05/02/06 — Number of exceptional children on rise in county

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Number of exceptional children on rise in county

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 2, 2006 1:51 PM

The number of exceptional children in Wayne County Public Schools is growing rapidly, officials say, while funding to support programs for them lags behind.

Dr. Marlee Ray, director of instructional support services, told the Board of Education Monday night that enrollment increases in the exceptional children programs have surpassed the school system's growth in recent years. In the last 10 years, she said, the school system size has increased by 5 percent, as compared to a 23 percent jump in the number of exceptional children.

Part of that increase can be attributed to educational changes in the definition of exceptional children, also called students with disabilities. Another factor is the location, she added.

While programs for such students are mandated at all public schools, Wayne County also has a school that caters to the developmentally disabled, Edgewood Community Developmental School.

"We're considered a humanitarian (Air Force) base, which means that we get families based here because of the needs of their child," Dr. Ray said.

In a school system that has 19,287 students, 2,760 are categorized as students with disabilities.

There are 15 eligibility categories, with the greatest number, 1,030, falling under the academically/intellectually gifted category. Among the larger categories are specific learning disabled, 954; educable mentally disabled, 511; speech/language-impaired, 408; other health-impaired, 355; developmentally delayed, 345; and autistic, 131.

The total number of students with disabilities equates to 14.4 percent of the school system. The state has a funding cap of 12.5 percent, which means the local school system has to pick up the tab on the excess.

"If the state had fully funded the amount with no cap, we would have received $1,106,721," Dr. Ray said, encouraging the board to advocate to legislators for full funding.

Grants, some local and state monies have helped offset the cost, she said, "but we're having to absorb and make it up."

There is the possibility that at some point the cap amount could change, Dr. Ray said, but in the meantime the need for programs continues.

"If a child qualifies, we cannot turn them away," Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor said.

Also complicating the problem are mandates labeling students with disabilities as a subgroup that must meet standardized test requirements just like other students in schools. Under programs like No Child Left Behind and Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, if there are at least 40 students at a school in a category, they are considered a subgroup, Dr. Ray said.

Citing recent scores, she said 12 schools met AYP, four of them with an exceptional children group. Eighteen schools did not make AYP, 11 with an exceptional children group. Nine exceptional children groups did not meet AYP and four schools failed solely because of the exceptional children's scores.

It is difficult to make marked progress when the standards continue to rise, Dr. Ray said.

The school system continues to assess its progress and do what is needed to provide services, she said.

"We have come a long way since 1975. We have got a long way to go," she said.

"For us to have success in Wayne County, we're going to have to look at early intervention; we're going to have to focus on programs, not paperwork; and we're going to have to consider children with disabilities as general education students first. Not just with numbers, but in the progress of students."