Dr. Gabriel Gutiérrez brings a wealth of experience to his new role this year as Interim Director of Special Education for the Hollister School District.
Gutiérrez was a school psychologist in the district last year. In August, he was appointed to the interim director role.
Prior to joining the district, he spent 14 years as a school psychologist with the San Diego Unified School District and as a faculty member for eight years at San Diego State University. Prior to that, he was a social worker assisting vulnerable youths and taught at a community college for about 10 years. He has a PhD in education and school psychology.
“My goal is to make sure that we are meeting the needs of students and working as partners, and that students have access to the core curriculum like any other student,” Gutiérrez said.
As Interim Director of Special Education, Gutiérrez oversees the program while working with school staff members and administrators to ensure the district meets the instructional needs of students who have individualized education programs, or IEPs. The role also entails working with staff to provide professional development opportunities and to ensure compliance, he said.
The district has 86 classified staff in the Special Education Department and another 51 certificated staff. There are 750 students receiving specialized academic instruction or related services, he noted.
Gutiérrez explained his perspective on special education as a service to students with disabilities who have IEPs and may need specialized academic instruction and/or related services like language and speech services, occupational therapy and educationally related mental health services, among others.
“How can we construct their programs so they can be successful, so they can continue to access the core curriculum like their peers?” he said. “Students with exceptional needs are also students who are in general education. They are general education students with a layer of additional support offered through their IEPs.”
He said that also means providing access to accommodations and in some cases modifications that are needed to enable students with IEPs to access the curriculum and meet expectations.
“The goal is to ensure we meet the needs of students despite challenges,” he said. “When IEP teams work collaboratively to address the needs of students with exceptional needs, there can be a range of services a child may need, a continuum of services.”
Gutiérrez said the district understands the need to support inclusive practices and ensure students have access to the core curriculum. For example, with the use of co-teaching, special education and general education teachers work together, plan together and teach together to support all students. He said this type of approach has resulted in higher achievement in multiple areas, including math and reading.
He said over the past few years, there have been significant improvements across the board. The prior special education director instituted changes to make sure the district maintains compliance and improves instructional strategies.
“Additionally, we want to make sure we’re having conversations with families, gathering input and continuing to partner with families,” he said.
Gutiérrez acknowledged there are ongoing challenges experienced here and elsewhere.
“I think in general, like in every other district across California and in other states, there is a shortage of staff,” he said. “We need to work with our local partners and recruiters and universities—and continue to build partnerships so we can continue to bring in staff and teachers and school psychologists to meet the needs of students.”
Overall, he emphasized his focus on meeting students’ needs and said the staff members who work with special education students are highly qualified.
“They believe in the work we do and they believe in students,” he said. “Personally, I am thankful for their continued hard work to meet the demands.”