DOWNEY - What concerned parent hasn't hoped and prayed that their offspring is born normal and healthy?And what sadness and despair must they feel when it's determined that their child indeed has some sort of disability. The disability may be in the form of a hearing/visual impairment (including deafness or blindness), or mental retardation, or speech and language impairment, a specific learning disability, or autism, or any other health impairment. Before 1975, if either of these afflictions befell a child, all anyone could do was seek the best possible treatment wherever it could be found. One account states that many children were denied access to public school, "especially those who were blind, deaf, severely disabled or suffered from mental retardation." The well-off of course had readier means to cope with the problem, such as providing the appropriate care and, more important, the desired education and training and so on that will at least equip the child to face life as independently and successfully as anyone can hope for. The situation was to change in 1975. That year the federal government passed the Education for all Handicapped Children Act, which "protected the rights of children with disabilities and forced schools to meet their individual needs, and mandated schools to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and to provide schooling in the least restrictive environment." The Act, says DUSD director of special education Ruth Valadez, set a standard level of services/care where there was none before. The law was expanded in 1983 to include parent training and, by 1986, "early intervention programs for pre-school children" were added. The law has since been re-named, in 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and, in 2004, re-authorized and expanded. When a child with a physical disability is thus admitted to any DUSD school, and if their eligibility to receive special education services is established, their IEP, or Individualized Educational Program, becomes their all-important passport to education and care, free of charge, as mandated by law. After a review of their original IEP (as contained in either their application or transfer paper), which is good for thirty days, the district assumes the responsibility of executing their IEP till they leave school or till they reach age 22. The district-provided IEP, which is a legal document, outlines their present levels of [school] performance, the student's eligibility for special education services, yearly goals, necessary accommodations and modifications, the parents' input/concerns, the notes (minutes) of the (initial) IEP meeting, and the district's offer of FAPE. The initial meeting involves the participation of the parent or guardian, the general education teacher, the special education teacher, the administrator or administrative designee, the individual(s) qualified to interpret assessment results/discuss progress, and the student (whenever appropriate). In any case, the school psychologist is always present. Held at least once a year, the IEP meeting may be convened whenever the parent or district wants to further develop, review or revise the program. The percentage of students with IEP's in the district is roughly 10-11 percent of the total student population, paralleling the average percentage in the nation. The most prevalent cases found at DUSD are in the specific learning disability, speech and language impairment, and autism categories, the cases involving the latter increasing at a high rate. These require the services of all sorts of specialists: psychologists (for sure), speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, special education teachers, adapted P.E. specialists, etc. What about funding? According to asst. superintendent/business services Kevin Condon, all three levels of government-federal, state and local--have been historically remiss in the delivery of promised funds especially as they relate to special education. Notwithstanding the temporary, albeit welcome, relief provided by stimulus money covering two years and which have since ended, the budgeted cost for special education this year amounts to some $30 million, of which only about $20 million, in absolute terms, is forthcoming to the district. The deficit of $10 million will be borne by the general fund. (Thus the district's strategy of austerity, of looking for better efficiencies and cost savings, etc., wherever they may be realized). At any rate, the person behind the special education team is Valadez, who joined DUSD in July 2010. She is assisted by three program administrators: one for pre-school, another for elementary, and the third for the high schools. There is one program (behavior) specialist who focuses on administering autism workshops. Teachers, staff, administrators, even parents, receive training in practically all behavioral areas; continuing professional development is emphasized. Valadez excitedly points out that the district now has a so-called 'Added Autism Authorization' program, a brand new program featuring improved approaches in dealing with autism. "Special education is my passion," said Valadez, who has three bachelor's degrees (majors in elementary education, special education, and psychology) and two master's degrees (one in special education, the other in education administration). "I love what I do." She said, "I remember from first grade, there was this third grade student in school who was made to wear a sandwich board that read "I am stupid" in front and "I cannot learn" in the back. I knew then the area where I wanted to go. Looking back now, I realize he clearly had special needs." She feels that, with all the difficult demands special education entails ("because we're obligated to service these students' special needs"), I feel we're doing a great job here in the district because of a dedicated, knowledgeable, and hard-working staff performing and delivering services and programs to some 2,600 students with a variety of disabilities." "The most important thing for me is to look at each child as an individual and that we support them with services and programs that will contribute to their development, so that they become as successful and independent as possible," Valadez said. Great strides have been made to better the lives of impaired students. They even have a safety net available for life, after their 22nd year, if they wish to avail of the guarantees under the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act. In simple terms, this is the California law that says people with developmental disabilities and their families have a right to get the services and supports they need to live like people who don't have disabilities. (Thus Arc, etc.). All they have to do is get in touch with the appropriate Regional Center that can address their needs.
********** Published: December 22, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 36