Jake McBride is autistic and enrolled in the special day program at Excelsior Middle School in Byron, but attends standard classes in physical education, art, music and computer technology. His days are full and productive, but filled with challenges different from his typical peers.
Jake and Malia are two of the thousands of students enrolled in East County’s special-education programs – an amalgamation of classes, curriculums, standards and expectations designed to best meet the directives of the law and the needs of students.
But given the continued cuts to public education, and with much hinging on the passage next month of Proposition 30 (the tax initiative that would help stabilize public-education funding) special-education programs continue to impact – and be impacted by – public education’s changing and ever-challenging financial condition.
The special-education story
Special-education programs are federally mandated under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which requires public-school districts to provide free, appropriate education to students suffering from physical, emotional or educational disabilities. In California, approximately 11 percent of the student population falls into that category – roughly 700,000 students, according to the California Department of Education – putting increased pressure on an already financially strained public-education system.
Since school districts are responsible for the education of special-needs students residing within their boundaries – pulling from their general funds to offset the lack of state and federal funding – educating special-needs students is arguably one of the costliest, most time-consuming components of public education.
“Since the inception of this back in the mid-’70s, the federal government has created a mandate that they have never had any intention of funding,” said Rick Rogers, Oakley Union Elementary School District (OUESD) superintendent. “They just kick the can to the local districts to comply without the funding. So districts everywhere take millions of dollars from general-education programs to fund this unfunded mandate. They are shortchanging both general-education students and special-education students.”
For parents like Jake’s mother Lisa McBride – founder and executive director of the Special Kids Foundation – financial considerations, while real, come second to the needs of their children and their rights under the law. It’s an emotional roller coaster made more difficult for parents faced by the additional burden of advocating for children who cannot advocate for themselves.
“A lot of the problem is that parents don’t know what to ask for,” said McBride. “That and a combination of teachers not knowing the law and what is expected … Parents need to be their children’s advocates – it’s critical, especially at this time with everything that is being cut back.”
And for those whose lives revolve around sustaining and growing their children’s educations, school is a constant round of IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) – a plan outlining strategies, curriculum and goals for individual students – teacher meetings and general advocacy. And for some, the challenge is nearly overwhelming.
“I strongly encourage parents to go to resource groups to meet other parents who have been there, done that,” added McBride. “So they can be informed and empowered when they go into their IEP meetings.”
The emotional component
In addition to the countless challenges that face parents of special-education students is the emotional component, which can turn the mildest parents into fierce defenders – a situation not unique to parenting but compounded by the needs of a special-education child.
“I’ve sat in the back of the room during an IEP with tears,” said Malia’s mother, CiCi Migay. “It’s difficult to have your child seen as a case number and not as a child, and certainly not as a child with potential. I admit it – I’m heart-driven. We are told ‘no’ so often that we feel we have to fight for everything. When you’re sitting in a meeting and talking about your child as a number on a piece of paper, it’s very emotional.”
Today, however, the decades-old stereotypes and stigmas associated with special-education are changing, thanks in part to the efforts of educators who blend their special-and general-education classes where appropriate and create symbiotic relationships that benefit the students, the school budgets and the district.
“I’m very proud to work in a district that respects all students’ abilities,” said Liberty Union School District Superintendent Eric Volta, whose district serves more than 1,000 special-needs students. “Our Special Services faculty and staff truly put every effort into our students’ success in reaching their goals.”
In Oakley, the OUESD serves 740 special-education students at a cost of $5.6 million – $1.7 million of which is pulled from the district’s approximately $30 million general fund. The district also offers regional programs that allow other school districts to send students to OUESD. The regional programs provide additional income to the district and help offset expenses.
“By having district programs, our students can stay in the district and attend school with their siblings and neighborhood peers,” said Maryann Hussey, OUESD assistant superintendent of Student Services. “They’re also served on a general-education campus where there are non-disabled peers and role models. Otherwise they would have to be sent to county programs or non-public schools. County placements, transportation and non-public schools are more expensive.”
