Stanislaus Union District special education changes unsettle families

naustin@modbee.comMarch 15, 2014 

— At 9 years old, Natalie Reyes has no idea what grown-ups pay for her to go to school. She and her 7-year-old sister, Andrea, live four blocks from campus. They travel to and from school together and see each other at lunch. Her mom helps out in class and goes on field trips.

But next year, Natalie’s high-needs special education class will move, taking her far from her familiar community at Chrysler Elementary, near Vintage Faire Mall, to Sipherd Elementary, seven miles away in the Empire Union School District. Administrators said the shift makes sense for the program and will lower costs. But splitting up her daughters, Monica Reyes said, pulls away support that Natalie needs.

“I participate. I’m a volunteer in her class, watching how they are with her, if they’re teaching her the same things as I teach her here,” Reyes said, sitting in her living room. At home, the girls squabble, Reyes said, but at school, Andrea looks out for Natalie and the two seem inseparable. “We see each other at lunch,” Andrea said with a shy smile. “She gives me her chips.” Natalie speaks eagerly to a visitor, though what she’s saying is difficult to make out.

“I want both of them to go together. Now, her sister is there to guide her,” Reyes said. Andrea also watches out for Natalie, who is sometimes treated differently. “It’s a security issue for me,” Reyes said.

Transportation is another issue. Her first years at Chrysler, Natalie took the door-to-door bus to school, arriving home at 5 p.m. after leaving school at 2:10 p.m. “That’s four blocks away,” Reyes said. “I’m thinking it would be longer going to Empire.”

The close-knit Reyes family is fortunate to have had this time with disabled and nondisabled siblings at the same school, said Regina Hedin, who oversees special education services. “That’s very, very unusual,” she said. Hedin runs the Stanislaus Special Education Local Plan Area, or Stanislaus SELPA, which serves all but one of Stanislaus County’s 25 districts. Modesto City Schools sits like a doughnut hole in the county center, overseeing its own.

Typically, regional classes for high-needs students outside the Modesto district draw from all around the county. “It is a little longer travel time to Sipherd, but we had to balance travel and continuity of program,” Hedin said. Sipherd students graduate to high-needs classes available at Glick Middle School in the Empire district. “It’s in the best interest of children to have the continuum,” she said.

Lisa Archer, whose 6-year-old son, Jonathan, is autistic and attends the younger high-needs class at Chrysler in the Stanislaus Union School District, is more focused on the short-term change. Just one week after a key planning meeting where experts agreed that Jonathan should stay at Chrysler, she learned his class would close.

“He’s learned so much there and he’s done so well there. If you’ve ever been around a kid with autism, change is not easy,” Archer said. Jonathan’s only words are “water” and “baloney,” but in class, he has learned his alphabet and all the planets. “He learns a lot by music. If you put it to a catchy song, he’ll pick it up,” she said.

Archer said she is active in his class, going on all the field trips, and sees the move away from her home district as segregation. “I understand the political and the fund cuttings, but like I said, they cut funds in all the wrong places,” she said.

Stanislaus Union Superintendent Britta Skavdahl said closing the program was a hard decision and she would honor family requests to move siblings. “I certainly empathize with the family, but at the same time, I see the budget side of it,” Skavdahl said. “We prefer as a district to keep our families together. Sometimes in the big picture, it can’t be accommodated.”

California’s cumbersome base-year funding system for special ed, unaffected by the new local control formula, does not provide what services cost. Districts cover the rest from money sent to serve all students. Regular education gets roughly $6,000 per child per year. Special education classes, however, often cost three times that per student. An autistic preschool class can cost $50,000 per toddler per year. One student needing private care placement can run $100,000.

As the state cut funding during the recession, Stanislaus superintendents, choosing their words with care, spoke passionately of slashed services and crowded classes for all students, while the costs of serving disabled students remained extraordinary, and untouchable. Services are set by individual plans laying out what is best for the child, not the budget.

Stanislaus County calculates what each regional special education class costs, divides it by number of children in that class and bills their home districts. That method keeps cost containment front and center. In other areas, districts pay a flat amount based on total enrollment, which keeps costs stable and manageable for tiny districts.

The districts of the 16 students in Chrysler’s two high-needs classes pay $26,397 per child per year; similar Ceres classes of about 12 bill $16,585 per student, according to a monthly report for superintendents. The chief difference is the number of students in each class. Ceres divides by 12, instead of eight. Consolidating classes from Chrysler and Sipherd will wind up with about 12 high-needs children per class, considered optimum.

Each class has a teacher and three to four aides. After lunch last week in the kindergarten through third-grade Chrysler class, teacher Denise Olsen read aloud while the aides tried to keep short attention spans on task. For a moment, one or two children would be intently interested, then go back to squirming. One girl curled up in an empty bookshelf, then wordlessly paced the classroom periphery. During free time, she sat alone with a picture book, intently turning pages from back to front. Other students sat at tables working on clear, short lessons: shape recognition, letters, primary colors.

Modesto City Schools operates classes nearby at Beard Elementary, but those are full right now, said Ginger Johnson, MCS associate superintendent of student services. The two Stanislaus special education systems rarely serve the other’s children, no matter the geography. “There are times we do. With deaf, hard-of-hearing and orthopedically handicapped we do join forces because neither of us has the numbers (to fill a class),” Johnson said.

Beard’s program, in any case, never was an option considered for the Chrysler children, said Michele Wolf, Stanislaus Union administrator for special education. “There wasn’t a discussion of it. It’s unfortunate. We’re very close, and the kids all eventually end up at Modesto City Schools for high school,” she said.

“But they’re going with their friends. They’re going as a group,” Wolf said. “Kids are very resilient and kids adapt to any situation. It’s the adults that have trouble with change.”

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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