in which students discuss and write about what inclusion means to them and how they’ve felt included or excluded.

Lafayette’s key to success – investing in teachers

Lafayette has more teaching staff with training in special education than many other schools of its size. Caceres has prioritized hiring fully certified teachers over paraprofessionals with less training and expertise. He says their expertise has led to more rigorous instruction.

“This was one of the biggest things when I first came here,” said Caceres. “I wanted to put more adults who know what they’re doing in front of our kids.” Caceres took advantage of the flexibility he had in his budget to put more adults in the classroom. That meant hiring fewer paraprofessionals and more resource specialist (RSP) teachers with a full teaching credential in special education.

As a result, Caceres says that special education teachers at Lafayette have a much smaller caseload than usual. Overall, in addition to 22 general education teachers, the school also has three special day class teachers, three resource specialists, and 10 paraprofessionals, all focused primarily on special education. Lafayette also employs a range of other specialists according to its students’ needs in any given year, including speech therapists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists.

Lafayette also partners with both San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco to have at least 10 student teachers each year (with 13 planned for the 2017-2018 school year). This ensures that there are plenty of caring adults ready to help students with disabilities as they navigate the curriculum. It also creates a pipeline of new teachers who have already developed skills and relationships within the school community.

Lafayette also regularly supports teachers’ professional development. Teachers regularly observe each other and provide feedback. They analyze student work together in in-house professional development sessions and are encouraged to lead in areas they are passionate about, including going to external training or bringing in trainers.

When general and special education teachers collaborate, students win

In addition to three “special day” classes for students who need additional support outside the general education classroom, Lafayette has specified inclusion classrooms at each grade level, in which special education teachers and general education teachers co-teach. These teachers use the same curriculum and plan together how they’ll teach it each week. All have been carefully selected to ensure they are prepared to work together. They are also trained in the “Power of Two” approach, which focuses on effective ways for teachers to co-teach.

Great special education is simply great education

Many of Lafayette’s special education strategies make instruction more effective for all students, not only those with disabilities. Caceres says this is intentional. “We want the paraprofessionals to make that transition from ‘I’m just serving Peter’ to ‘I’m serving everybody,” he said. “We want them to be thinking ‘I’m going to focus on Peter and make sure he’s getting what he needs, but I’m going to be able to have a relationship with every student in this class’.”

This also extends to curriculum. Teachers receive training in Universal Design Learning (UDL). Instead of adapting curriculum only for students with disabilities, this approach encourages teachers to design lessons from the beginning in a way that makes them accessible to every student – a model for “personalized learning” that benefits all students.

Over time, parents of Lafayette students without disabilities began noticing how the extra support of special education instruction benefited their children too. “We have a lot of parents asking us, “Can my kid without a disability be in a co-taught class too?” said Caceres. “It kind of becomes contagious.”

Students receive support, while also learning to advocate for their own needs

Even with all this provided support, Lafayette also makes sure to encourage student independence. Caceres knows that in order for students with disabilities to succeed academically in the future, they need to learn how to take care of themselves. To set these students up for long-term success, he focuses on giving students the tools they need to help themselves. “In two years, I want these students to be able to survive in a mainstream class,” said Caceres. “Their disability is not going away, but what they need from us is to learn how they can scaffold their own learning over time.”


At around 4th and 5th grade, staff and school leaders begin conversations with students with disabilities about how they can best manage their disability even without extra support. “Instead of only saying ‘They need this extra thing’ or ‘We need to modify this more’, I also want to ask, ‘How can they take control of their own learning?’” said Caceres.