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New special education chief focused on inclusivity, classroom equity

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Special Education Chief Jean Robertson sits inside the Special Education Services building in the Sunset on Feb. 8, 2018. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Jean Robertson’s leadership style is summed up by her email signature: “Wholly committed in the relentless pursuit of whatever works in the life of a child.”

Robertson has amassed an arsenal of experiences and accolades during her 24-year career with the San Francisco Unified School District, which has focused largely on advocating for students with disabilities. This month, she assumed the position of Chief of Special Education, which requires her to provide leadership and oversight to the redesign of special education services, programming and resources, among other things.

For those who have crossed paths with Robertson, 52, the new position represents a significant step on the part of the district in closing the achievement gap.

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“Throughout her career, Jean has shown herself to be an advocate for students and for social justice,” said SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews. “We know that her continued student-centered focus will have a positive impact for our students with disabilities.”

Robertson steps into her new role amid major reforms planned in special education classrooms across the state. Last year, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing proposed additional training for prospective teachers in an effort to prepare them to work with all students, including those with disabilities.

The additional training is meant to improve classroom equity and learning outcomes for marginalized students by creating more inclusive classrooms — a philosophy Robertson has preached for years.

Over the last 15 years, Robertson, a native of the Pawtucket, R.I., has served as principal at both Grattan Elementary School and Glen Park School, where she advocated for special education programs, focused on recruiting and retaining teachers and implemented student-first policies that stretched far beyond the classroom. In 2016, Robertson was honored with the Mayor’s Principal of the Year award.

Robertson said she has always gravitated toward serving children with special needs.

“Anybody that presented slightly out of what you would consider a typically developing child intrigued me as a human,” Robertson said. “I wanted to be a part of their journey.”

In 1994, the mother of two was hired by the SFUSD as a special education teacher at James Lick Middle School. After earning a master’s degree in administration from San Francisco State University in 1999, she was hired as dean of students at Luther Burbank Middle School and a year later moved on to leading Grattan Elementary as its principal.

Robertson worked to build diversity and community at Grattan in an effort to encourage local families to embrace the neighborhood school. She first shook up the school’s morning routine: Instead of requiring students to participate in a school-wide pledge of allegiance, she instituted a morning circle, in which teachers read poetry and played music and students shared art or writing projects. The routine inspired parent participation.

“I built this space where people wanted to be,” she said.

More than a decade later, Robertson brought a similar morning assembly and special education lens to Glen Park School, where she served as principal for the past five years.

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“She would have the [student with disabilities] up in front of everybody — she’d always invite their opinions and ideas on things in front of everyone,” said April Atencio, a social worker at Glen Park. “They really got to feel the love.”

At both schools, Robertson worked to integrate students with disabilities in general education classrooms by creating a culture that placed less weight on labels and more on curriculum tailored to meet the students’ varying needs.

“There has always been this notion in general education that if a kid isn’t moving along with your crew, there’s some other place else for that kid to be,” she said. “It’s wrong.”

A program serving children with autism was expanded under Robertson’s leadership at Grattan and included the installation of a $25,000 playground structure that was intended to bridge the gap between autistic students and the rest of the student body.

At Glen Park, Robertson overhauled homework policies to allow parents to opt out, hired several blind staff members and spearheaded an effort to bring a new wellness center to the school.

Robertson has always believed in giving her staff the resources they needed “to do their job” — particularly in notoriously hard to staff special education positions, she said.

“You’ve got to find really strong special education teachers. You have to build them, feed them and take care of them,” she said. “You’ve got to invest in them completely.”

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