Tuesday, September 29, 2009

California counties try to find the funds for many more programs for students with autism

From The Press-Enterprise in California. In the picture, autism specialist Ruth Prystash works with Kaigee Wilson, 4, at the Rob Reiner Children & Families Center in Perris, Calif.

Five years ago, the Riverside County office of education created a class for one preschooler with autism.

Today, there are 28 classrooms for students ages 3 to 22 and another 120 students attending in-home programs, said Rebecca Silva, county special education administrator.

Students with mild autism often can be blended into general classroom environments.

But for more severe cases, Silva said, it's not uncommon to have a teacher and two education assistants for eight students to provide intense, one-on-one instruction.

The smaller classes required to teach autistic children cost an average of $36,000 per student, compared to just under $8,600 for mainstream students, according to the California Department of Education.

Federal and state funding hasn't kept pace, forcing districts to be creative about staffing classrooms, finding additional resources for more services and tapping innovative programs that have worked elsewhere.

Fundraising activities and grant-writing have helped offset some increasing costs at schools in the region.

Some school districts and county offices of education are trying to establish foundations to raise money.

With autism affecting one in 150 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, and the number of children diagnosed rising rapidly in recent years, school districts nationwide are struggling to provide autistic students with the best education possible given the limited resources.

Timothy Walker, special education director for Riverside Unified School District, said recent state funding reductions don't change the fact that each district has an obligation to provide a "unique and individualized" education program for each autistic child in the least restrictive environment, as required by federal law.

In addition to being highly individualized, the curriculum for autistic education programs is becoming increasingly sophisticated, said Anita Ruesterholtz, who has spent three decades in special education.

Ruesterholtz is administrator of the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools' East Valley Special Education Local Plan Area, working with the Colton, Redlands, Rialto, Rim of the World and Yucaipa-Calimesa school districts and the San Bernardino County office of education.

She said creating quality programs for autistic children requires recruiting qualified teachers and paraprofessionals, as well as training them in the latest classroom techniques.

Ruesterholtz said autism programs have improved far beyond the days when the focus was simply getting kids to eat, dress and groom themselves.

"Now we're more aware of how capable the kids are," Ruesterholtz said. "We really look more at focusing on the academic things and work our way back to functional skills if they need that."

Special education coordinators in Riverside and San Bernardino counties say they've managed to keep recent major budget cuts away from special education programs, but some class sizes have been increased.

One bright spot for California special education funding this year came in the form of nearly $1.3 billion in federal stimulus money through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, said Anthony Sotelo, a consultant with the California Department of Education's special education division.

Sotelo said in most cases, the extra money is allowing school districts to shift less of their general education funding to cover special education expenses.

Autism is a developmental disability and generally the result of a neurological disorder that affects brain development in the areas of social interaction and communication, according to the Autism Society of America, a 24,000-member parent advocacy group based in Bethesda, Md.

Because autism affects individuals differently, programs must be tailored, special education teachers say. And rather than reinventing the wheel, special education coordinators look to successful programs as models that are less expensive to implement.

Sotelo cited as one example a special education program the state is encouraging preschools to emulate. The Creative Learning Opportunities and Understanding Differences in Students preschool program in Etiwanda identifies the needs of students at an early age and provides academically challenging curricula aimed at helping set the stage for success later on in school.

Speech pathologist Kristin Ludovico said partnerships between district administrators, teachers and others at the school, families and community members accounted for the successes.

The diversity of autistic students and wide range of needs is illustrated in a Hemet High School classroom where Teresa Ramirez teaches the Yes I Can course.

One autistic student can barely speak, another has behavioral problems and another has one of the highest IQs in the school.

Dennis Massey, former head of Hemet High's special education department, learned about the Yes I Can course during an autism conference at the University of Redlands.

The course has proven successful in Santa Clarita and in schools outside California, Massey said.

Loni Kuhn is an autism specialist and board-certified behavior analyst who works with Ruesterholtz in San Bernardino County. Kuhn focuses on creating "applied behavior-analysis" courses that typically involve a weekly regimen with more than 30 hours of intense, often one-on-one reinforcement techniques to help children speak, play, learn and function in the world.

Kuhn has seen students unable to speak learn to talk. Others can, for the first time, sit in chairs, sit in class and respond to their teachers. Parents often tell Kuhn they can finally take their children out to public events, she said.

The quest to create enough quality programs for students with autism has Inland schools struggling to find qualified teachers, Silva said. There is also a critical need to train special education teachers properly in the latest classroom techniques that have shown good results.

Ruesterholtz said there hasn't been the money to keep up with software and other new technology that assists students.

There's also little money for substitutes who can step in when special education teachers need training, Ruesterholtz said.

Walker said California is moving toward creating a teaching credential specific to autism education, and as that becomes a requirement there will be more recruitment or a need to support staff in obtaining the credential.

Silva said educators have learned to be creative about finding new ways to staff classrooms. This school term, instructional assistants who previously worked in homes have been brought inside classrooms, Silva said.

Hemet Unified School District's governing board recently opted to pay up to $180,000 this school year for the private firm Behavioral and Education Support Team Services to provide tutors, consultants, supervisors and trainers for students with autism. That expenditure is less than what it would cost to hire trained, full-time staff for the 100-plus students with autism, district officials said.

In Riverside Unified, where more than 300 students have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, the district is examining the need for outside agencies and wants to provide services using its own staff, Walker said.

Fundraising has helped offset some increasing costs at schools in the region. One fundraiser at Pechanga Resort & Casino, for instance, raised more than $30,000 to help fulfill wish lists of special education teachers from Temecula Valley Unified School District.

Silva, in the Riverside County office of education, noted that educators and researchers are constantly learning about autism.

"In the past, estimates were that 75 percent of children with autism were also intellectually delayed or impaired," Silva said. "We know now and research backs up that 75 percent are normal or have close to normal intelligence. We truly believe as we work with every child that they are normal."