Special Education Series: Q & A with Valentin Escanuela, a San Diego Principal

I believe in a free and public educational system that has a moral obligation to meet the needs of all students. The topic of special education is one that is very important as I have been a parent on the receiving end, and as an educator, I have represented the school system working with parents and students through each step of the process. A student qualifies for special education, after a number of tests, verifies that the student has some kind of learning discrepancy acting as a barrier to them reaching their academic potential. The goal of special education is to provide each student with individualized supports through an Individual Education Plan (IEP) so that the barrier is overcome and students can reach their potential at which point they would exit special education.

Recently, I was meeting with Principal Valentin Escanuela, who works with youth in juvenile court and community schools. These youth are either in the community under the direct supervision of probation, as opposed to being in a detention facility, or are students whose needs were not met in the traditional public school system. Most students are in high school while some are in middle school. During a recent meeting, we were interrupted by a teacher who needed him to meet with an Iranian student who walked into local adult classes happening in the same building.

The student, an Iranian refugee, has been in the country for a year and with the school for approximately 4 months. Valentin explained that the student has experienced an extreme amount of trauma and exhibits a lack of social awareness, lack of situational appropriateness, and invasion of personal space which are impacting his learning and relationships with peers. Valentin has already held numerous student study team (SST) meetings. The SST consists of the school principal, the school counselor, teachers, and can include psychologists and special education teachers. The SST discussed the student’s behavior, academic progress and plans supports and interventions to help the student. Ultimately, the team has made the recommendation for an assessment referral to determine if the student is eligible for special education services.

Although I’ve known Valentin for over three years, this was the first time we broached the subject of special education. As he spoke, I was impressed by his knowledge and passionate commitment to ensuring that students in his path would be provided the services they need and deserve without passing the student along like a problem for someone else to solve. Valentin has been in education for 14 years, all with alternative education. He spent his first three years working with youth in a detention facility, seven years as a community school teacher, and has served in an administrator role for the past four years.     

Together we agreed to work on a short series of blogs. This first will highlight his experience with special education as a teacher and focus on his advice for teachers and parents. The second focus on advice for site administrators and parents. The third focus on his advice for school systems and parents. I’m looking forward to this series as I know we all have a lot to learn from his experience.

Valentin, please share with our readers why you became a teacher.

“I was born and raised in East Los Angeles, and I’m a product of the public school system.  I never thought much about it while I was growing up, but I remember that I was always the kid that people overlooked. I spent 13 years of my life in a public education system where I made only a handful of connections with the adults with whom I spent the majority of my time. I saw kids dropping out, getting involved with gangs, drugs, and engaging in risky behavior, and none of the adults in our school seemed to care. The more I think about it the more it angers me. The schools could have done so much more to make students feel welcomed, loved, and appreciated. I had friends and family members that struggled in school, that needed more than what they were getting, yet some of them never had a chance as their behavior placed labels on them that would lead to their academic demise. As a school administrator, I have an obligation and responsibility to ensure that all students academic and socio emotional needs are met.”

Can you please explain what parents should expect once their child has an IEP?

“Once a child qualifies for special education services a parent must understand their Procedural Safeguards and their child’s Individualized Education Plan. This will enhance a students classroom experience as the IEP guarantees needed supports and modifications for student success. A parent has every right to call a meeting at any time throughout the year to discuss and/or review their child’s progress.”

What do you want teachers to know about special education or students who qualify for SPED services?

“I’ll keep this question simple and address all students. I want teachers  to know that kids want to feel like you care. Kids want you to take time to ask them about how their day is going or how their weekend was. They want to feel like they belong regardless of their academic standing or ability. Therefore, your role as an educator is not just to teach, you have a responsibility to your students, their parents, and the community to ensure that you are doing everything in your power to ensure your students’ success in school and beyond the walls of your classroom.  Learning disabilities often translate into behavior problems due to the students inability to perform academically without the right supports. These students are usually sent out of the classroom and are labeled as “those students;” something that further alienates them and disconnects them from school. The more you take time to connect with students when they are struggling the most, the more information you’ll have to address the whole child in order make them feel like they belong and meet their academic and socio emotional needs. Connection with students often translates into student motivation knowing that you are on their side and want them to succeed.”

What are some things that teachers and parents ask themselves or the school system when considering special education?


  • How am I using time in my day to intentionally connect with students?
  • How can I connect with students during instructional time?
  • Am I taking time to connect with students when they are struggling the most?
  • How is this student’s behavior or socio emotional state affecting their learning?
  • What structures and supports have I put in place in order to address the needs of my students?
  • Have I exhausted my ability to support this child in my classroom? How do I know?
  • Have I exhausted all school resources to support this child in my classroom? How do I know?
  • Do I have a clear understanding of the supports and modifications detailed by the IEP of my special education students?
  • How am  I communicating student successes with parents?
  • How can I involve parents as active participants in my students’ learning? Problem solving?


  • How is the teacher using his/her time to connect with my child?
  • How is the school maximizing their resources to support my child?
  • What structures and supports does the teacher have in place in order to support my child?
  • How do I know that my child is receiving educational services detailed in his/her IEP?
  • How well does the teacher/school know my child’s strengths and areas of growth?  How do they know this?
  • How is the teacher monitoring and communicating my child’s progress?
  • How does the school/teacher communicate with me? Positive calls? Negative calls only?
  • Is the school involving me as a resource and active participant in my child’s education?
What do you think?

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Marisol Rerucha

Marisol Rerucha

Marisol Quevedo Rerucha is a passionate mother of women, Chicana, educational leader, creator, writer, and advocate. She lives in San Diego, California where she and her husband Daniel raised their three daughters (Camerina, Emilia, and Sophia) and first held their granddaughter (Isabella Luna). Marisol was a middle and high school English teacher, an elementary school assistant principal and principal, an alternative charter high school director, and leads the career technical education and career readiness programs for youth in juvenile court and community schools. She also serves as an inter-State Board Member for a charter high school system in Colorado focused on personalized learning, and on the UNIDOS US National Institute for Latino School Leaders Alumni Council.

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