Q&A: OCDE special education chief retires after 50 years in education

The same year OCDE’s Dennis Roberson began his career in education, Andy Griffith left Mayberry, the Beatles cut the White Album and moviegoers rode shotgun with Steve McQueen in “Bullitt.”

Dennis RobersonRoberson started as a general education teacher in 1968, but like McQueen’s iconic Mustang, his career would take a few accelerated turns and detours in the years and decades that followed. He taught physical education and recreation to students with significant disabilities before becoming a program specialist, a professor at Cal State Long Beach, a site liaison for OCDE’s autism program and later a principal.

These days, he’s best known as the OCDE’s chief of Special Education Services, a role he’s held since 2007. But after devoting 50 years to public schools and students of all backgrounds and abilities, Roberson now has his sights set on retirement. His last day is Aug. 3, just a few days after OCDE General Counsel Ron Wenkart retires.

“It has been great to work for the department,” he said. “I think they’ve given me so many opportunities.”

The OCDE Newsroom recently sat down with Roberson to talk about his career, his future plans and the trajectory of special education.


For starters, congratulations on your upcoming retirement.

Well, thank you.

What has been the most gratifying part of your work?

To be honest with you, it’s looking at the students and the kind of progress that our kids make. I’m a little more removed from students now than when I was a principal or a teacher, but you can still see the progress when our kids come to our board meetings, staff meetings or when I see their parents. I think the other thing is the mentorship that we’re able to provide to young teachers and administrators coming up. I mean, it’s really a great thing.

Tell us about OCDE’s Special Schools program and the population it serves.

In our Special Schools program, we’re serving about 410 students right now. At one time, we had over 800.

The students we serve are the 1-percent students, those with the most significant disabilities. Historically, they were more medically fragile students and more severely behaviorally involved students, but that’s kind of evolved to where, now, our students are more the students with significant behaviors, and we’re seeing more students with emotional issues as well as those significant behavioral issues or cognitive issues and not as many of the more severely physically disabled students.

So that’s been a pretty significant change over the years?

Yes. The more severely disabled students are now more included in either their home schools or district schools that provide services for them rather than big, isolated centers where they used to be in the past. So that’s the big difference, I think, is the least restrictive settings. Students are more included.

That’s a requirement of federal law, correct, to serve students in the least restrictive environments to the extent possible?

Yes. And it has been an evolution. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act came about in the mid-1970s to provide educational services to students with disabilities because some students were being excluded.

We have since been moving to serve students with disabilities in the (general education) environment, and this is furthered by initiatives like MTSS (the Multi-tiered System of Support), which provides core supports for all students, additional assistance for some and targeted interventions for those with the greatest needs. The theme for MTSS is “All means all,” and that is certainly inclusive of our special populations.

Is there an aspect of special education or serving students with special needs that you feel is misunderstood?

Where the misunderstandings come is the lack of communication with parents. When we fall down there, that creates issues with attorneys and all those folks. But I think we do a lot better job at that now. In fact, we had that discussion last week that some of our districts are seeing far fewer due process hearings now, basically meaning they’re providing programs and communicating with parents much more effectively. So that’s a good sign.

In addition to serving our own students, OCDE’s division also works with districts?

Yeah, we do. Geographically, we have more SEPLAs (Special Education Local Plan Area consortiums that provide services within specific regions) than probably any place in the state. So we meet regularly, and on a monthly basis the SELPA directors meet, and we’re a part of that meeting. So we try to keep in tune with what the district and the SELPAs are doing and then coordinate our efforts with them.

We’ve also offered training programs. Our Success Program that started back in the mid-’90s was basically the beginning of the autism programs, and we did the training out of our office. The districts and SELPAs began to expand on that, and that’s where we are right now.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge of your career?

Keeping up with the law has been the major challenge because that’s not what we were trained to do. And we’ve had to kind of retrain ourselves and have a good, close working relationship with our attorneys. I think that’s the biggest learning curve that I’ve had to make — and I think most special educators would say that.

I imagine it requires consistent professional development to keep up.

Oh, yeah. There are a lot of training opportunities and periodicals that come in. You have to keep up on all of those things. Colleagues have also played a critical role. We’ve all been kind of at the same place and been able to work with each other as we moved forward.

What do you think is the future of special education? Do you see any emerging trends?

Well, I know that one of the things is getting closer to the general education classroom. I would hope that we would look at it in a more academic way in terms of how we’re affecting all students. And, by that, I mean I think if our class sizes would get down into manageable levels, if we could get down into the low 20s, then I think we could serve all populations in the gen ed classrooms with supports all the way through. But I don’t know when we’ll get to that — or if we ever will.

You obviously are in favor of less restrictive environments.

I think it’s better for all students. Any student — whether they’re deaf or whether they’re visually impaired or autistic — it doesn’t isolate them. And I think that’s what I would like to see happen. I think it’s moving in that direction.

What are your future plans?

Well, I’m wrestling with this all the time. I would like to go back to school and take a sign language class, maybe at Saddleback College. I understand they have some good programs there. I’d like to take a Spanish class. I’d like to do some things like that. I’m not a big traveler. I’ll be spending time with my family, including my Golden Retriever, Babe. And I have an old Volkswagen van I want to restore so I’m going to do that.

What are your reflections on your career with OCDE?

It has been great to work for the department. I think they’ve given me so many opportunities. It’s through the department that I’ve been able to put my children through college, been able to really see the world a little bit differently in terms of all the things I’ve been given the opportunity to do. And then, all the people that I’ve been able to work with over the years, in all of the divisions. I think right now it’s the best I’ve ever seen it in terms of the collaboration between the units. And it’s pretty intense with all the things that people have to do.

What is your departing message for newer educators, particularly in special education?

Well, I would say don’t limit yourself. Look at opportunities in all areas because there may be something out there that will be able to help you in whatever your vision might be as an educator.