Special education is much more specialized in today's world than it was approximately 20 years ago.
The Sunnyside School District and schools across the nation recognize an individualized approach to meet the needs of students with disabilities is necessary for student development.
That's where Special Services Director Cody Gardiner steps in. He oversees a staff of approximately 100 people focused on meeting the needs of students with disabilities and health issues that could hinder development.
Of those staff members, he said, there are approximately 30 special education teachers and 50 paraprofessionals.
School psychologists, speech and language pathologists, deaf education teachers, and occupational and physical therapists all work with students at his direction, as well as braillists and sign language interpreters.
Gardiner said students in the Sunnyside School District who have special needs receive the care and attention that best meets their individualized needs.
"There are 14 different categories of special education that the district recognizes," said Gardiner.
He explained the criteria for special education needs must be met. The child must have a disability, the disability must have an adverse educational impact and specifically designed instruction must be necessary.
Gardiner said individualized education plans are developed for students served by the special services department based on the child's needs.
"We try to recognize the student's strengths and weaknesses so we can build upon the strengths to help the student grow," said Gardiner.
He said schools are responsible for meeting the developmental needs of children from birth to the age of 21. The Sunnyside School District, he explained, contracts with Children's Village to meet the needs of children with disabilities until the age of 2. At that time, the child is eligible for developmental pre-school.
"It's hard to predict the overall needs of the student population, but the staff is very flexible and they are passionate about meeting the needs of the students," Gardiner said, stating the number of students served by the special services department can change regularly.
As a larger school district, however, he said Sunnyside has the capability of meeting the needs of more students than a smaller district does. As a result, Sunnyside School District works with other districts in the area to meet the needs of students with disabilities via contract services.
Because of the various needs of the students, there is a better student to staff ratio for special services. The department has a budget of approximately $5.3 million to serve the needs of roughly 850 students. Approximately $4 million of the funding is from the state and another $1.3 million is from the federal government, according to Gardiner.
He said approximately 85 percent of the budget pays for the salaries and benefits.
Gardiner has been working for the Sunnyside schools since 2005.
He said he started as a psychology intern, but fell in love with the students, staff and community during what was supposed to be a nine-month stint in Sunnyside.
"I really love it here...the staff is excellent...they are passionate," he said.
Gardiner said special education is his passion. He worked with special education students in Boise, Idaho and often found himself spending his own money on the students.
That prompted him to seek a Master's in psychology, which led him to Sunnyside.
Gardiner said he spent two years as a school psychologist at Chief Kamiakin Elementary School after serving as an intern. He followed that with two years at Sunnyside High School.
"The district director for special services fell ill and I filled in, eventually becoming the permanent director," said Gardiner of his experience.
He began his third year as the director for special services this week.
"I couldn't ask for a better staff and I'm just really happy to be here," said Gardiner.