Alameda City Unified copes with growing demands of speech and language disabled Featured Photo

Alameda City Unified copes with growing demands of speech and language disabled

Tom Chorneau, Managing Editor
SI&A K-12 Daily

One out of every 20 school-age children nationally have some form of disability, according to recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau – with speech and language impairment representing one of the fastest-growing segments of the population.

While many districts in California struggle with speech and language enrollment rates of upwards of 40 percent – officials at Alameda City Unified have employed careful evaluation methods that don’t just control costs but also ensure proper diagnosis that, in turn, promotes student needs.

Susan Mitchell, director of special education at Alameda City, credited efforts by the speech therapy team to employ more uniform and consistent methods in initial assessment.

“It’s not just a matter of making sure about the eligibility of a student – we are also explaining our findings better to the parents and members of the IEP (Individualized Education Program) team,” she explained.

“Often times, the team is looking for ways to provide services, and because the criteria for speech and language impairment can be broad, they often look to the speech therapist to see if they can use the criteria to qualify a student,” Mitchell said. “To be able to express things well to a hopeful team has proved to be a very good approach.”

Management experts in the field of special education programs often point to the speech and language impairment diagnosis as the gateway into special education..

Among young children, there is a great deal of variation with respect to language development, which often leads to misidentification. This is especially true, experts say, among English learners, where factors other than learning disorders have created the barrier.

The issue of misidentification is critical, experts say, because of the infrequency with which special education students ever return to the general school population; recent studies have shown that less than 1 percent per year are transferred back.

There is a broad assumption that nationally, about 18 percent of all students with disabilities are speech and language impaired, although in California the statewide average is about 24 percent.

Alameda City is close to that average at 25 percent – which is actually exceptional when compared to districts of similar size and makeup.

Out of 12 districts statewide with a number of common demographic categories – Alameda City can boast the second-lowest speech and language rate among students with disabilites. Almost half of the comparison set had rates at 29 percent or higher – two had rates higher than 40 percent.

Roberta Rockwell, the district’s lead speech therapist, said that the impetus for reevaluating operations wasn’t driven by budget concerns or growth in the target population. Instead, she said, there was a need to impose more uniformity in how the team was making evaluations.

She noted the district, which has 13 therapists, had been employing a large number of new graduates from university programs and there were growing concerns that the new hires were not using like methods.

The team began emphasizing a severity rating scale and protocols, checklists and procedures Rockwell had helped develop to better guide the evaluations of students in terms of eligibility as well as exit criteria.

Rockwell noted that during the four years since they started using the new guidelines, the state and federal laws governing special education requirements and diagnosis had not changed significantly. “What might have varied was that we were more strictly adhering to them,” she said. “And what changed was the way we expressed ourselves to the (IEP) team.”

That is, the use of specific tests and analysis might not differ from before, but how they use the data to explain their decision has become more consistent.

As a result, Alameda has reported some impressive numbers: last year the proportion of pupils identified for special education due to speech and language impairment fell from 45 percent to 35 percent.

Even more noteworthy, the district reported that 45 of 155 students originally enrolled in special education because of speech or language issues were transferred back to general education last year – that’s 29 percent in one year.

Rockwell said the process is still one where each therapist relies on professional expertise. “There’s still a lot of room for professional judgment – but that’s where all of our training comes in,” she said. “We are more uniform in our collection of information and we are making sure that we are looking at the student as a whole, which includes their academic performance.”