As of October, the number of students in special education at KISD was 8,647, according to a March 18 district report. By October 2019, the district estimates there will be 10,984 special education students, or a 27% year-over-year increase. Over the past 5 years, the year-over-year increase has ranged between 6% and 11%.
The district plans to hire an additional 200 or so teachers and other staff for the 2019-20 school year to address this influx of students.
There are several reasons for this faster-than-usual growth of special education students, such as the Texas Education Agency’s new guidance on identifying children with special needs, the Katy area’s population growth and KISD’s reputation as one of the best school districts, KISD officials, parents and advocacy groups said.
“I think that the growth is multifaceted,” said Andrea Doré, a board member of the Greater Houston Disability Chamber of Commerce.
She is a former KISD special education paraprofessional, or teacher’s aide. She also navigated the KISD special education system as a parent of a child with special needs.
“And with that growth comes all types of students,” she said.
KISD identified the TEA’s new guidance on special education programs as one of the reasons the special education student population is growing so much.
The new guidance involves new practices for Child Find, a federally mandated process for identifying children who may need special education and assessing types of services required, Special Education Compliance Director Gwen Coffey and Executive Director Brian Malechuk said at the March 18 KISD board meeting.
This change follows a January 2018 U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services investigative report. It found the TEA had practices in place to limit the number of students school districts could identify as special education. Districts were encouraged to have no more than 8.5% of their total enrollment as special education.
The DOE and Gov. Greg Abbott charged the TEA to rectify the situation. In April 2018, the TEA released the Special Education Strategic Plan, and one change includes implementing better Child Find practices.
“TEA has since abolished the idea of a 8.5% cap with the firm expectation that all students will be assessed if there’s a suspicion a disability exists,” Malechuk said.
According to previous Community Impact Newspaper reporting, KISD’s special education enrollment reached a low of 7.7% in 2010. The number was at 10.8% at the start of the 2018-19 school year and is expected to grow to 15% by May 2020.
In the March 18 presentation, Coffey also mentioned the DOE investigation caused higher awareness among parents for KISD’ services, another reason for the uptick in special education students.
Doré said that diagnosis is also better, and parents are more aware of how to get a diagnosis and request evaluations for school services.
“There’s a lot of networking among parents,” she said. “We’re all giving each other all of the resources.”
KISD growth and reputation
The Katy area’s growth is also spurring higher enrollment.
“People are moving into the district like crazy,” said Cynthia Reece, president of Katy Autism Support, a nonprofit advocacy organization offering support and education to families who live with autism.
She and Doré said KISD is known for its quality education and advocacy groups, and many parents move to the Katy area for the schools and resources.
Laura Miller, who has a KISD high school daughter receiving special education in math and other accommodations, said her family moved from Malaysia to the Katy area in 2014 for help and resources when her daughter needed brain surgery for epilepsy. At the time, she also had a son entering high school.
“We knew it was the best public school in the [Houston] area,” Miller said. “Regardless, we would have come here because of the reputation of the schools but especially [for] special ed.”
Reece said KISD’s longtime autism programs have helped the district gain a reputation for special education.
“Over the years, the message has gotten out to other parents that Katy ISD is pretty good at servicing children with special needs and specifically autism,” she said. “But it needs to be really clear to parents moving here: Nothing is offered; nothing is automatic.”
Ashley Roberts pointed out families can have different experiences with the KISD special education department. She has a 10-year-old son with dyslexia enrolled in KISD, is the founder of support and advocacy groups Dyslexic Houston and The Dyslexia Initiative, and is a board member of the Houston branch of the International Dyslexia Association.
Roberts said she and other KISD parents of children with dyslexia have struggled to get their children enrolled in special education. But she said the TEA and districts are changing the screening process and services for dyslexic students after the DOE investigation and new state laws.
“I have friends and friends of friends with Down syndrome and autism children who feel like the district is amazing,” she said, contrasting with the 2016 incident when a police officer Tasered a student with intellectual disabilities.
In an email, Malechuk said KISD was not in the position to comment on pending litigation, but safety is a priority for all students.
Community Impact Newspaper reached out to KISD for a response related to the 2016 incident and other parent claims of struggling to receive school resources for their students with disabilities. The district did not respond as of press time.
Doré said there are many special education teachers and staff who care about the students, but there are limitations they must work within.
“I think sometimes their hands are tied when it comes to the way they do things,” she said. “They have to go by their guidelines, but there’s a lot of wonderful people there in the district in special education.”
To prepare for the influx of special education students, the KISD special education department will hire more staffing units for the 2019-20 school year.
These units include approximately 60 teachers, 83 paraprofessionals and 73 assessment professionals such as diagnosticians, speech pathologists and school psychology specialists.
However, this could be a challenge for the district. Nationwide, there is a shortage of special education teachers, according to Education Week Research Center. And with all Texas districts implementing better Child Find practices and identifying more students requiring special education, there will be a high demand for qualified special education teachers across the state.
“We at Katy ISD are aware of the issue,” Malechuk said in an email interview. “For that reason, we allocate a substantial amount of resources, which has allowed us to establish a proactive approach in identifying and recruiting the best possible teachers for all our students.”
Doré agreed the increase of special education students is a statewide issue.
“I think that’s happening all over Texas,” she said. “But people are coming into Katy because of their programming, particularly with Autism. I think Katy is definitely a hot spot.”