Spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion en­roll­ment is up, but no one can say why

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - News - BY MICHAEL FINCH II [email protected]

Neda Ra­heem is a 34year-old mother of twin boys and a physi­cian as­sis­tant. Her boys seemed nor­mal and healthy at first, but when they were 14 months old, doc­tors sensed they might have a con­di­tion.

“They didn’t have any prob­lems hear­ing but a lot of prob­lems with move­ment,” Ra­heem said. “They didn’t like to be in a swing and they didn’t like their hands, es­pe­cially, to be touched.”

The boys were di­ag­nosed with autism and cere­bral palsy. Three months into preschool, the fam­ily moved from West Sacra­mento to Elk Grove in part be­cause the schools of­fer more op­tions for spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion stu­dents.

It’s the type of de­ci­sion par­ents across the Cen­tral Val­ley are fac­ing with in­creas­ing reg­u­lar­ity, as autism di­ag­noses soar and par­ents seek class­rooms with bet­ter op­tions for their chil­dren.

Spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion en­roll­ment has surged in the last decade, with more than 96,000 stu­dents pour­ing into school dis­tricts across the state, ac­cord­ing to data from the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion.

One of the driv­ers has been a marked in­crease in stu­dents with autism and other be­hav­ioral de­lays, a Bee anal­y­sis shows. At the same time, the num­ber of stu­dents with other dis­abil­i­ties grew mod­estly or de­creased be­tween the 2009 and 2018 school years.

Al­though the trend is un­de­ni­able, no one can say ex­actly why it’s hap­pen­ing.

The an­swer, ac­cord­ing to re­searchers, so­cial ser­vice providers and ed­u­ca­tion ad­min­is­tra­tors could be wrapped up in a num­ber of over­lap­ping fac­tors. Out­pac­ing pop­u­la­tion growth, the surge has put pres­sure on some school dis­trict bud­gets and ad­min­is­tra­tive sup­port sys­tems in the Cen­tral Val­ley and be­yond.

State and fed­eral fund­ing have not kept up with the shift in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion en­roll­ment, forc­ing school dis­tricts from Sacra­mento to Fresno to dig deeper into their gen­eral funds to pay as the num­ber of stu­dents swells.

“If you look at the pop­u­la­tion of kids that are clas­si­fied as spe­cial ed, that num­ber hasn’t re­ally changed,” said Erika Hoff­man, a lob­by­ist for the Cal­i­for­nia School Boards As­so­ci­a­tion. “It’s the con­cen­tra­tion of stu­dents within that num­ber and that’s where it’s af­fected a lot of schools be­cause ser­vices for stu­dents with autism can be very ex­pen­sive.”

The in­creased preva­lence of autism has been a med­i­cal mys­tery for years.

Aware­ness has grown, ex­perts say. Teach­ers are trained to rec­og­nize the dis­or­der. And in 2013, the med­i­cal def­i­ni­tion of autism was changed, group­ing a num­ber of con­di­tions like Asperger’s syn­drome and per­va­sive de­vel­op­ment dis­or­der un­der the um­brella of autism.

Re­cent es­ti­mates from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion said the preva­lence of autism spec­trum dis­or­der jumped 16 per­cent be­tween 2012 and 2014. Al­though the med­i­cal and ed­u­ca­tion def­i­ni­tions are not the same, Cal­i­for­nia schools saw an 18 per­cent in­crease in autism en­roll­ment for the same pe­riod.

But or­ga­ni­za­tions like the MIND In­sti­tute at UC Davis have been work­ing to bring the two def­i­ni­tions closer to­gether by train­ing teach­ers and other pro­fes­sion­als to iden­tify the symp­toms.

“The in­crease isn’t just in Cal­i­for­nia but it is na­tion­wide, prob­a­bly world­wide,” said Aubyn Stah­mer, who over­sees com­mu­nity treat­ment re­search at the MIND In­sti­tute. “The di­ag­nos­tic def­i­ni­tions have broad­ened a lit­tle bit and that ex­plains some of it and aware­ness has re­ally in­creased quite a bit.”

