Special education needs rising in Surry

Published 7:16 pm Tuesday, May 10, 2022

While Surry County Public Schools overall enrollment has been declining since 2015, its percentage of students in special education is on the rise.

According to data Superintendent Dr. Serbrenia Sims shared at the April School Board meeting, roughly one in five students currently enrolled has an individualized education plan (IEP) or receives accommodations under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act.

In 2013, Surry had 902 students. As of September 2019, enrollment had fallen 18% to 738. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in enrollment falling another 11% to 657 as of September 2021.

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In 2009, special education students comprised about 14% of the school system’s enrollment. Now, they account for nearly 20%. With the increase comes an added cost, as these students are legally required to be provided with additional resources, Sims said.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires schools provide a “free appropriate public education” to students with disabilities” in the “least restrictive environment.”

According to Virginia Department of Education data, Surry was already spending over $20,000 per student as of the 2019-2020 school year — nearly double the $10,518 neighboring Isle of Wight County Schools reported as its per-pupil cost for the same school year.

Sims has proposed a budget of just under $20.8 million for the 2022-23 school year. The budget amounts to a nearly 19% increase over the current year’s $17.49 million budget. The majority of the increase would come from an anticipated $2.6 million in grant funding, but includes a request for an additional $221,316 from Surry’s Board of Supervisors. The request amounts to a 1.75% increase over Surry’s current $12.6 million local contribution to its school system.

The supervisors have scheduled a May 12 public hearing on the county’s overall budget, to include the contribution to Surry County Public Schools. The School Board is scheduled to approve its final budget, incorporating any changes based on the county’s contribution, on May 17.

Sims couldn’t say what was driving the uptick in Surry’s number of children in special education.

“We continue to research and interpret data on our rising Special Education numbers,” she told The Smithfield Times following the April 12 School Board meeting. “To date, we do not have a definitive reason for the increase.”

But it does appear to reflect a nationwide trend.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the number of children and young adults ages 3-21 diagnosed with autism rose from 336,000 during the 2008-09 school year to 803,000 as of 2019-20. The number with developmental delays also surged from 354,000 in 2008-09 to 502,000 in 2019-20.