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The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at maya@voiceofsandiego.org.


School districts are expected to provide services for students with disabilities.

There are laws protecting those students’ rights, and special funds – though they aren’t sufficient – that school districts receive from the state and federal governments to provide them services.

Still, sometimes districts just can’t provide what a student needs. That’s where nonpublic schools come in.

A nonpublic school serves students with special needs and operates independently of school districts, but still receives public funds. In cases where school districts cannot provide adequate services to a student with disabilities, the district will pay for him or her to attend one of these schools.

“I think it’s important that people understand school districts need nonpublic schools as alternatives for those times when we don’t have the appropriate services in schools,” said Cara Schukoske, executive director for Special Education Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. “And nonpublic schools need districts because that’s how they get students.”

There are roughly 25 of these schools in San Diego County, according to the California Department of Education, and demand has been on the rise.

“To me, it seems more cost-effective,” said Nancy MacNamara, the principal of the San Diego Center for Children, a nonpublic school that primarily serves students with severe emotional or behavioral issues. “We take some of the most difficult kids.”

While nonpublic schools technically aren’t part of any government agency, they need to be certified by the state Department of Education to be able to receive public funds and are included in the Education Code.

The County Office of Education helps districts negotiate agreements and contracts for pricing with the nonpublic schools.

Some of the schools receive private money. For example, a parent could opt to not go through a public school district and pay out of pocket directly to a nonpublic school.

When districts pay for students to attend nonpublic schools, they are still considered district students. A district representative is still part of the students’ Individualized Education Program meetings, which lay out the students’ needs and goals and tracks their progress.

“The goal of a nonpublic school is to get the kids back to a less restrictive environment,” MacNamara said, though she admitted that’s not always possible.

Students can also potentially earn diplomas from their district even if they’re attending a nonpublic school.

MacNamara’s school, for example, offers students the opportunity to take the A-G coursework required by San Diego Unified to graduate.

Students can end up at nonpublic schools in a few different ways. Sometimes during meetings with special education staff at a public school district, parents and staff mutually decide that a nonpublic school can better serve a student’s needs. Sometimes it’s a result of due process, where students are moved to nonpublic schools at district expense as the result of a settlement.

MacNamara said San Diego Center for Children has a selective process for choosing students. It typically requires students to visit at least two days in a row before deciding whether to accept them. Since the school serves students with severe emotional and behavioral issues, MacNamara said she wants to make sure her teachers and staff can meet their needs.

Nonpublic schools can also decide they can no longer serve a student, in which case, they must give the district and parents 20 days’ notice, said Schukoske.

Since 2013, the number of San Diego Unified students attending nonpublic schools has been steadily rising.

The cost of nonpublic school tuition increased more than 23 percent between 2013-14 and 2015-16, according to a San Diego Unified report.

MacNamara said enrollment at her school has doubled in the nine years she’s been principal. It now serves about 100 students.

Poway Unified also saw an increase in nonpublic school enrollment, according to a report commissioned by the district, though the number has dropped in the past year since the district has been trying to provide alternative options within its schools.

MacNamara said that while districts may be concerned with the money they spend on nonpublic school tuition, she still doesn’t receive enough funds to pay teachers and staff as much as traditional public schools do.

“To work at a place like this, you have to be a special person.” MacNamara said. “We are a very collaborative program and we give our teachers and staff a lot of support. But we do take the most difficult kids.”

It’s hard to say why the demand has been increasing, said Schukoske.

“I can tell you nonpublics within San Diego County have been growing,” Schukoske said. “The number of special education students overall has been growing. We’re seeing an increase also in the student needs and in the awareness of the alternatives that are out there. It’s hard to say which particular reason is the cause.”

But the growth in demand is putting some children with severe disabilities and their parents in a tough spot. There’s a higher demand for nonpublic schools than supply and parents sometimes end up on waiting lists for months, keeping their children in district special education programs until they can find a spot.

“I can tell you for kids in the county right now with severe behaviors, it’s difficult to find a spot that can appropriately service them,” Schukoske said. “There is a demand and nonpublic schools are by in large full.”

Local Ed Stories

• San Diego Unified’s school choice application window opened last week, and parents have until Nov. 13 to apply to schools within the district if they don’t want to attend their neighborhood school. Each year, roughly 10,000 students apply for the program. We put together an incredibly useful map of public schools throughout the county with data about their test scores, what programs they offer and demographics. We also have a handy guide to school choice at the district.

• San Diego Unified is exploring later start times for high school students. (Union-Tribune)

• A San Diego High teacher has been named one of California’s five Teachers of the Year. (Union-Tribune)

• Sweetwater Union High School District is receiving an $8 million grant from the Department of Defense to implement a national math and science initiative at 10 district high schools. (City News Service)

• California’s Board of Education president says special education is in “deep trouble.” (EdSource)

• CALmatters tries to answer the question, “Is there something weird about California’s standardized test scores?”

• California Virtual Academies, which enrolls 15,000 students in online education programs across California, owes the state Department of Education nearly $2 million for improperly handling funds. (The Mercury News)

Other Ed News

• While I already knew this, seeing a comprehensive study confirming it is still heartbreaking: Even girls with perfect GPAs don’t think they are smart enough for their dream career and many don’t speak their minds for fear of being disliked. (Ruling Our Experiences)

• Roughly 20,000 teachers nationwide are at risk if Congress doesn’t fix the Trump administration’s phase-out of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (USA Today)

• Why are American teens suffering from severe anxiety more than ever? (New York Times)

• A fascinating history of school lunches. (Pacific Standard)

• Nationwide, there are still three times as many Latino students as instructors. (The 74)

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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