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Waco ISD still seeking out more special education students, 3 years after state lifted cap

Waco ISD still seeking out more special education students, 3 years after state lifted cap

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The Waco Independent School District is continuing to identify more students who are eligible for special education services, three years after the state lifted an arbitrary cap on the number of students who could qualify.

While Waco ISD’s overall enrollment has decreased slightly over the past three years, the percentage of students who are eligible for special education increased to 9.3% of all students as of last school year, according to Texas Education Agency data.

So far this school year, Waco ISD has identified about 10% of students who are eligible for special education, Executive Director for Special Education Charlotte Davis said.

That is well above the 8.5% cap that the TEA quietly implemented in 2004, when the agency began asking districts and charter schools with more than 8.5% of their students deemed eligible for special education to submit plans for reducing that number, the Houston Chronicle reported.

In 2016, a Houston Chronicle investigation revealed state officials developed a system that kept thousands of disabled students out of special education programs who otherwise would have qualified for services. The TEA lifted the arbitrary 8.5% cap 13 years later, after the Chronicle’s investigation.

Nationally, about 14% of all public school students between 3 and 21 years old received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The act requires all schools to seek out students who demonstrate the need for a special education evaluation. But Texas has yet to catch up to the national average, with about 10.7% of all students statewide considered eligible for special education in the 2019-20 school year.

Waco ISD has not met state standards for its special education program since at least 2013, according to the TEA. In 2018, TEA officials visited Waco ISD as the agency considered sanctions against the district because of low standardized test scores among special education students, according to Tribune-Herald archives. The visit came after an audit by the agency of the district’s special education program.

Special education students by school year:

2018-19 – 1,185 students of 14,696, or 8.1%

2017-18 – 1,109 students of 14,775, or 7.5%

2016-17 – 1,090 students of 15,058, or 7.2%

2015-16 – 1,063 students of 14,929, or 7.1%

2014-15 – 1,183 students of 14,950, or 7.9%

2013-14 – 1,392 students of 14,848, or 9.4%

When Davis entered her role last school year, the position had just been created by new Superintendent Susan Kincannon. Previously, the executive director of student services oversaw both student services and special education.

“We’re always trying to improve and do what’s best for students, and we’re going to keep that work going,” Davis said. “Meeting state and federal guidelines is one indicator of success, but not the only measure of a successful program.”

Davis, who started in October of last year, began reviewing and reevaluating Waco ISD’s special education services to make sure the district had adequate resources in place for all special education students.

“We have done a lot of realignment, and that realignment has allowed us to support campuses more effectively and efficiently,” she said. “We evaluate anyone that we feel might have a disability or would benefit from an individualized education plan or from differentiated instruction.”

Part of that realignment involved hiring additional personnel and assigning that personnel in ways to better support students and campuses with special education services, Davis said. The district hired four more assessment specialists, bringing the total to 13; three more speech therapists, with a total of 16; and 11 more speech language pathologists, in addition to five speech therapy assistants, one of whom is bilingual. Also, Waco ISD hired six more special education teachers for its centralized program, which is for students with the most specialized needs.

“Adding these teachers and realigning and restructuring those programs has allowed us to instruct students in the least restrictive environment, while also meeting all of their unique needs,” she said.

But the changes come at a cost of about $1 million to the district. During budget talks in August, district Chief Financial Officer Sheryl Davis told the board the increased number of students identified as eligible for special education after the lifting of the 8.5% cap was one of several “unique issues” impacting this school year’s budget, on top of enrollment declines and an economy struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic that led to losses in state revenue.

Meeting students’ needs has been a bit different this school year, with the coronavirus pandemic leading to about 31% of Waco ISD’s special education students to choose remote learning. The other 69% are learning in person, but all special education students may go to their campus to receive services they cannot receive at home, such as occupational or physical therapy, Davis said.

The district is still following students’ individual education plans and providing teletherapy services, as well.

“My idea of a healthy program is that we are meeting the needs of all students so that they are successful, and it’s also really important to me for parents and families to have confidence in our ability to meet their child’s needs,” Davis said.

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