As Detroit Public Schools rolls fall, proportion of special-needs students on rise

As Detroit Public Schools continues to suffer from an unprecedented enrollment decline, the proportion of students with special needs is growing, state and district data show.

This year, nearly one in every five students in Michigan’s largest school district is in special education, according to DPS. That means about 9,000 students — more than 18% of the estimated 49,900 in DPS — have what is commonly called an Individualized Education Program (IEP) plan, which is mandated by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The DPS special-education population is up from 17% last year, compared with a state average of 12%, according to the Lansing-based Center for Educational Performance and Information. Before the school closure crisis began in 2004-05, DPS had about 14% special-education students.

The higher proportion of special-education students has led to shortages in some services and reassignments of students to larger classes, some parents said. Special-education regulations and many students’ IEPs require low ratios of students to teachers. Severely disabled students require an aide to accompany them all day.

Steven Thomas knew something was different this fall when his ninth-grade son, who is autistic, was placed into a class with 11 other students. He’d never before been in a class with more than six other kids.

And four months into the school year, his son still has no speech therapist.

“He’s never been in a class this large,” Thomas said. “It’s never been like this.”

DPS is about a third of the size it was a decade ago because of a staggering enrollment decline unmatched in the nation’s big cities. Special-education students are leaving DPS, too, but at a slower pace, said Karen Ridgeway, the DPS superintendent of academics.

DPS’s proportion of special-education students also is growing because DPS has seven special-education schools that offer services that other districts and charter schools do not provide, said Mary Fayad, director of special education for the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency, which provides special-education monitoring and training countywide. Severely disabled students stay in DPS and come to DPS from other districts.

This fall, for example, the state reform district — the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan — took control of 15 DPS buildings. Students in those schools who have autism spectrum disorders remained in DPS because the DPS program is well-established.

Charter schools also are a factor. They have attracted about 50,000 Detroit students, but generally do not serve as many special-needs children. In a U.S. Government Accountability Office report this year, charter schools cited limited resources and limited facility space as reasons.

In Michigan, about 10% of all charter school students received special-education services in 2009-10 , according to a 2010 charter school report to the Legislature, the most recent available.

To help address questions and concerns for parents districtwide, DPS this year opened a special-education parent resource office in the Drew Transition Center, a special-education school on the city’s west side.

Raphaela Allen, 29, said DPS needs to communicate better with parents as it tries to address the shifting student population.

DPS transferred her 11-year-old son, Mack Kelly, who has autism, to a new school this fall. Allen said DPS placed him into a class with 20 cognitively impaired students without her consent. She filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Education, and he was soon placed into a room with six other students.

Now, all is well, she said.

“They’re dealing with so many special-education students … you want to give them the benefit of the doubt and work with them, but it’s frustrating.” Allen said.

The increase in the proportion of special-needs students is a financial strain because additional staffing and training, as well as more equipment and transportation, are required, educators said.

With the declining enrollment and the closure of about 175 buildings, DPS has had constant staff turnover, resulting in constant training and retraining, some of which is provided by Wayne RESA, Fayad said. More staff is also needed in classes that require more than one teacher and services such as speech therapy.

Michigan’s school districts reported $3.4 billion in combined special-education expenditures in 2010, up 60% from 2000, according to an analysis released this summer by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a public affairs research organization. Special-education students on average cost about $14,397 to educate in 2010, compared with $9,633 per general-education student, the group found.

Districts receive federal funds for special-education programs in addition to training and support from intermediate school districts, but often have to dig into general funds to provide all the services needed, according to other local districts that also are experiencing an increase in the proportion of special education students.

“For every dollar you spend, you don’t get it all back,” said Derrick Coleman, a former assistant superintendent for DPS and now superintendent for the River Rouge School District, where 17.5% of students had an IEP in 2011.

Perhaps more important, the increase in the proportion of special-needs students also makes it harder for some schools to meet academic standards and improve test scores, depending on the disabilities prevalent among students. The state limits the number of special-education students whose test scores can be segregated from general test score averages.

Priority schools — those that perform in the lowest 5% on state standardized tests — and focus schools — those that have huge achievement gaps between the highest and lowest performing students — face state intervention.

Priority schools face having half of their staffs replaced or being placed in the statewide reform district, while focus schools would have state-assigned facilitators to oversee improvement.

“There are a variety of categories of disabilities these children have. It’s far greater than learning disabilities. There’s cognitively impaired, emotionally impaired,” Coleman said. “It definitely creates some challenges” with meeting standards.

Todd Biederwolf, superintendent for the Harper Woods District Schools, where 18.6% of students had an IEP in 2011, said the proportion of special-needs students reflects high poverty rates.

“The economically disadvantaged population often doesn’t have access to prenatal care, early intervention protocols. (There is) less access to medicines, fetal alcohol syndrome. All of these are more prevalent and contribute to students needing services,” Biederwolf said.

Poverty also makes it harder to transfer.

“It’s those economically disadvantaged citizens who are less likely to have the means to relocate,” Biederwolf said.

Parent and activist Chris White, whose son has autism and attends Charles Wright Academy in DPS, agreed.

“The increase in special-education percentages is not the problem, the increasing poor is,” he said. “Where there’s disinvestment, this is the end result.”

As Detroit Public Schools rolls fall, proportion of special-needs students on rise | City of Detroit | Detroit Free Press |

Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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