Students with disabilities have dwindled in San Diego Unified. But nobody is exactly sure why. School district officials counted nearly 1,600 fewer special education students this December than three years ago. That adds up to a 9.5 percent drop over the same time that overall enrollment fell only 1 percent.

Educators are still puzzling over why the numbers fell. Special education has waxed and waned over the years, but the numbers fell more steeply this year than enrollment, continuing a steady trend. While a few hundred of those students were in charter schools that split away from San Diego Unified to seek special education services elsewhere, they make up only a little of the drop. Nor is it the result of recategorizing students: Fewer kids exit special education than in the past.

School district officials believe the downward trend could be a good thing, a reflection of schools trying more tactics and offering kids more help before concluding they have a learning disability. That, in turn, is supposed to reduce the disproportionate number of English learners and students of color who are labeled as disabled in San Diego Unified, possibly cutting the overall numbers.

“There’s more willingness to try and try longer and try different things,” said Michelle Crisci, a school psychologist who has worked on district efforts to find more tools to help struggling students.

But the numbers could also be a sign that schools have held back more from identifying children as disabled when they should — something the school district and parent leaders say they see no evidence of — or something else entirely. San Diego Unified has yet to break the data down by race.

“This makes no sense to me,” said Margaret Dalton, supervising attorney for the Education & Disability Clinic at the University of San Diego. “If you want to say that interventions are working earlier and we’re identifying less students, were we over-identifying before?” Dalton said she doesn’t think so.

The mystery is a prime example of the gray area in one of the most difficult decisions a school is faced with: Whether or not to diagnose a student with a disability.

It is a sensitive topic in San Diego Unified. More than three years ago, a Harvard professor penned a report that found that minority students were excessively likely to be put into special education. For instance, black students were three times as likely as white ones to be labeled emotionally disturbed.

If schools are now simply blocking students from getting the disability label, “that would be a remarkable about face,” said parent Moira Allbritton, who leads a special education committee. She doesn’t believe that’s the case. “We’ve historically been pretty aggressive about identifying.”

While some students have obvious disabilities, the biggest chunk of special education students in San Diego Unified are categorized with a “specific learning disability” — a disorder in understanding or using language or math. Such disabilities leave more room for interpretation from school staff.

Scholars fear that gray area can allow schools nationwide to deem students disabled when their problems stem from elsewhere. Special education can become “a catch all” for other problems, from stress at home to inadequate instruction at school, said Daniel Losen, senior law and education associate at the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

To avoid jumping to conclusions, the federal government recommends that schools try an escalating series of strategies before deciding a student has a disability. When one fails, they move on to the next. It sounds deceptively simple — but it systematizes extra help for kids that could be haphazard.

“It’s very easy to identify a kid as having a disability and boot him out of the school or put him in a different classroom,” said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust West, a nonprofit that works against the achievement gap. “This puts in some safety valves.”

That is what San Diego Unified is trying to do. And Balboa Elementary in Southcrest is ahead of the curve. This is its third year using the system, known to educators as “Response to Intervention.” Teachers meet regularly to talk about their struggling students and think up new ways to help.

Two years ago they also started doing “Power Hour,” splitting all students up into small groups based on what they struggled with, where teachers and assistants could focus on the specific things that stumped them. If a kid succeeds, they can easily switch to another group to work on other skills. Students with and without disabilities often sit side by side.

“Now what are these children playing with?” special education resource teacher Rosie Vergara asked, holding up a picture book. Before her sat a Congolese kindergartner brand new to the country, a tiny boy with mental retardation and three more kids with no disabilities who needed reading help.

“Snowmen!” one girl shouted.

“Snowmen. Snowmen,” Vergara repeated to the boy with mental retardation.

The extra attention in Power Hour has helped so many kids that Balboa now refers children to special education less often. When it does, educators are more certain that they need it. It has had to keep cutting its special education staff.

When kids suddenly make gains, “you know it’s not a disorder. You know they just need time. Maybe something’s going on at home,” said speech and language pathologist Thelma Garcia-Long.

But the system that helped Balboa intervene earlier is not solid at all schools. Crisci says a school district committee is still creating a toolbox of different strategies and is about to pilot a computer system to help schools track whether those tactics are working for each child.

San Diego Unified has already made other changes, however. Teachers and principals have gotten new training on identifying students with disabilities. San Diego Unified has also tried to ensure that special education students are not excessively segregated into separate classes. That means that educators for disabled students are now in mainstream classrooms, helping other kids too.

“Maybe those children are doing better — and avoiding getting labeled and put into special education,” said Julia Sazama, a special education teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary. “They’re propping them up.”

It is unclear whether the racial imbalance in special education is reversing in San Diego Unified. But many of the disabilities with the biggest drops in the past year were the same ones tagged for unusually high numbers of minority students. Emotionally disturbed students dropped by 27 percent in the past three years. Speech impairments fell by 24 percent. That happened while autism surged 48 percent.

Similar trends are happening across the state, but the reasons are just as murky. The Lucile Packard Foundation recently asked the public to help it understand why autism is up while learning disabilities are down. One theory is that changes in school finance made it less advantageous to identify kids with learning disabilities. But researchers are still searching for answers.

And so is San Diego Unified.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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