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Parents of special-education students in San Diego may not always agree with how the school district educates their children, but they know whom to call when they have a problem, and their phone calls are routinely returned.

And when the school district wants to get information out to those families, it has several tools to do so — including emails, texts and robocalls — so that everyone gets the same information at the same time.

That wasn’t always the case in the San Diego Unified School District, the second-largest school system in California, which serves some 15,000 students in special education.

And it’s certainly not true in Seattle, where parents sometimes wait weeks for return phone calls and struggle to even determine what services are offered at what schools.

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San Diego embarked about six years ago on its own improvement plan, focused on boosting students’ academic achievement and increasing the time they spend in regular-education classrooms — goals that many Seattle parents share for their own children.

In 2010, about 22 percent of San Diego’s special-education students typically spent more than half of the school day in classes with one another, and not with general-education students. Within two years, San Diego trimmed that number to about 15 percent.

To help accomplish that, San Diego made communication with parents a priority, which required better technology and a districtwide commitment to keep parents in the loop.

San Diego officials learned early that their reforms didn’t stand much of a chance if parents were kept in the dark.

“When we tried to get anything approved by them or any type of buy-in from them after the fact, after a decision had been made, it was always disastrous,” said Joe Fulcher, San Diego’s chief student services officer.

Big turnaround

About eight years ago, parents of special-education students in San Diego felt as much in the dark as many Seattle parents do now.

“It was a big issue with them,” Fulcher said. “They weren’t sure they were being heard, and they didn’t think they had much of a voice.”

San Diego brought in a national consultant and wrote a broad improvement plan that included a number of initiatives to reduce segregation of children with disabilities and raise student achievement.

They also upgraded to an online communications system so they could easily reach special-education parents directly with emails, text messages and automated phone calls.

Officials can target those messages by region, school, grade or even language.

Before the district started using the technology, parents had to rely on diligent principals and teachers to keep them informed, said Christy Scadden, the chair of the community advisory committee for special education.

Now everyone gets the same information at the same time, and if they need more, they know where to get it.

Seattle has the same system, SchoolMessenger, but is not using it to specifically reach special-education families. The district is working on a way to do that now, according to spokeswoman Lesley Rogers.

San Diego also makes sure that parents know whom to call, and provides them with the names, phone numbers and emails of key district staff as well as a chart showing who reports to whom.

“Our in-house policy is that we return all calls and emails within 24 hours,” said Sonia Picos, executive director of the district’s Special Education Division.

She compares it to a successful marriage.

“We’re humans and our work depends on relationships,” Picos said. “If you can’t communicate with one another, I don’t know how you could ever have a positive, healthy thing going.”

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or On Twitter @jhigginsST

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