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Special ed strategies in K12

Districts meet rising demand for services with new personnel and interventions
  • National Center for Education Statistics, DAmag.me/nces
  • Special ed services have increase over the years in both Los Angeles USD and Stillwater Area School District.

One month before the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, Turlock USD was still short five speech-language pathologists. The salary offered by the Central California district was high by area standards, but even so, the positions remained unfilled. In fact, no one had even applied.

Alice Solis, Turlock’s director of special education, struggled to hire speech pathologists when she worked at nearby Newman-Crows Landing USD, too. There, the district advertised for one year without attracting a single applicant.

Solis’ problem is not unique.

Across the nation, administrators are toiling to meet the growing need for services even though special education teachers remain in short supply.

The number of students covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grew from 5.67 million in 2011 to 5.83 million in 2014. But 49 states reported a shortage of special education teachers and related service personnel in the 2014-15 school year.

About half of all school districts reported difficulty attracting highly qualified special education teachers.

Further complicating matters is a shift in demand over the last decade. In 2005-06, 45 percent of the students who qualified for services had specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. By 2014-15, that number dropped to 39 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of students aged 6 to 21 classified as having autism rose 165 percent over the same period. And the number of students with “other health impairments,” such as ADHD, mental illness and epilespy rose by about 51 percent between 2005-06 and 2014-15.

Funding hasn’t kept pace as special education services consume larger and larger chunks of school budgets. In response, school administrators are adopting a variety of strategies to support the rising demand for special education.

“I plan to use a combination of approaches to make sure we have high-quality services and are in compliance,” Solis says.

Here are five strategies administrators have found successful:

1. Add support staff

Stillwater Area School District, a Minnesota district of about 8,300 students, added “due process” clerical staff about two years ago. These non-certified staff members process paperwork, arrange meetings and file documents so certified special educators can concentrate on working with students.

Initially, certified staff were skeptical of the plan, says Paul Lee, Stillwater’s director of student support services. “They didn’t want to give up some of that control and responsibility,” Lee says. “But within a couple of months, they were saying, ‘We can’t live without these people.’”

Key to the program’s success: Ongoing professional development, including a week-long “boot camp” for clerical staff that covers details of special education law and compliance. All staff members also meet monthly with the assistant director of student support services to assess and adjust programs.

Certified educators use the time saved to see more students, to review student data and to “collaborate with paraprofessional staff to make sure we’re supporting students at the highest level,” Lee says.

2. Develop paraprofessionals

The drastic increase in the number of students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has revealed a bit of a mismatch between educators’ skill sets and student needs.

“Highly skilled, highly qualified ASD teachers are the most difficult for us to find,” says Stillwater’s Lee. Classroom teachers are overwhelmed, and special education professionals are busy with caseloads that keep them from providing PD and support to teachers.

Stillwater Area School District plans to provide extensive education to district paraprofessionals to close this gap. “We want to get them high-level training so they can be really effective in supporting students,” Lee says. “We’re even considering specializing some of them into ASD paraprofessionals.”

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Autism Center for Excellence provides online and live PD for paraprofessionals who serve students with ASD. Another option is certification training—paraprofessionals can pursue an autism certificate through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards.

3. Target interventions

An analysis of special education needs in Stillwater Area School District revealed significant growth in demand at both ends of the age spectrum: birth- to kindergarten-age students who qualify for early childhood instruction, and 18- to 21-year-old students who require transition services.

The increase in demand results, in part, from Minnesota’s push to identify all children who qualify for early intervention services, Lee says. The goal is for districts to save money by identifying and addressing problems earlier in students’ lives, thus reducing the costs of future services.

Transition services for young adults are another matter. “These are students who have finished four years of high school but have ongoing needs in the areas of vocational employment skills, postsecondary education skills and independent living skills,” Lee says.

Providing these services after high school is expensive, so Stillwater is determining the best ways to build these skills while students are still in grades 9 through 12. Such targeted intervention may save the district significant money, and increase the number of students with disabilities who graduate in four years.

4. Add online services

Districts that have invested in technology and infrastructure in recent years are well-positioned to take advantage of online services. Speech-language and occupational therapy, behavioral interventions, mental health services, and psycho-educational assessments can all take place via secure videoconferencing.

Solis, when she worked at Newman-Crows Landing USD, contracted with PresenceLearning—a telehealth network of special education providers—to help the district provide services. Offsite speech-language pathologists began working with students via videoconference.

PresenceLearning’s therapists complemented the work of in-district speech-language pathologists. Each online provider had a dedicated caseload but collaborates with district staff as necessary.

Even after adding support staff to facilitate communications between students, district staff and online professionals, Newman-Crows Landing USD saved money, says Solis. She plans to use online providers to supplement the staff at Turlock, as well.

To be successful, online providers must be thoroughly trained in the district’s policies, and collaborate regularly with district staff.

“Online therapy cannot and should not happen in a vacuum,” says Clay Whitehead, CEO of PresenceLearning. “The therapist has to be in very close coordination with all the stakeholders on the ground.”

5. Seek more funding

Ultimately, school districts can only do so much with limited funding. That’s one reason why educators and administrators are lobbying for changes to state funding formulas.

“We’re funded on a per-pupil allocation—our funding is not based on student need,” says Beth Kauffman, associate superintendent in Los Angeles USD’s Division of Special Education. “The overall student population in the district is declining, but the numbers of students in special ed is slightly increasing.”

So, funding is down, even as the need for special education services is up.

Under current California law, additional funds are directed to districts that service “high-needs” students—but special education doesn’t count as high-need. The district has appealed to state lawmakers to change these rules, Kauffman says.

Other school districts are putting practices in place to recoup funds. Under Minnesota law, district administrators can bill Minnesota Assistance, the state’s health program for low-income residents, for particular health services (such as tube feeding) provided at school.

“We bring in maybe $200,000 a year, but we could be billing more,” Lee says. The district has determined that the amount of money it may recover justifies hiring a health services supervisor and clerical staff to recover more funds.


Jennifer Fink is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.