Truckee resident Peggy Lindsay wants her son Walker reading by the time he’s in kindergarten. For most children this isn’t a lofty goal, but 5-year-old Walker has Down syndrome.”There’s so much going on in child development right now,” says Lindsay, a parent advocate for special needs students. “I keep telling people Walker will be reading before September ’05. Most people don’t think that’s possible.”Fortunately for Walker, he has the crucial framework to attain that goal – a loving family, a mother who advocates for his future, a caring special education teacher and a mainstream day care center that embraces him.In other words, if any developmentally disabled child can read by age 5, it’s Walker.However, for parents of special needs students there are often bumps in the road as they steer their children toward adulthood and, hopefully one day, independence. Special education is expensive, and there are funding challenges in the public school system. Local parents have to drive hours to access services that can’t be found in the area. Also, Truckee and Tahoe’s isolation doesn’t lend as well to parent support, a tool that special education advocates say is crucial for guardians of special needs children.However, there are some bright spots. Parents say local special educators go above and beyond for their children. Also, local parent support groups have begun to rekindle.An expensive, under-funded programAlthough special education is mandated by state and federal laws, it is not fully funded by the government, and school districts have to pick up the tab for the expensive program. In special education, class sizes tend to be much smaller and students need more support from specialists.Fortunately, the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District has squeaked by in spite of California’s cuts to the public education budget, says Mike Bowdish, coordinator of special education at Tahoe Truckee Unified.”We’re trying to be frugal, but we haven’t lost any positions,” he says.Tahoe Truckee Unified budgeted $3.7 million this year to meet the obligations of state and federal laws and the program. Of that cost, 22 percent is paid for by the school district’s general fund.Also, the state of California doesn’t pay school districts based on the number of students actually enrolled in special education. The state will fund about 10 percent of the school population for special education, and Tahoe Truckee Unified’s 530 special education students equal 10.25 percent of the district’s student body.In addition, the percentage of students in special education in Tahoe Truckee Unified is on an upswing. With a greater emphasis on meeting standards and scoring higher on standardized tests, more mainstream teachers are asking for special education’s services for their students, Bowdish said.
Also, Tahoe Truckee Unified is mandated by the federal government to offer home-to-school transportation for special education students – an expensive prospect for such an expansive district.”One positive is that because our schools are small, our [special education] class sizes are smaller,” Bowdish says of the programs held at the traditional schools in Truckee. “The downside is we’re kind of spread out over 750 miles and not all programs are available at the [neighborhood] school, so students have to be bused. That costs money.”A shrinking budget also puts constraints on the classroom.In a perfect world, special education teachers, like Annamarie Cohen, would like to see more program support in their classrooms. Cohen would like her students to be able to learn in a more specialized environment. It’s not uncommon to have a child who is learning to use the bathroom in the same class with a child learning math, she said.Cohen also wants her classroom aides – whom she calls an “invaluable part of the program” – to receive better pay. She says aides don’t make an appropriate amount for what they face in the classroom on a daily basis, like getting spit on or yelled at by students. But Cohen doesn’t expect drastic changes any time soon.”The reality is that [special education is] very costly,” Cohen says. “That isn’t the [school] district’s fault, it isn’t our coordinator’s fault. It’s an inherent flaw in the system.”Parent-advocate Lindsay believes there is more money out there for special education – as much as 40 percent more per special education student from the feds, she says.”So what you have to do as a district is go out there and fight for it,” says Lindsay. “You just have to be willing to do a little bit more. There just aren’t enough services and teacher time for all these kids to get a complete education.”Recently, Lindsay and her son’s teacher, Kristen Graves, championed Proposition 10 funds for special needs students from the Community Collaborative of Tahoe Truckee. In return, local special needs students, ages 0 to 5, will receive approximately $7,500 for enrichment activities that will begin this summer.Parent involvement crucialParent involvement is an invaluable part of any child’s education, but the impacts are greater in the life of a special needs student. Special educators rank parent involvement high on the list of items that will create success in their students. Those parents are involved in creating a mandated individualized education program, which entails parents setting and helping their children attain educational goals.”I think parent involvement and consistency in a program is crucial to the success of a [special needs] student,” says Dana Adams, a Tahoe Truckee Unified school psychologist. “There’s just more progress with parent involvement. We see it all the time.”However, some students don’t perform as well with parents present, and not all parents have the time to get into the classroom, say special educators.Shannon Barter, whose 8-year-old son Miles is developmentally delayed, agreed.
“They’re expensive kids. It’s hard to maintain a job with special needs kids,” says Barter, who volunteers three hours each week in her son’s class. “You can’t keep a job because they have to go to the doctor today or the specialist tomorrow. It’s hard.”If possible, Barter says, it’s important for parents to form a strong relationship with their child’s teacher.Outside of the classroom, some parents have taken it upon themselves to be advocates for their children’s education. In recent months, parents of special needs children have come together to form support groups. Lindsay recently held a class on individualized education programs for parents of special needs children.Special education coordinator Bowdish says these parent movements tend to ebb and flow, but he’s heartened by the efforts.”I’m encouraged by the rebirth of interest for more support for parents by parents,” Bowdish says. “They need to meet and talk. A number of efforts have been made to get parents together to discuss common [special education] issues, so they don’t think they are the only ones.”A changing culture and mainstreamingIn the past eight years of her son’s life, Barter said she has seen changes in how Miles is treated by the population at large. There has been a shift, she says, toward acceptance of Miles’ developmental delays. Now, Barter can’t go to the grocery store without someone knowing Miles by name.”These kids aren’t hidden off in a classroom anymore,” she says. “He’s in a regular first-grade class. It’s not that scary kid down the hall like it used to be.”Barter said the focus on getting special needs students in a mainstream environment has enhanced the cultural shift she has seen. After hearing about the importance of mainstreaming, Walker Lindsay’s parents placed him in a traditional preschool environment two days each week. For the past two years, Walker has attended Little Rascals Playskool in Tahoe Donner. In spite of his Down syndrome, Walker has blossomed at the preschool, says Little Rascals co-owner Vicki Hooser.Hooser treats Walker like the other kids. He has to tie his own shoes, put on his own jacket. He emulates the other children. If they are cutting paper, he cuts paper. If they get under the table, he does the same.It also benefits the other children to be exposed to Walker because he is different, Hooser says.”Him being here, it’s just as important for the rest of them,” she says, motioning toward the other children at Little Rascals. “When they are older, special needs kids will be approachable. He is a gift to them.”
What is ‘special needs’?There are roughly 530 students in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District who are considered “special needs” children or adults, with everything from speech difficulties to severe disabilities. Approximately 60 of those students are severely handicapped.There are several points of entry for special needs students. Alta California Regional Center is a conduit to social services for people with developmental delays or retardation from age 0 to 3, and then after the school district stops providing services at age 22. Preschool teachers also notify parents and the proper social service agencies about possible special needs children.Another entry point is the school district. There are 13 different handicapping conditions, and students must be eligible under one to use special education’s services.There are three different types of services:• Designated instruction services: speech, language, occupational therapy, adapted physical education or individual instruction;• Resource specialist programs: additional support for students for less than half of the day;• Special day classes: support for more than half of the day.Students are referred to the special education department by teachers, parents or school counselors. Once the student undergoes an assessment, a team is assigned to the child. The team may consist of parents, a school administrator, teacher and the individuals involved with the child’s assessment.At least once each year, a student’s special education team must complete an individualized education program.More informationAlta California Regional Center: http://www.altaregional.org, 550-2220Tahoe Truckee Unified special education: 582-2500