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“Never Act With Emotion”: Evaluating Issues in Special Education Policy

By Christian Kazianka


atherine Wallace was born in a small community in Wisconsin in 1977. When she was four-years-old, her parents divorced and her mother married Wallace’s step-father. In a search of job opportunities, her family moved to Costa Mesa, California. In Costa Mesa, her mother and step-father made the decision to become foster parents. They were foster parents for about a decade, fostering a total of 56 children. Her parents quickly gained notoriety within the foster care community as being willing to take-in children that were considered to be “at-risk.”

During her family’s time fostering children, they were given a child with respiratory problems. This forced the family to move up the coast to Lompoc, California, in a search for healthier air quality. This child was the first of six foster children to be adopted into Wallace’s family — all of whom were of different races and possessed mental and physical disabilities ranging in severity. 

Katherine’s background inspired her to address issues in special education throughout college and her career. She received her bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Chapman University and her teaching credentials from California Polytechnic State University. Wallace is currently approaching her third year as the principal of Maple Continuation High School. She previously served 13 years as an education specialist and special education department chair at Cabrillo High School, two years as a consulting teacher for the Lompoc Apprentice Teacher Support System, and five years as a principal for a special education summer school program.

Throughout her career, she has worked on state and local levels to battle traditional educational institutions and traditional thought processes. When asked about her contributions to policy changes surrounding her work, she responded, “I feel like I work on policy daily in the alternative education world.”

As the principal of Maple Continuation High School high school, she is a highly trained field expert who serves as a representative to the Dashboard Alternative School Status. She described this organization as being an accountability measure that uses state indicators to identify a school’s strengths, weaknesses, and areas that are in need of improvement. She explained that it is challenging to make an actual difference on this large of a scale because she is forced to compete with representatives from more than 500 other schools and the needs of all of the students that attend these other schools. She attributes the hardships that she faces because she is working for the most underrepresented students in California.

“For other schools,” she explains, “it is easier to tell students’ progression because they usually stay there for their entire four years of high school. For students, they are there because they have mental health issues, they are in and out of juvenile hall, they are in military families, they are credit deficient, and they have other family issues. It is very difficult to measure growth on test scores and attendance because it is obvious that these kids have things going on that prevent them from coming to school regularly. It’s difficult to measure a students growth when you’ve only had them for 90 days.” Her mission is to find out a way to measure her students’ growth without having to rely on the traditional indicators that are used by the California Department of Education.

Wallace also explains the ways in which she affects policy changes on a local level. She attends every Lompoc Unified School District board meeting and constantly reads policy changes that affect her, the members of her staff, or the students that attend her school. She said, “If I feel like it’s time for a change, I stand up and say ‘I’d like to propose a policy change.’ Then I go and research the reasons why and I take it to my supervisor. It’s a lengthy process.”

She has received recognition from several high-ranking members of the school district for the dedication she puts into her work. One remark that she often looks back on for encouragement was expressed by Kathi Froemming, assistant superintendent of education services. Froemming said, “We knew Katherine was making a change when she started to show up on every board meeting agenda. We knew she had something to say, over and over and over again.”

On an even smaller scale, Wallace pushed forward policy changes within Cabrillo High School when she served as the department chair of special education. She battled the principal and tenured teachers to ensure that things were done legally and that these processes followed the rules established by the California Education Code. She stated that her work was able to save the school a lot of money and a lot of time. She described the most difficult aspect of her work being changing the mindsets of people who were comfortable with continuing with the status quo, even if the status quo was not fair to the faculty and students of the school.

Wallace explains her own thought process when it comes to her fight towards better policies. She says, “It is always an uphill battle, but when you’re doing it for the right reasons, [not so much]. Every day I ask myself this question, ‘is what I did in the best interest of the kids?’ And if it is not in the best interest of the kids, then I need to go back and refine the path that I’m on. Reflect and refine.”

She offers two pieces of advice for those who wish to reform existing institutions. She says, “Never act with emotion. And always ask yourself, ‘Is the house burning?’ If the house is not burning then there is no need to hit the panic button.” Being able to maintain her composure in stressful situations has given her the power to remain an effective leader. She says that because of her strong leadership and for other people’s willingness to adapt to current times, “Maple High School has changed from a ghetto continuation high school to a reputable school where we teach students ‘real-world’ skills and how to get to college and this is why my graduation rate has increased by 30-percent in just one year.”



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