Portland-area schools grapple with high special-ed numbers
Clackamas County school districts with high rates of students in special-education programs have recently made new hires to work in their special-ed departments.
Todd Nicholson has been selected as the Oregon City School District's next director of special services, effective July 1. He previously served as administrator for special programs in the Beaverton School District.
Nicholson replaces Cynthia Panko, who served as OCSD's director of special services from July 2014 to this year. Panko will head back to work for NCSD, where she had worked for nine years as a school psychologist and coordinator of special services.
For about a decade, OCSD and the North Clackamas School District have had the two highest proportions of special-ed students in the metro area. After years with the highest rate, OCSD no longer has the highest proportion of special-education students in the metro area. The most recent school year's data shows North Clackamas with 16.7% special-ed students and Oregon City with 16.3%, which represent increases from previous years.
Oregon City School District Superintendent Larry Didway announced in 2016 that district officials were investigating how its students are placed in special education; at 15.6% that year, OCSD had the highest rate of students in the metro area defined as special-ed.
Out of OCSD's more than 8,000 students, 1,255 were defined as special-ed during the 2014-15 school year, when there had been a large jump in students who were diagnosed with "communication disorders" from the 2013-14 school year. Panko led the district's investigation into why communication disorder was blamed for special-ed placement of more than 20% of OCSD's special-ed kids. During the 2014-15 school year, NCSD had an even higher rate of communication-disorder diagnoses at 25%.
Oregon funds special education by doubling the average per-pupil allocation, but the state caps this double funding allocation at 11% of each district's student body. Oregon's average school district has a special-ed population of 14.4%.
Panko will work as a coordinator of special-ed at NCSD in a department still led by Vivian Garrison and Rob Holloway. NCSD spokesman Jonathan Hutchison said the school district's higher rates of special-ed students were a factor leading to hiring more employees in the Special Services Department, "along with the options presented by increased state operating funding."
While at North Clackamas previously, Panko provided oversight, direction and coordination of special-education services to 11 schools, interviewed and hired all the district's new school psychologists, conducted multiple staff trainings, and ensured compliance of special-education processes and law.
To qualify him for the Oregon City position, Nicholson has a master's degree in school psychology from Lewis & Clark College and a school administrator credential from Portland State University.
"I am thrilled for the opportunity to work at Oregon City School District. I look forward to supporting students and families of all needs, as well as ensuring that our teaching staff has the resources and practices needed to increase student achievement," Nicholson said. "I believe in an educational experience that works for everyone."
As prescribed by federal and state law, special-services departments work to develop individualized education plans in conjunction with parents. According to a news release from the district, Nicholson is expected to oversee support programs for students with disabilities in ways that provide for the "least restrictive learning settings" possible for students with special needs.
"We are excited to welcome Todd Nickelson to our team," Didway said. "He is widely respected as a fierce child advocate, strategic thinker, problem solver and expert in his field. He brings a unique background in medical, school and higher-education settings that will be an asset as a department leader."
The father of two grown children, Nicholson also works as an adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark College. When not working, he enjoys skiing, camping, longboarding and spending time with his family.