Austin chuckles — or maybe it’s a gurgle of disdain.
He slaps the hand offering a round piece of colored plastic with a letter on it. It is offered again, he slaps it again. And again. And again. An adult reaches over his shoulder, gently grasping his hand and guiding it to take the letter and place it atop a matching circle on a “bubble gum machine” poster.
Austin quiets. Another letter is offered. He takes it himself and places it on its matching bubble gum ball, unassisted. His reward: a flurry of soap bubbles blown his way, evoking playful swats and giggles. Yes, definitely giggles this time.
“These kids are exactly like every other student,” teacher Tracey Scialpi said with a sincerity as simple as it was profound. “The only thing that is different is how they communicate.”
Scialpi teaches autistic children, a booming diagnosis in special education, a field rife with — and, proponents argue, ripe for — major changes. But there are forces far beyond the classroom shaping the children’s lives.
Elsewhere in the room at the Pittston Area Primary Center last week, Kayla worked studiously with cards in a corner. Christian uses a photographer’s camera to take a self portrait that could vie for honors in an art show.
In other settings with other people, these children, ages 5 to 8, would likely be running, ramming, wailing or otherwise acting out. Here they are individuals given structure and hope. Outside these walls, among the halls of power in Harrisburg and Washington, they are statistics.
These are the numbers for special education in Luzerne County’s 11 school districts:
• There were 6,117 students in 2012-13 — 14.5 percent of total enrollment. Highest percentage: 19.5, at Greater Nanticoke Area. Lowest: 9.6 percent at Crestwood.
• Fastest-growing diagnosis: Autism, from 138 students in 2007-08 to 351 last year, up 155.3 percent.
• Total cost: Just short of $71.7 million last year, 23 percent higher than 2007-08. Amount of that offset with state money: It’s been stuck at about $21 million annually for five years.
These are the debates whirling around special education at this moment:
• Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget for next year includes the first increase in state funding in six years. Many fear that will disappear into the gaping maw of a $1.2 billion (with a B) shortfall in this year’s budget.
• A commission has recommended a new formula to dole out state special education money more equitably, increasing amounts based on actual need. Some believe the plan is also in jeopardy, another victim of an austere budget.
• Local districts still await millions in reimbursement from Medicaid money — delayed for two years through confusion over changes in federal rules — that ordinarily cover some special education costs
Austin, Kayla and Christian?
They are the engaging faces behind the cold numbers, the real lives behind the political theater.
What it is
Special education isn’t a category; it’s a canopy, an enormous tent housing everything from occasional help with a reading issue to intensive “life skill” classes for those with conditions so severe that holding a spoon is a hard lesson to master.
District costs can run from a few thousand dollars a year for an itinerant teacher who visits a school once a week, “to specialized programs that may be $30,000 a year,” Luzerne Intermediate Unit Executive Director Anthony Grieco said.
In a few cases, when a student needs specialized services available only at a residential facility outside the district, that $30,000 can double and even triple. “We don’t have a tremendously high incidence of those in our county, but every district has a few,” Grieco noted.
In most cases, by law, special education students attend regular classes, getting help as needed through appropriate equipment, aides or limited “pull-out” sessions to address particular issues. But some require a separate classroom full-time.
“Just like in any classroom, the cost of everything we do is essentially numerator over denominator,” Grieco said.
The more students handled by a single teacher, the less costly. Special education often drives up the cost by requiring smaller classrooms with one or two teachers, a few paraprofessionals and therapeutic support staff.
In fact, the main purpose of the LIU is often to keep costs down for districts that only have a few students requiring certain services. Districts that have larger special education enrollments often handle the programs in house because it pays to hire a full-time teacher and staff. Those with smaller enrollments may bring in LIU staff, or send students to an LIU center.
Scialpi’s class is a textbook example. Though housed in a Pittston Area room, it currently has no Pittston Area students. And the six students enrolled this year come from six different districts.
By pooling together in one room, they get all-day attention from one teacher steeped in a state-approved and audited autism education system with two paraprofessionals and enough Autism Classroom Therapeutic Staff to give students one-on-one attention for much of the day.
Mornings are spent on individual lessons, moving among one of six stations: Fine motor skills, library, math, visual performance generally involving computer work, intensive teaching and learning to ask for things in an appropriate way.
Makeshift screens — a decorated rectangle of vinyl strung across a rectangle of plastic tubes, for example — help block out distractions.
The afternoons generally are group lessons in math, reading and art. Students get occupational, speech and physical therapy visits as needed. There are also excursions to community events such as an annual autism picnic in Dallas and the yearly LIU “Field Day” in Kingston.
“They are rewarded continuously for success,” Scialpi said, with whatever may be their preferred perk. For many it’s a favorite food; for Austin, it’s bubbles.
