Mendocino County Office of Education: A Perspective on Education
For those who have children with special needs, it’s important to know the depth and breadth of resources available for local students—and to be aware of who makes decisions about how special education funds are distributed. In California, the Department of Education divides the state into Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs), which are geographical regions that include enough school districts and county offices of education to provide for the needs of the students in their region. They often fall along county lines, which is the case in Mendocino County, where our SELPA includes all school districts within the county as well as the County Office of Education.
Planners and Funders
SELPA is the planning arm of special education and it holds the purse strings. In Mendocino County, SELPA has a fabulous new executive director named Gina Danner. She has worked as a school psychologist and a SELPA program specialist, and she really understands the multi-tiered system of support. Danner reports to the Policy Council, which is made up of our 11 school district superintendents, the county superintendent, and a representative from the Parent Advisory Committee. Once Danner, her staff and the Policy Council identify and agree upon the needs of Mendocino County students, SELPA provides funding to the districts and the county office to provide those services.
Because the Individuals with Disabilities Act says all students are entitled to “free and appropriate public education” (referred to by the acronym “FAPE”), SELPA must consider how best to meet the needs of students with a variety of disabilities, be they physical or emotional. Because SELPA has very few staff members, it contracts with the County Office of Education for administrative services such as payroll, insurance, and human resources. (This causes some folks to confuse SELPA with the County Office of Education, but they are separate entities.) In addition to planning and funding special education, SELPA employs program specialists who help families and school districts work together to meet the needs of special-needs students. Since each school district is responsible for providing FAPE, SELPA program specialists can be great resources: they help families and district personnel better understand FAPE requirements and how best to meet them.
Service Providers for Low-Incidence Disabilities
Some disabilities are rare, such as students who are blind or deaf, and it would be too expensive for all school districts to hire the specialized personnel required to assist students with these low-incidence disabilities. So the County Office of Education hires staff and either invites students to come to a central location to get their special education needs met, or the specialized staff member goes onsite to different schools throughout the week to provide students, families and district staff with extra support. Specialized staff can include sign language interpreters, occupational therapists, school psychologists, speech therapists and behavioral health professionals.
Service Providers for More Common Disabilities
More commonly, families of students with special needs work within their school district to create an individualized education plan (IEP) tailored to meet their students’ needs, including accommodations such as having a hard-of-hearing student sit in the front row where they can better hear the teacher, or allowing additional time for assignments for a student with a cognitive challenge.
What to Do if Your Student is Struggling
When school starts this fall, if your student begins to struggle intellectually or behaviorally, talk to their teacher. Learn about the supports available in the classroom. If those aren’t enough, find out what external supports are available (e.g., reading groups at lunch or after-school tutoring in math). Don’t be afraid to ask the teacher if your child may have a learning disability or appear to be suffering from an emotional challenge. You can ask for your child to be observed by an occupational therapist or a school psychologist to see if testing is warranted. More often than not, school personnel identify potential needs even before parents do.
We have so many resources available to our students. The sooner problems are identified, the sooner they can be remedied. School district personnel understand all children learn at their own pace, and they are always on the lookout for students who could benefit from additional support. Ultimately, the goal of special education is to close the gap between a student’s potential and his or her performance.
Superintendent of Schools