School district officials often agonize over how to teach students with severe disabilities.
They can pay for the students to attend private schools, where pupils receive more attention in an environment tailored to their needs. Or they can educate the students in public schools, encouraging interaction with peers who aren't disabled.
Faced with continued deep budget cuts, district officials are more often choosing the latter approach which also happens to be the cheaper choice.
Their actions have drawn praise from some special education advocates who believe students with disabilities often learn best in a mainstream environment. Others say districts are making a mistake that will be tough to reverse.
"They put them in public school, and it's like a huge experiment," said local parent Zoeann Lee. "And then they watch them sink or swim."
Lee wants her 12-year-old autistic son in a "nonpublic school" dedicated to teaching students with severe emotional, developmental or physical disabilities. These schools generally offer individualized therapy, high staffing levels and expertise.
Districts in the four-county region send about one of every 35 special education students to nonpublic schools, double the statewide rate, concluding they need extra resources to thrive.
But the intense, specialized instruction at the schools can cost local districts $30,000 or more per student. Keeping students on campus allows districts to cut those costs in half.
Last school year saw the trend reach a new peak: Districts in the four-county region slashed funding to specialty schools by $10 million, or 15 percent, state figures show. The cuts put specialty school enrollment at 1,155, a drop of more than 200 students since 2008.
Officials say the cuts have left their specialty schools and many students in poor shape.
"I'm seeing a lot of social failure; I'm seeing a lot of academic failure," said Laynee Kuhn, executive director at Crossroads Treatment Centers, which runs Lane Education, a North Highlands school serving teenage girls where enrollment has fallen by two-thirds.
Saving money shouldn't take precedence over giving students with disabilities the attention they need, specialty school officials say.
"When they have a large classroom, and they keep the kids on campus, the students are not getting the same education," said Arthur Burns, principal at Children's Home Connection Learning Academy in Sacramento, a school for autistic and developmentally disabled children.
Public school officials agree that some students need to learn at specialty schools but say that others will benefit from "inclusion" teaching them with everyone else. Inclusion garners accolades from some special education experts who say it follows the principle, mandated by law, of finding the "least restrictive environment" for students.
School officials acknowledge that the transition back to public schools has been tough but say it will ultimately help students.
"We are in the middle of our second year doing this," said Becky Bryant, special education director at Sacramento City Unified. "We've learned a lot and had a lot of successes, but we have a long way to go to be really good at this."
Special schools decline
The consequences of these trends can be seen every day at one of the region's oldest specialty schools, Aldar Academy in Arden.
Aldar's biggest strength is obvious to anyone who visits: Staff members are everywhere. Therapists, teachers, aides and other staff provide constant help to the school's roughly 70 students.
Just as obvious is the toll that recent budget cuts and enrollment declines have taken. In one classroom, a wall has a huge hole. In a bathroom, a stall door hangs off its hinges. A "time out" room is missing a large strip of carpet.
A more important, but less apparent, change can be found in the school's "new" conference room, adorned with leftover furniture and a few computers. Until recently, the conference room was a classroom filled with elementary school children.
"We had to lay off a teacher for the first time in a long time," said Daniel Ramirez, principal at Aldar Academy.
Like other specialty schools, Aldar teaches students with the greatest needs. Most students have some sort of severe emotional disorder. Others are developmentally disabled. Some are recovering from traumatic brain injuries.
Each of Aldar's students receives one-on-one counseling or tutoring every day, Ramirez said. Class sizes are small. Students often break into focus groups to polish social skills.
In one class on a recent Thursday, students were learning about Greece. Another class solved math problems while playing an interactive game of bingo. A class of developmentally disabled students studied traffic signs.
The school increasingly relies on donations in the form of both items and work to keep running. Staffing and student resources are the main priorities.
"We used to call the local handyman," Ramirez said, pointing toward a hole in a wall made by a door handle. "Now well, you can see."
School district officials say they have increased capacity to help severely disabled students and that they are cautious about removing students from specialty schools, especially when students may hurt themselves or others.
All decisions, they note, are made in consultation with teachers and, if possible, parents, as part of each student's individual education plan.
Elk Grove Unified, the region's largest district, has added seven intensive programs for emotionally disturbed students, along with 12 new classrooms for children with autism. The district has begun testing students in preschool for learning disabilities.
"This allows us to connect with families earlier instead of sending them to a nonpublic agency," said Bill Tollestrup, the district's director of special education.
Students get intense support, Tollestrup said, during the transition to public school. Then they usually integrate into general education.
Sacramento City Unified has embraced a similar philosophy of "inclusion," with six schools placing special education students in classes alongside everyone else. Bryant said the moves represent "a cultural shift."
"You have to look at the needs of each student and where they can be best served," she said. "For a great many students, it's in general education with additional aid."
The same trends have occurred statewide. Nearly all school districts are dealing with financial troubles, and changes to special education funding particularly for students with mental illnesses have enticed districts to keep students on campus.
Several education experts and school officials say the trend will continue as districts build the infrastructure needed to educate more students with severe disabilities.
Already at Folsom Cordova Unified, the number of students sent to specialty schools has fallen by 65 percent since 2008. At Sacramento City, the decline has been more modest from 371 in 2009 to 312 today but will quicken.
"Our nonpublic school enrollment isn't reducing as quickly as we'd like, but it's reducing," Bryant said.
The key to whether the changes will benefit students partially depends on districts' motivations, said special education teacher Traci Barbieri.
If districts study what is best for each student and then pull some from specialty schools, success is likely to follow, she said. But if districts encourage sweeping changes based on finances, "mistakes can be made," she said.
In the long run, Barbieri said she believes that moving more disabled students into public schools will work better for everyone, if staff is trained to address the special needs of new students.
Special education advocate and local paralegal Linda McNulty is not as optimistic. She said cash-strapped districts reflexively turn down parents who want their children in specialty schools.
"They are doing it systematically," she said. "They are just waiting to see if parents have the knowledge to fight it or money to get an attorney."
Which leaves parent Zoeann Lee struggling to find a nonpublic school placement through Folsom Cordova Unified for her 12-year-old son.
"The district wouldn't offer it," she said. "The school districts are doing a good job of putting (nonpublic) schools out of business and that means there are no options for us."