Why are more Grand Forks Public Schools students enrolled in special education? And how is the district adjusting to the change?

In October of this year, 1,367 of Grand Forks’ approximately 7,400 students were in special education, up from 1,285 in December of the year before. The district’s special education enrollment grew by approximately 15% from 2011-12 to 2018-19, outpacing overall enrollment growth, which was approximately 7% in that span.

“When I started teaching special ed, it was more, maybe we had a certain number of students with just a learning disability and maybe some speech language impairment,” said Tricia Lee, the school district’s special education director. “And now we’re having students coming through who maybe have an emotional disturbance and a learning disability. It’s just more complex and there’s a higher incidence of some of those disabilities than there have been in the past.”

It’s a nationwide trend that doesn’t necessarily have a clear – or single – reason behind it, according to interviews with Grand Forks and North Dakota special education leaders.

Most who spoke to the Herald point to improved diagnostic tools that, at least in theory, could mean more students who otherwise would have been put into general education are pointed toward special ed.

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“You’re getting kids that we may not have caught, we’ll say, even 10 years ago that we’re catching now,” Kirsten Dvorak, the executive director of The Arc of North Dakota, the statewide chapter of a national organization that advocates for special education children and families.

The number of Grand Forks Public Schools students diagnosed with autism has risen from 72 to 94 since 2009, for instance.

But Grand Forks Public Schools Superintendent Terry Brenner said it’s hard to know if more diagnoses means kids nowadays are being diagnosed with autism when they otherwise wouldn’t have been a few decades earlier, or if there’s an honest-to-goodness rise in the number of kids with autism.

“The research isn’t conclusive on that,” he told the Herald. “There’s a presumption that we know more about child development and we have different assessment procedures and protocols in place that we didn’t have even a generation ago.”

Complicating that line of thinking: some students are diagnosed with autism but don’t require special education.

A 2018 University of Minnesota study found that the rate of autism among 8-year-olds in that state was about 1 in 42, about 40% higher than the 1 in 59 nationwide figure recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study relied on data about children in Hennepin County and Ramsey County – two of the state’s most populous and home to Minneapolis and St. Paul – and its principal investigator speculated that the higher prevalence rate might be at least partly due to the concentration of services and supports in the Twin Cities.

Another popular theory, floated by multiple Herald interviewees, is that special education students from smaller school districts are heading to Grand Forks Public Schools, one of the largest in the area, because its economies of scale mean staff there can offer more or better services.

At least anecdotally, students in smaller districts head to larger ones if they feel they’d be better served there, but data supplied by the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction and Grand Forks school administrators doesn’t seem to indicate that it’s the cause for the increase in special education students. The number of special ed students who enroll in Grand Forks Public Schools from other districts has fluctuated between between 19 and 29 since the 2008-2009 school year. If anything, it’s gone down recently, from 29 in 2016-17 to 25 last school year, even as the proportion of special education students in the district rose from 15.5% to 20%.

That rise could also be partly due to greater rates of depression and anxiety among students, some of whom qualify for special education services. Some students are able to cope via in-school and out-of-school therapy, Brenner said; others are too anxious to enter a school building, for instance.

“This is a phenomenon that is sweeping the country,” he said. “And nobody has found the silver bullet.”

Partially funded

Regardless of its cause, the rise is an expensive one for the school district.

The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act – later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, usually shortened to “IDEA” – built the foundation of current-day special education funding and policy, and required school districts to serve students with special needs.

But that mandate is only partially funded. The feds are, at least on paper, supposed to pay for 40% of the additional costs a school district incurs from educating a special needs student, which means states and districts pick up the rest. But real funding levels have missed that mark.

In the fiscal year that covered the 2018-2019 school year, the federal government sent Grand Forks Public Schools $2.16 million for special education and the state government sent $780,000. The district’s special education expenses totaled $18.71 million – a figure that’s risen from $11.29 million in the 2010 fiscal year.

“What’s requested and what’s actually appropriated have always been significantly different,” said Scott Berge, the school district’s business manager. “It’s been underfunded the last 45 years, in effect, and I think it’s getting less well-funded each year, is what it seems like.”

More staff, but still a need

But educated guesses about where special education students come from can only get so far, at least for now, and calls for greater funding come from government agencies budget cycle after budget cycle. Ultimately, school districts are obligated to serve special education students, regardless of the reason or the price tag.

So, what’s the district in Grand Forks doing differently, if anything, to provide for the growing number of them? How are educators and advocates here adapting?

Grand Forks Public Schools has hired 16 new staff in the past two years, including four social workers, three “behavioral facilitators,” a mental health coordinator, an addiction counselor, and two special education nurses. It’s also hired three long-term substitute teachers to work with middle school-aged special education students.

“Depression, anxiety, autism, those are the fastest rising categories that we’re seeing in our school district, so we’re just responding to that,” Brenner said. “If we could get ahead of it – if we can get ahead of it – then we’re going to be the litmus test and we will have the silver bullet for the rest of the country.”

But there’s nonetheless a gap in Grand Forks and elsewhere. The school district has struggled to find school psychologists, which means it subcontracted that service recently, and Brenner said the broader Grand Forks community lacks enough clinical settings where students can get the emotional help they need before they even walk into a classroom.

“We’re pretty maxed out with our budget with staffing,” Brenner said.

Rachel Hafner is the executive director of The Arc Upper Valley, the Grand Forks-area chapter of the special ed advocacy nonprofit. Hafner sits in on Individualized Educational Plan meetings, where a specific special education students’ parents work with teachers and other district staff to create or refine a plan for them – how are they doing in school? Do they need extra time for tests? Speech therapy?

“It’s very overwhelming for parents to navigate that and to go through that process and to feel heard,” Hafner said.

Parents sometimes feel that they need to consistently defer to the team of administrators in the room. For the moment, it’s just Hafner who sits in on those meetings. She hopes to hire another person to do the same.

“We’re always trying to find creative ways to serve each child,” Hafner said, and there are some Grand Forks Public Schools administrators who are open to trying and brainstorming new ways to help special education students. “If one thing doesn’t work they’ll try another.”