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Video from 2018 Special Education Parent Advisory Committee Expo at Desert Sands Unified
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For the past several years, Coachella Valley Unified, Desert Sands Unified and Palm Springs Unified have each seen higher enrollment in special education, while overall enrollment has decreased. 

As this trend is expected to continue, districts are looking for ways to provide not just academic support but also supplementary services including speech therapists and psychologists.

According to state data, the number of special education students at Desert Sands Unified has increased from 2919 to 3193 between the 2012-2013 and 2016-2017 school years. At Coachella Valley Unified, numbers have risen from 1636 to 1900 and 2107 to 2395 in Palm Springs Unified. General education enrollment, however, has decreased slightly in all three districts. These trends are fairly consistent with state and county averages.

Laura Fisher, an assistant superintendent at Desert Sands Unified School District, said the rise is due to improved methods of identifying students who are eligible or the additional resources. Moreover, Fisher said that the release of the California Dashboard, the California Department of Education’s data visualization platform, allowed districts to refine their approach to ensuring progress for all students.

The growing number of students in special education could have a considerable impact on district budgets. A five-year projection of expenditures presented at a Palm Springs Unified board meeting in February estimates that spending increases on special education will rise each year. In the 2018-2019 school year, special education expenditures will rise by more than $1.2 million. By the 2022-2023 school year, the spending increase is expected to be $1.5 million from the previous year. 

This money will help fund the resources for which students qualify based on their individual educational programs, or IEPs, which are designed through a collaboration between teachers, parents and counselors. While the IEP determines the specific needs of each students, the district’s commitment to individualization comes with obstacles.

Victoria Parkinson, director of special education for Palm Springs Unified, said resources can feel limited as the number of students on IEPs grows. While she understands that parents want all the available resources for their children, she tries to optimize the application of these resources to produce educational benefits.

“Is the child receiving an educational benefit? That’s what we really look at,” Parkinson said. “Parents want lots and lots and lots of services. You kind of have to gauge the level of academic benefit. A district only has so many resources.”

Teacher recruitment is a particular concern. According Assistant Superintendent Tony Signoret who oversees human resources, the district loses around 10 percent of its special education teachers each year for a variety of reasons. In comparison, the attrition rate for general education teachers is typically around five percent.

To attract teachers from across the country, the district is offering a $10,000 signing bonus for teachers new to the district who agree to a two-year commitment. This is an overall increase in incentives since past years when signing bonuses were offered through a tiered system based on from where the teachers were relocating. 

Last Tuesday, the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee at Desert Sands Unified  hoped to alleviate the strain on resources by inviting parents from all three districts in the valley to an expo that brought together nearly 40 vendors and service providers that work with students with disabilities and special needs.

“Our kids are equal. They’re just different,” said Jennifer Gautschi, president of the committee and a parent of a special needs student at James Madison. “We focus on their abilities not their disabilities.”

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The organizations in attendance provided services ranging from health care to recreation. For Kristyn Spears, an operations manager at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders who ran a booth at the expo, the evening indicated the district’s growing support for its special education students.

“Schools are becoming more proactive and collaborative,” said Spears. “There’s just a huge need.”

From her experience working with an organization that provides behavioral therapy for students on the autism spectrum, she has seen a shifting culture surrounding learning disabilities. District leaders at the expo hope to continue cultivating relationships with local organizations.

“It’s these types of things that work,” said Assistant Superintendent Laura Fisher. “It takes the community to ensure the success of these students.”

More: Palm Springs Unified School District opens one-stop shop for kindergarten enrollment

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