School officials observe rise in special education students

Argen Duncan

Portales Municipal Schools has seen the number of special education students rise more than the overall enrollment increase, and administrators say they’re doing whatever they need to serve every student.

At the May school board meeting, Director of Special Student Services Jacqueline “Jackie” Burns said the number of special education students increased 10.8 percent, while total district enrollment went up 5.1 percent, this academic year. As of last week, Burns said Tuesday, Portales schools have 604 special education students, including 59 in the gifted program.

The gifted program has also grown slightly, she said.

Burns said administrators don’t know why special education numbers are increasing.

“We’ve tried to analyze it,” she said. “There are some trends that are pretty common to districts throughout New Mexico.”

Burns said those trends include higher enrollments in pre-kindergarten, the population segment that has grown the most in the state. Portales’ pre-kindergarten program for developmentally delayed children has about 120 students, 40 children more than two years ago, she said.

“There’s definitely a trend of more identification of students with autism,” Burns also said. “And that seems to be a national trend as well.”

Twenty-two students in Portales schools have autism listed as their primary issue, and others have autism along with other disabilities, she said.

Furthermore, Portales has seen a rise in students qualifying for speech-related services, Burns said. As of the 120th day of school in February, 217 students were getting speech-language services alone, while others received that therapy along with help for other disabilities.

In the last two years, Burns said, more students have entered the special education program than left it. Superintendent Randy Fowler said of the students moving into the district in the last year, a larger percentage had a special education diagnosis.

To keep up with needs, Burns said, the district has consultants in autism, sends teachers to professional development, has added more staff and works with contractors and the University of New Mexico.

Burns said Public Education secretary designate Hanna Skandera has said special education units in the public schools funding formula are up across the state. As a result, Skandera ordered audits of special education records in 35 New Mexico schools districts this spring.

Portales was one of eight districts found to be in compliance, Burns said. Nine districts are still undergoing the audit.

In the state public schools funding formula, a special education student counts for more funding units than a regular education student.

Fowler said the money is necessary to cover the costs of special services and more teachers. He said the state money for special education doesn’t cover all costs in most districts, but school officials make sure their budgets provide for students who qualify for the services.

“We have students here, we have students that come in throughout the year, and we do our best to provide the services needed for each child,” he said.