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Districts with more low-income families could have higher special education needs

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
'There's a big span of ability,' says learning support teacher Nicole Williams of the first grade class she provides assistance to at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion. The class is grouped into several pods of students, with Williams working in the classroom with a learning support paraprofessional and the main teacher. The teacher will give some students extra work so they can continue ahead in a lesson, 'While we review and review and review,' says Williams. A first grade student in Williams' pod writes in her journal during class at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014.

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Students who qualify for the National School Lunch program are considered to be from low-income families. A family of four must earn less than $42,643 annually for children to qualify for a free or reduced lunch, under guidelines for 2012-13.

Special education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act defines 13 areas of mental, physical, behavior and emotional disability that qualify a student to be tested for special-education services.

• Autism

• Blindness

• Deafness

• Emotional disturbance

• Hearing impairment

• Intellectual disability

• Multiple disabilities

• Orthopedic impairment

• Other health impaired

• Specific learning disability

• Speech or language impairment

• Traumatic brain injury

• Visual impairment

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By Daveen Rae Kurutz and Patrick Varine
Thursday, June 5, 2014, 11:24 a.m.

Poverty and the need for special education often go hand-in-hand in more than a third of school districts in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Of the 117 school districts in southwestern Pennsylvania, 40 educated a higher-than-average population of both special education and low-income students during the 2012-13 school year, according to a Trib Total Media analysis of state Department of Education figures.

Data shows that districts that serve low-income families are more likely to have higher percentages of special-education students. All but 12 of the 52 districts that serve communities with more than 41 percent of students identified as low-income also have a higher than average percent of special-education students.

Comparatively, of the 65 districts serving fewer low-income families than average, only 21 have more than 15.3 percent of students identified as special education.

Poverty and special education are “intimately connected,” said Mary Wagner, principal scientist in the Center of Education and Research Services at SRI International, an independent, nonprofit national research institute. There is a relationship between poverty and disability, Wagner said, but one doesn't cause the other.

“Poverty is a driving factor in a child ending up needing special-education services,” Wagner said. “It goes in both directions.”

For example, Wagner said, a mother who can't afford prenatal care and can't afford to feed her child well, the child may not grow up healthy, then gets to school and sometimes has behavioral and intellectual disabilities.

Paul Rach, chief recovery officer for Duquesne City School District, sees the dynamic between poverty and special education.

Districts serving poor families deal with several issues that can affect whether a student is identified as special education, Rach said, including inadequate prenatal care, poor nutrition, and a fetal drug and alcohol problems.

“I don't think any of that is uncommon is poor districts,” Rach said.

Many districts serving poor communities struggle to pay expenses even without a high percentage of special-education students. At Albert Gallatin in Fayette County, Special Education Director Sheri Dunham has a wish list as long as her students' Christmas lists.

More than one-fifth of the district's students are identified as special education. There are many things — like iPads and smartboards or additional teachers and tutors — that could help students improve or help with early identification, Dunham said.

“It's what I call a bare-bones operation,” Dunham said. “Funding definitely limits us from going above and beyond what the basic requirements of the law are.”

State and federal laws require special-education students receive all necessary services.

That's why a district's socioeconomic status should be a factor in determining special-education funding, said Ron Cowell, president of the Educational Policy and Leadership Center. A former state representative and chairman of house education committees, Cowell said the current formula shifts most special-education costs onto taxpayers — more than $1.5 billion statewide.

“That gap, if you will, is aggravated further in many instances by a school district that doesn't have any resources to begin with,” Cowell said. “We're furthering the trend of shifting more and more of the financial obligation from the state to school districts.”

At Penn Hills, officials have made cuts to make ends meet — programs, teachers and busing. About 65 percent of the district's students come from low-income families. Additionally, the district has the fifth highest percentage of special-education students in Allegheny County.

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer and Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or He can be reached at 412-320-7845, or

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