DC Public Schools officials are trying to cut down on the number of students being diagnosed with disabilities and enrolled in special education programs.
The effort is part of the school system and the city's goal of reducing the number of public school students attending "nonpublic schools," relatively pricey private schools and public schools in neighboring Maryland and Virginia school systems paid for by the District.
DCPS enrolls 8,221 special education students, accounting for 18 percent of the schools' population, according to data provided by the school system. Of those, 1,189 attend nonpublic schools.
DCPS would like to cut the number of special education students to roughly 6,800, said Nathaniel Beers, chief of DCPS' Office of Special Education.
The goal stems from a finding by the U.S. Department of Education that the school system tends to overidentify students as special education although they may simply be struggling academically, he said.
A spokesman at the Department of Education said the department has not told DCPS it must reduce the number of students with disabilities.
"Historically, DCPS has not done a spectacular job of providing great general education for students," Beers said. "If you get to middle school and are reading at a third- and fourth-grade level and you don't know what's going on in the class because you can't keep up with the content, you act out behaviorally. Then you get identified as a student who has emotional disabilities when the reality is that we didn't provide the upfront education."
To meet its goal, DCPS is spending some of its special education dollars on social workers and guidance counselors who work with all students to address problems before they escalate into behaviors commonly mistaken for disabilities.
But Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children's Law Center, warned against thinking about special education students in terms of numbers.
"I don't think it's about percentages," she said. "It's about carefully identifying students." Among the existing special education population, the school system hopes to integrate more students into classes with their nonspecial education peers as often as possible. That will help DCPS meet its goal of having 70 percent of students proficient in math and reading by 2017.
Students from low-income families tend to be particularly susceptible to being misdiagnosed with a disability, and with 77 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals, DCPS has a particularly high rate of special education participation compared with other urban districts.
"Many children in the District experience high levels of trauma because of living in high concentrations of poverty [and] violence in their homes," Sandalow said.