FUND­ING CHAL­LENGE

In re­quir­ing school dis­tricts to of­fer spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion, the fed­eral govern­ment agreed to pay about 40 per­cent of the per stu­dent cost. Hoff­man said the re­al­ity has often been much less, be­tween 12 and 15 per­cent of the cost.

The state chips in for 30 per­cent and school dis­tricts are on the hook for the rest.

In his first bud­get, Gov. Gavin New­som ac­knowl­edged the short­com­ings in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing

and di­rected $576 mil­lion to schools — about onethird of which is a one­time pay­ment, ac­cord­ing to a re­leased spend­ing plan. It’s un­clear, how­ever, if the pro­posed bud­get for spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion would be con­se­quen­tial in clos­ing the fund­ing gap.

In the Fresno Uni­fied School Dis­trict, spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion ac­counts for about 14 per­cent of its bud­get. In the last decade, state ed­u­ca­tion data shows en­roll­ment jumped by 6 per­cent but the share of stu­dents with autism climbed nearly three-fold.

Su­san Kal­pakoff, Fresno Uni­fied’s spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram man­ager, said stu­dents are not nec­es­sar­ily flock­ing to the dis­trict from other places but a lot of them are younger than 5 years old.

“Are more re­sources re­quired or needed for our stu­dents with autism? The an­swer is yes,” Kal­pakoff said. “When we look at all the el­i­gi­bil­i­ties of stu­dents, there are groups of (dis­abil­i­ties) — autism be­ing one — that re­quire more spe­cial­ized un­der­stand­ing and train­ing.”

Kal­pakoff sees an up­side in the in­crease. If there are more stu­dents be­ing di­ag­nosed, she said it shows the school sys­tem must be do­ing a good job iden­ti­fy­ing chil­dren in need.

Of­fi­cials with the Elk Grove Uni­fied School Dis­trict, the fifth largest in the state, say they’ve seen more par­ents ar­rive with 3- to 5-year-old chil­dren who have al­ready been di­ag­nosed in an­other school dis­trict. “Our bud­get is im­pacted by the in­crease in 3- and 4-yearolds be­cause there is no fund­ing for that early ed­u­ca­tion age-group, so we have to look at repri­or­i­tiz­ing pro­grams,” said dis­trict spokes­woman Xan­thi Pinker­ton.

“We are hav­ing to do more to re­cruit teach­ers, and in some cases, we are help­ing to cover the cost of cre­den­tial­ing cur­rent staff in­ter­ested in be­com­ing spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion teach­ers.”

Par­ents will move if a dis­trict of­fers the right ser­vices and some cater to those stu­dents’ needs bet­ter than oth­ers, said Dave Gor­don, su­per­in­ten­dent of the Sacra­mento County Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion.

Re­search has shown early in­ter­ven­tion is more likely to im­prove a child’s out­comes, so it’s likely par­ents will grav­i­tate to those places, Gor­don said. “In Elk Grove, I know they’ve set up a very broad-based set of ser­vices for preschool age (stu­dents), which is not as com­mon.”

While Ra­heem’s fam­ily moved into Elk Grove for help from the schools, her twins’ con­di­tions are more com­pli­cated than most. When the twins were di­ag­nosed, the doc­tor told Ra­heem their mo­tor func­tions were lag­ging, fur­ther hold­ing them back. They were also di­ag­nosed with cere­bral palsy.

Even with the abun­dant pro­grams, Ra­heem dis­agreed with some of the school’s treat­ment plans. She placed the boys in full-time be­hav­ioral ther­apy late last year to bet­ter ad­dress the needs of the over­lap­ping di­ag­noses.

“I could not get what I felt my kids needed the most,” Ra­heem said, “so I had to make that de­ci­sion and take them out of the pub­lic school sys­tem.”

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