Number of special-needs students in county rises by 137

Mesa County has 137 more children on special education plans in 2013-14 than in 2012-13, prompting the creation of three new part-time special education teaching positions and one new full-time position to handle increased case loads in School District 51.

The vast majority of the 2,738 special education students up to 21 years old in Mesa County are in District 51. Half-time teachers were brought into Lincoln Orchard Mesa, Dos Rios and Pomona elementary schools this year following an annual Dec. 1 count of special education students that showed a 5 percent increase in special needs students year over year. The equivalent of 12 full-time paraprofessionals were also added and placed at schools based on need.

The one full-time position is for an autism classroom created in February at New Emerson School. Grand Junction High School, Redlands Middle School and Orchard Avenue Elementary School all have a classroom tailored to about a half-dozen students each with autism who have limited or no verbal communication skills and complex social and behavioral needs. District 51 Executive Director of Student Services Tanya Skalecki said there were three elementary-age students who needed grade-level curriculum but their social needs made it hard for them to learn effectively in a traditional classroom. Those students moved into the program in a modular at New Emerson.

“The routine is the same, the class is structured and they have less anxiety because there aren’t so many kids in the class,” Skalecki said.

Autism spectrum disorders are among the fastest-growing diagnoses in the 16 categories of special education, both in the district and nationwide. The number of District 51 6-year-olds through 21-year-olds with autism increased from 142 in December 2012 to 158 in December 2013, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

Students with a specific learning disability were the most common special education group in the district during the Dec. 1 count, which was only recently released by the CDE. In Mesa County, 1,066 children between birth and age 21 had a specific learning disability listed as their primary disability in the December count. Other large categories include speech or language impairment (512), physical disability (388), and serious emotional disability (184).

Skalecki said it’s hard to pinpoint a reason special education numbers are increasing. District 51 added 164 students year over year in 2013-14 but that alone did not account for the special education increase.

It also can be difficult to pinpoint how effective a district’s special education programming is for students but Skalecki said she hopes to gain evidence that the district is doing the right thing as state guidelines change next year to require all districts to evaluate their special education programming every year. Audits currently happen once every five years in Colorado.


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