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Colorado struggles to serve the state's most vulnerable students

Maeve Conran
Rocky Mountain Community Radio
The number of facility schools in Colorado is shrinking, leaving the most vulnerable students and their families with fewer options.

Specialized Colorado schools that serve students with intense behavioral, mental health, and special education needs are closing because they don’t have enough funding.

Reporter Melanie Asmar writes about the crisis in Chalkbeat Colorado and tells Maeve Conran about what the state is doing to stem the closure of facility schools.

Melanie Asmar: So, facility schools are generally schools inside of facilities.

That can be residential facilities where children live, or they can be day treatment facilities, or sometimes they're in hospitals.

And they're often run by private organizations or non-profit organizations.

And school districts pay to send students to these facility schools, and we're talking about students who the school districts are struggling to serve because the students have very severe needs.

Maeve Conran: So I know a report that was just released by the state, just at the end of 2022, described these students as the state's most vulnerable students.

Give us a sense of the students that are availing of the services, or (are) being sent to the facility schools.

Melanie Asmar: So a lot of times it's students who have very challenging behavior.

Because of that behavior, the students are struggling to access their education and the schools are struggling to serve them.

You know, so these might be students who have a diagnosis like autism or an emotional disability.

Or, you know, they may be students who've experienced a lot of trauma and, you know, are just really struggling to regulate themselves so that they can be in a classroom and kind of receive that education.

Educators have said students might be just completely shut down and like, not engaging.

Sometimes it looks like students getting very angry.

You know, a student might tip over a desk or throw a chair and you know, they're just really dysregulated and can't access their education and they need treatment.

Maeve Conran: Well, that report that I referenced that came out of this working group that was created essentially by Colorado lawmakers, it has educators involved, facility school, staff members, several others as well.

They released those set of recommendations, that was back in November, but they also identified some of the problems that are facing facility schools.

So maybe let's start with that. What are some of the problems facing facility schools?

Melanie Asmar: The biggest problem is that they are disappearing. They're closing at a rapid rate.

In the past five years, the number of facility schools has shrunk by 30%, and so that makes it difficult when school districts have students who they're struggling to serve.

They have no place to send them to get the treatment, oftentimes the mental health treatment, that they need. And so that is kind of the biggest problem.

And the reason that they're closing is often due to financial reasons, funding.

You know, the facility schools will say, 'we don't have enough funding to stay open.'

And there have been some changes in federal law that have changed some of the funding streams coming into some of these facilities, and it's just really caused them, you know, to not be able to keep their doors open.

And it's also really hard for them to find staff because often they can't pay as much as a school district.

So, you know, they also need special education teachers and physical therapists and speech therapists, but those folks can often make more working for someone else.

Maeve Conran: I know there is a list of the facility schools in the state that the Colorado Department of Education has on its website.

And just looking at that, you can see that there are very, very few services available, especially for Western Colorado, but really rural areas in the state.

There has been a real problem for access for students in rural areas.

Melanie Asmar: Yes, that's another huge, huge problem. Most of these facilities are located along the Front Range.

So if there are students in rural Colorado who need more services than a school district can provide, you know, sometimes they're looking at very long bus rides, like a two-hour bus ride each way, or they're essentially having to go to a residential facility on the Front Range. Or sometimes a residential facility out of state.

And that means, you know, separating them from their families.

And parents often do not want that.

You know, no one wants to be separated from their child, especially when their child is struggling so much.

And so that is a major tension and a problem that lawmakers are looking to solve.

Maeve Conran: In addition to identifying the issues facing facility schools, that working group also released a set of recommendations.

You've touched on some of those around funding, but that issue around the accessibility of these schools and placements, one of the things that they're saying is, is there a way to empower school districts to better serve the needs of these students, which would hopefully stop them having to travel so far away or go to residential facilities?

Talk about that recommendation.

Melanie Asmar: Yeah. This is a recommendation for essentially like a training center that would, you know, sort of be run by the Colorado Department of Education and they would help train school districts to serve students with very intense needs.

I think oftentimes, yeah, districts don't feel equipped to do that, especially if we're only talking about a handful of students a year.

Some of the larger, you know, districts have specialized schools within the district for students, but if you're talking about a smaller district that maybe doesn't have one of those schools, the state's talking about how can we provide technical assistance to those districts?

I think even if they provide the assistance, I think the districts would have to find the staff to run those programs.

And I know teacher staffing is always an issue, so you know, that's one solution.

I'm not sure that it would completely solve the problem.

Maeve Conran: Well, I know that this is a relatively small group that is being impacted, but as we said at the outset, this is often the most vulnerable students in a school district.

And I think right now the figures are about 800 students are being served in facility schools, but from your report Melanie, it seems that that could be the tip of the iceberg.

And in fact, that's quite an underrepresentation of the actual need.

Give us a sense of how many students are either in facility school placement right now, but the bigger number potentially the students that should be getting better served by these services in school districts.

Melanie Asmar: Yeah, I don't have an exact number and I'm not sure the state does either.

They're kind of talking about, you know, right now there is this group of students that are served in facility schools and some students don't stay the entire year.

The goal of a facility school is to kind of stabilize a student, get them some treatment, and then eventually integrate them back into their homeschool in their home district.

And so some students only stay for like six months.

Some do stay for a year or longer and so it's kind of a fluctuating number, but the state is talking about this other group of students who probably need these services, but there's no room for them.

And students who have other needs, maybe slightly less intense needs, but could still benefit from a treatment program, who right now, kind of, because they're not rising to the very top of that scale of need, aren't getting specialized services.

There are potentially other groups of students who could benefit from treatment programs that just don't exist right now.

Maeve Conran: Well, I know you're continuing to report on this and you really want to find out the impact on families and students, and so you're actually looking to speak with, well, not just families and students, but also educators and staff who are al dealing with this particular issue.

So there's a survey that Chalkbeat Colorado has created.

To that end, talk about who you'd like to hear from.

Melanie Asmar: We'd like to hear from anyone you know, whose sort of life touches the facility school world.

You know we'd love to hear from school districts, educators, teachers and school districts and administrators who are trying to refer students to facility schools, maybe struggling to find places.

We'd love to hear from folks who work at facility schools about what that's like and some of the struggles they're facing in, you know, keeping their doors open, serving students.

And we'd especially love to hear from families, from parents who've had to kind of wrestle with this decision who've had, you know, good experiences with the facility, schools not so good experiences with facility schools or even adults who attended one of these as a child and could look back.

So yeah, we have a survey and if you fill it out a reporter will probably reach out to you for an interview. We'd love to hear from you.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Maeve Conran has been working in public and community radio in Colorado for more than 15 years. She served as the news director at KGNU in Boulder/Denver until 2020 and has since been working as the Program Director at Free Speech TV based in Denver, as well as host/producer of the Radio Bookclub podcast and radio show which is a collaboration with the Boulder Bookstore.