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Special education students increasing, funding diminishing


There are 17,000 students in the San Diego Unified School District who are in special education programs. These programs provide students with disabilities extra help. The federal government requires school districts to provide special education services, but it doesn’t pick up much of the tab. And the funding it does provide could be diminishing soon. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.


At Field Elementary in Clairemont Mesa, some special education teachers help a child who has cerebral palsy. They place the boy, named Dante, in a harness that is suspended from the ceiling.


 Teacher: “Can you give a big smile? Yeah we’re going to watch you work. We’re gonna watch you work. All right.”


The harness allows Dante to play with pots, pans, and other items that are attached to a bulletin board. For a few moments, Dante can move around freely…something he just can’t do on the ground.


Next door, there’s a darkened room filled with fiber optic columns and strings of multi-colored lights. Teacher Kathleen Wood says the room is specially designed for medically fragile students like Dante.


Kathleen Wood: “It provides them with a lot of multi-sensory stimulation. We have a water bed that vibrates to music, and they have these fiber optics hanging down in front of them, so they can play with those, and reach up and grab them. You see a lot of movement that we may not normally see, while they’re just kind of 

sitting in their wheelchairs.”


Field Elementary has two classes of medically fragile students. These children have multiple disabilities, and they require intense services throughout the day. But plenty of other students in special education programs may just need a little extra help.   


Deanne Rodhe is the principal at Field. She says all students with learning or emotional disabilities get a thorough assessment when they come to school.


Deanne Rodhe: “We take children as they come across our threshold, we analyze what it is they need, and figure out how to meet those needs to move them forward.”


San Diego Unified has the second largest population of special education students in California. Roxie Jackson is the district’s executive director of special education. She says in recent years, San Diego schools have seen a big increase in students with learning disabilities.


Roxie Jackson: “We’ve also had students who have serious emotional disturbance, who need intense services in that area. So mental health services have been very critical to what we do. The increase in autism, students identified with autism has also I think, 300 percent increase over the last couple of years, so that’s also made a huge impact.”


Eight campuses in the district have special classes for medically fragile students. There’s one school that’s exclusively for children with severe emotional disabilities. But nearly every school has students who need physical or speech therapy.


Jackson says regardless of a child’s disability, the district tries to educate them close to home.


 Jackson: “We really try to have the students attend their neighborhood school, however, there are some students where we have to cluster programs because the population is so small. But we still try to keep it in the geographical area, so the student is in their neighborhood and with their peers.


Congress has required school districts to provide special services, ever since it passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975. At that time, lawmakers promised the federal government would cover 40 percent of the costs.  San Diego spends about $210-million a year on special education programs. The feds pay only about 12 percent of that bill.  And their contribution could shrink.


 The Bush Administration wants to cut Medicaid reimbursements to schools by $650-million nationwide. Medicaid funds pay for medical and transportation services to low-income special education students.                                             


Arun Ramanathan is the director of government relations for San Diego schools.


Arun Ramanathan: “I mean a child who can’t walk up the stairs of his school building or can’t access his classroom because of a physical impairment, they need those therapies. If the federal government restricts the ability of school districts, either in the area of transportation or in administration, this could impact in many ways the quality of special education services that are provided.”


Another proposed federal rule would require schools to obtain parental permission each time they provided medical services to a disabled student.                           


Carole Phillips is the school nurse at Field Elementary. She performs dozens of procedures every day, from suctioning to breathing treatments. Currently, she has to get parental permission only once a year


Carole Phillips: “And then if I had to get permission from the parent for every time I did this, it would just be an incredible amount of paperwork.”


Federal officials say changes are needed because some districts over-bill the government. If the Medicaid cuts go through, the district would still have to provide medical and transportation services for the disabled. District officials say the cuts could force them to shortchange other programs. Special education advocates have been lobbying against the changes. The Department of Health and Human Services could implement them in October.


Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.


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