As in many special education settings, teaching such a class is as much a matter of experience as it is of training. When a student is non-verbal, figuring out what works is like cracking a code. Scialpi’s decision to guide Austin’s hand in the letter-matching task is one such strategy, called “hand on hand,” giving a student a clear idea of what to do.
Scialpi has been at this six years, and concedes “the first year was very hard” as she learned to unlock all those codes.
“These students taught me. I didn’t teach them,” she said.
How it changed
The state annually posts total special education enrollment for each district, broken down by percentage of students in each of 12 categories ranging from autism to visual impairment. Comparing the data for Luzerne County districts from available years (2007-08 through 20012-13), two things stand out:
• Both the number and percentage of special education student enrollment have remained strikingly flat: 6,122 students in 2007-08 and 6,117 in 2012-13, or about 14.5 percent of total enrollment in both years.
• Yet the percentages in categories have shifted substantially. Autism rose by the aforementioned 155 percent and “other health impairment” climbed almost 90 percent. “Intellectual disability” (mental retardation) and “learning disability” both dropped by about 15 percent each, while “visual impairment” went from 15 students to zero.
Grieco offered two most likely explanations:
• Some conditions, including the three with big drops mentioned, have proven susceptible to early intervention. Help a student overcome a disability at a young enough age — prior to kindergarten, in fact — and they do not need help in later grades.
• The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” the guide in classifying adults and students alike, has been revised. Many students who would have been diagnosed in one category a few years ago may fall into another category today. Autism, in particular, has been expanded over the years to a spectrum ranging from mild to severe needs.
One thing that has not changed is state funding for special education.
When it comes to helping defray the costs of teaching students like Austin, Harrisburg has stuck itself in a pre-recession time warp: Total special education subsidy to Luzerne County districts in 2007-08: about $20.5 million and change. Total in 2012-13: about $21.5 million.
This despite the fact that actual spending by area districts climbed from $57.9 million to $71.7 million. Districts lost more money when the federal government changed the rules in using Medicaid to cover some educational costs, and the state contracted with a new company to handle disbursements.
Confusion resulting from the changes has led to a steep drop in money available to districts — half-a-million and counting in Hazleton Area alone — from Medicaid.
State officials keep promising the issue will be cleared up and at least some of the anticipated money paid out, but it hasn’t happened. And the problem started in the 2012-13 school year.
By law, districts must provide needed services — a “free and appropriate education” — regardless of state and federal funds. And from a student and parent perspective, that’s the bottom line.
“I’m not concerned, as a parent, with the funding side of it. I’m concerned about what’s appropriate for my daughter’s education,” said Frank Bartoli, whose daughter Elly was born with Down syndrome and is attending Pittston Area High School.
“I understand there’s a money crunch,” he added. “What I don’t want to hear is ‘We don’t have the money for that’.”
Child needs are established by an “Individual Education Plan” team consisting of professionals involved in the student’s health and education, and the parent. If the IEP team agrees on a need, the district must provide.
For the parent, that’s a core lesson to grasp when first invited to the table, Bartoli said.
“One of the difficulties of entering into the IEP process is that you don’t really know what your role is,” Bartoli said of his own experience when Elly, now 16, first entered school. “You go to this thing and you are around the table with professionals, and this is their daily job, so they know what’s going on but you aren’t that knowledgeable.”
Like many parents of special needs students, Bartoli learned, and quickly became the most passionate advocate for his child. It can take years to fully grasp the ins and outs of both a child’s needs and legal rights, and the best way to master it all is to remember you’re not the first parent invited into an IEP session.
“If I was asked, do I have any advice for parents, it would be to develop a network of people who have been through the system and learn as much as you can through them,” Bartoli said.
Eileen Totino echoed the sentiment. “When you start, there are many, many, many issues,” she said as she waited with obvious satisfaction for an graduation ceremony for her daughter, Gabriella, and 15 other students leaving LIU programs for good this year (special needs students can legally stay in school until they are 21).
Totino praised the LIU staff in helping her autistic daughter reach this milestone, but voiced serious concern about what lies ahead. “We are thrilled to be here,” she said. But there are major concerns about what comes after this.” She fears there are not enough support programs to help her daughter transition to the next step.
As to his daughter’s future, Bartoli he expressed a clear-eyed optimism. Being placed in regular classrooms most of the time helped her overcome innate shyness and develop friends, confidence and social skills. “She’s really blossomed in the last year.”
She will almost certainly graduate when she turns 18, if for no other reason than to show up her younger brother Brian. “She always says ‘Brian, I’m older, I get to do things first’.”
And while the day will come that the family can no longer offer the support she needs — whether her parents become to frail or Elly herself decides it’s time to move out — Bartoli is confident things will work out.
“She has the aptitude to work competitively in the community,” he said. With some support, “she has the chance to have a life just like anyone else.”