Oakley isn’t the only district to incorporate and mainstream classroom lessons. In far East County, where each school district houses its own myriad special-education programs, many are taking the same approach as OUESD and seeing positive results.
The Brentwood Union School District (BUSD) serves approximately 1,100 students of varying disabilities at a yearly cost of just over $10 million – $4 million of which comes out of the district’s general fund.
“The students make this work so important,” said BUSD Director of Education Margo Olson. “And meeting their needs to allow access to their education is why we do what we do. It’s the staff that makes our programs effective.”
For students whose needs cannot be met within the school districts, the county’s Contra Costa County Office of Education provides additional programs. In far East County, there are five such county sites currently serving 170 students at local school campuses. There is also the Lynn Center – a nonprofit organization that serves the special needs of children and adults – which recently leased space in Oakley at the Almond Grove Elementary School campus.
Adult-education students can take advantage of continuation programs such as the successful Futures Explored program in Brentwood, which for more than 45 years has helped individuals with physical and mental disabilities find work and live independently. Futures Explored is funded by the Regional Center of the East Bay and supplemented by matching state dollars. In Brentwood, the program works in conjunction with the Parks and Recreation Department, where among other duties, Futures clients maintain the public grounds and assist city staff.
“One of the best things about East County, and the reason we’ve been so successful out here,” said Will Sanford, executive director of Futures Explored, “is that we have a community here in Brentwood that’s willing to work with us. They welcome us and are happy to do what they can. We feel very lucky.”
Are they doing enough?
Also in place is the Special-Education Local Plan Area (SELPA), which coordinates with school districts and the County Office of Education to provide a continuum of programs and services for disabled individuals on the local level. A total of 16 Local Education Agencies comprise the SELPA in Contra Costa County.
Plenty of choices, lots of programs – and yet some say the school districts and state and federal governments can and should do more.
“I believe that most of the districts are doing the best they can,” said McBride. “But part of the problem is that their caseloads are so huge, they are not providing adequate services – never mind excellent services. If you have 80 or 90 kids on your caseload, how can you possibly give them 30 minutes each a week?”
Promise for the future
Still, the one thing that parents and educators can agree on is that the public face of special education is undergoing a metamorphosis. A generation ago, special-education students were the kids that rode the little yellow school buses and were rarely seen at campus events or functions. Today, the distinction between special and general education has begun to blur, as evidenced last month when Liberty High School seniors crowned Gage Van Emmerick, a student with Down syndrome, as their homecoming king.
“I loved seeing Gage crowned,” said McBride. “It gave me goose bumps … I think there is a lot more awareness out there than there was, but I don’t think we have come far enough or found solutions for everything.”
Migay is hopeful, content and impressed with the care Malia has received and believes the strides her daughter has made are in part the result of caring teachers, administrators and aides.
“I’ve just been so impressed with the program,” said Migay. “She’s being exposed to so much curriculum with the expectation that she can and is absorbing it … they (teachers) definitely seem to care and I am very, very happy with her school program. I love that she comes home with regular homework and is treated like a regular student. It has made all the difference – to all of us.”
Where to turn
When it comes to financial, legal and emotional resources for families of special-needs children, there is no shortage of material. The following is a brief list of support options for families:
Online and local groups
• Special Kids Foundation: www.spk.org.
• www.health.groups.yahoo.com/group/eastcccounty_specialkids, and for siblings of special needs kids, www.health.groups.yahoo.com/group/specialkidssibs.
• Cure Autism Now website: www.cureautismnow.org.
• Autism Speaks website: www.autismspeaks.org.
• A video guide to the world of IEPs: www.youtube.com/autismspeaksvids.
• Regional Center of the East Bay provides services and support to individuals with developmental disabilities under contract with the California Department of Developmental Services. Call 510-383-1214 or visit www.rceb.org.
• California Department of Education, Special Ed Division: call 800-926-0648 or visit www.cde.ca.gov/spbranch/sed.
To request district mediation or a due-process hearing, call 916-739-7053.
For an extensive listing of services and options for individuals with Asperger’s syndrome and other disabilities, visit www.aspergersresource.org.