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By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary and Monte Leighton knew after David was born there was something going on with him.
A doctor soon confirmed -- David showed signs of autism. For schooling, doctors recommended the infant development program at Richardson Center, and at 20 months, he started school there.
In 1978, Bill Jager taught Kern County's first autism class -- it had six students. During that time, one in 10,000 students was identified as autistic, wife Carrie Jager explained.
Bill is now a principal in the Fruitvale School District, where Carrie is its special education director (Carrie taught Kern's second autistic class). And today, one in every 100 students nationally is identified as autistic.
In the last 10 years, the autistic student population in Kern has grown by 500 percent to about 1,000 students, new figures show. It's one of the highest growing student populations in the nation, school officials said.
Other student populations also have grown tremendously: emotionally disturbed students grew 193 percent (495), hard of hearing grew 53 percent (185) and mental retardation grew by 32 percent (1,743).
In all of the above, but autism in particular, large growth in schools can be credited to increased knowledge and awareness among experts, school officials and parents. It's unknown what causes autism, and there is no known cure.
"We've lived the increase," Carrie Jager said. "Back then, no one knew what autism was. Now we have better identification."
And because research shows early intervention is key for autistic students, schools have ratcheted up efforts to search for and educate them.
SPECIAL EDUCATION FUNDING
* Special education aid from federal, state and local sources is California's largest pool of funding specifically for one education program. How much funding is provided to special education programs here?
Federal: 17 to 25 percent
State: less than 48 percent
The rest: Paid for using district general fund money
* Sampling of encroachment on general fund annually:
Kern High: $11.3 million
Panama-Buena Vista Union: $6 million
Rosedale Union: $2.1 million
Bakersfield City: $2.7 million
Source: School districts
At 3, the Leightons moved David to their home school district, Fruitvale School District. Now 7, David enjoys reading, working on the computer and is learning to sign new words at Columbia Elementary School, where educators, aides and specialists cater to his every need.
"The services schools provide are excellent," Mary Leighton said. "They have a high level of concern for the kids. They're helping David every day."
Those excellent services come at a high cost to taxpayers, though, and because by law schools can't cut them despite budget woes, they're increasingly taking funds that could be used on other programs.
Teaching special education students like David runs from $40,000 to $60,000 a year per student compared to $6,000 to $9,000 for regular education students in some of the largest districts here.
And in the last 10 years, special education enrollment in Kern County has grown by 15 percent, outpacing the state by 10 percent, new figures show.
Some populations of students have grown astronomically -- autism student enrollment has soared 515 percent since 2000.
To cover the bill, many districts are delving into their general funds -- which pay for such things as teacher salaries, textbooks and field trips -- by the millions.
But local school officials say they don't put a price tag on education. They simply provide it.
"Special education is a huge encroachment on budgets," said Carrie Jager, Fruitvale's special education director. "But they're our kids. We have to, and want to, take care of them."
Special education enrollment has increased, but not as much as Kern County's overall population growth in the last 10 years, which is roughly 26.5 percent, according to county figures. The state population in the last 10 years has grown by 13 percent.
Schools' special education enrollment consistently hovers around 7 to 10 percent of total school enrollment.
But several school districts' special education growth has outpaced the state and county. Rosedale Union School District has grown by 38 percent, or 400-plus students, while Panama-Buena Vista Union's special ed enrollment has grown by 58 percent.
Kern High School District, which runs special education classes on all its 18 comprehensive campuses, has been fed 31 percent more students from middle schools than 10 years ago -- more than 3,100, according to new figures.
Besides normal population and district growth, school officials attribute increases to continued "search and serve" programs, where officials seek out students, help identify possible disabilities and refer them to schools.
They'll go to clinics and private schools, which don't provide special ed services. Last year, search and serve referrals in the Kern County Superintendent of Schools jumped by 21 percent, said Greg Rhoten, director of KCSOS special education local plan areas, or SELPA.
Another reason for growth: parents today are more educated on school responsibilities to serve students with special needs. Pediatricians also encourage parents to seek services from schools, officials said.
Public schools are federally mandated to provide special education services at no cost to the parent, and with no cap on what districts should spend.
To help teach special needs students in Kern High School District -- the largest high school district in the state -- the federal government chips in anywhere from 18 to 25 percent of costs, even though it promised schools 40 percent through the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
California also promised to help. It pitches in roughly 48 percent of costs. The rest? Well, in Kern High's case, it has to make up for the gap using money from its general pool of money -- $11.3 million per year.
"The money has to come from somewhere," said John Ferguson, manager of KHSD special education SELPA. "It's difficult, but you have to do it. We're here to serve all students."
Chris Drouin, assistant director of special education with California Department of Education, said special education costs are "vast, and growing."
"I don't doubt there are huge stresses on local school systems," Drouin said. "We're in a particular difficult budget time. It's not a happy time for education funding, special education in particular."
Rosedale spends about $6.1 million annually on special education, and $2.1 million comes out of its general fund. Tom Ewing, Rosedale's director of pupil services, said the district understands it costs different amounts to educate children, from Gifted and Talented Education students to special ed.
"(We) never draw the line," he said. "When anything gets cut, it hurts everyone."
Special education at Panama-Buena Vista is "encroaching" more than $6 million a year from the general fund. The district last school year was named in the state's financially troubled list.
Michal Clark, CEO of Kern Regional Center, which serves the developmentally disabled, has also seen an increase. Ten years ago the center served roughly 5,000. Today is serves 7,000.
Clark argues the state and feds don't give enough money to begin with.
"The schools are there to provide services, but schools are being cut," he said.
TAKING BACK, CUTTING COSTS
Most of Kern's school districts, the smaller ones especially, contract with KCSOS to transport and teach their special ed students with certain disabilities. Those services can be expensive.
In an effort to trim some special education costs, Panama-Buena Vista decided to start "taking back" some students in recent years. That is, it decided to teach some of its own students within the district, instead of paying KCSOS.
In the past few years, the district has added six pre-K classes, one class for emotionally disturbed students, and a mild-to-moderate disability class, said Rita Pierucci, Panama director of special education. Panama, therefore, has hired more teachers, aides and other staff.
Though the move requires costs up front, Superintendent Kip Hearron expects it to save the district money in the long run.
"We're giving the best environment for students with particular needs, and we believe we can provide those services at a lesser cost," Hearron said.
Rosedale Union similarly has taken back students. Besides saving money, the move allows districts to have more local control, Ewing said. Special and regular education students can now go to the same schools, and learn from each other, too, he said.
"Equally important to saving money is kids going to neighborhood schools," Ewing said.
KCSOS officials said they don't mind losing students to districts, and actually encourage the take-backs.
RESPONSE TO INTERVENTION
One local school district that has actually lost special education students in the last 10 years is Bakersfield City School District, the largest elementary school district in the state.
BCSD school officials believe their "response to intervention" model, or RTI, is partly to credit for the decrease. The model catches trouble areas in kids early and gets them to grade level before they qualify for special services. Speech and resource specialist programs, for example, are considered special education.
Panama also is piloting its own RTI models, researching and using teaching strategies in general education classes to lower numbers in special ed, officials said.
The Leightons, on the other hand, understand that David will likely need some assistance for the rest of his life.
David has learned sign language and how to read. He's learned to sit patiently during school presentations. And he's learned social and life skills, like not to hug everyone he meets.
He's still having trouble in math and Mary Leighton calls him an "Energizer bunny." But she's confident the schools will continue to help David.
"He's made huge leaps in school," she said. "And he's not done learning."