In a town famous for its competitive, nationally ranked high schools, about 10 percent of Palo Alto children navigate kindergarten through 12th grade with learning disabilities.
Some are minor -- a speech impediment addressed by 20 minutes a week of speech therapy. At the other extreme are students with severe emotional handicaps that warrant specialized therapeutic boarding schools.
Carol Zepecki, who retires this month from the Palo Alto school district after decades in special education, has seen them all.
Lately, she says, the "complexity and severity" of need has grown.
While some kids who earlier needed special education can now be accommodated in regular classrooms, today's students with learning disabilities often have symptoms that are more challenging than before, Zepecki said.
She spoke in a recent interview in her Churchill Avenue office, filled with flowers from colleagues and families grateful for her help over the years.
"The complexity of kids we are seeing certainly has increased."
And nobody knows why, Zepecki said.
"There are researchers much smarter than I who can't figure out the cause of autism, neurologically involved issues, more emotional needs in kids.
"There's a lot of conjecture about environmental factors -- we just don't know," she said.
But with higher standards for students across the board -- and Zepecki is careful to make clear that she has no beef with high standards -- it becomes harder for many special education students to "align" with them.
"That's why aide support is so important. It helps students with organizational skills, re-practicing concepts, and so forth," Zepecki said.
In a career that began in New Jersey in the 1970s, Zepecki has witnessed every trend.
She worked as the field developed from segregated programs for students with mental retardation and obvious physical disabilities to a far more nuanced set of diagnoses and an emphasis on the goal of "full inclusion" of children with special needs.
Zepecki is well known to most families of Palo Alto's approximately 1,200 students in special education as a key decision-maker in many cases. (Palo Alto falls within the national norm of having about 10 percent of students in special education, she said.)
She confers with parents in search of programs tailored to their child's special needs, and tries to set them up with the right match.
At times, that's expensive.
The district sends about 30 or 40 children each year to what it calls "non-public schools certified by the state" for special education.
Those include the Esther Clark School at the Children's Health Council in Palo Alto; the Pacific Autism Center for Education in Santa Clara; Palo Alto Prep in Palo Alto; Achieve Kids in Palo Alto and Morgan Autism Center in San Jose, Zepecki said.
In a handful of cases -- perhaps four or five a year -- children with emotional disturbances are sent to residential facilities, mostly in California.
"The residential is done through the Department of Mental Health and only for kids with emotional disturbances, but we stay in touch," Zepecki said. In those cases, the district pays only for the school tuition, while the state covers room, board and counseling fees.
Altogether, special education consumes about 15 percent of the district's $154 million operating budget. Of that total, about 40 percent comes from state government, 10 percent from federal government and the balance from local funds.
Decades ago the federal government agreed to fund about 40 percent of the cost of the federal special education law, but that figure has dropped to about 10 percent, she said.
"It's an ongoing effort from states and local districts to try to get the federal government to pay a larger piece," she said.
A reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the 1990s called for major changes: greater parental involvement in crafting "individualized educational plans" (IEPs) for their child and a stress on educating children in the "least restrictive environment."
"That's a significant change that I've seen over the years, not just in Palo Alto but throughout the nation.
"That's where we got the terminology of mainstreaming and full inclusion -- making sure the student with disabilities is, to the maximum extent possible, interacting with non-disabled peers," Zepecki said.
With the "full inclusion" goal came the hiring of more aides -- sometimes one-on-one -- to help a child learn, with minimal disruption, in a regular classroom.
Eligibility criteria for special education also have changed over the years.
The initial focus of the 1975 federal law was on obvious physical and mental disabilities. Today there are 13 ways to be eligible for special education.
The most significant, Zepecki said, is known as a "specific learning disability" defined as a discrepancy between a child's "projected IQ ability and the child's actual performance in reading, math and writing."
Experts are now moving away from the "discrepancy model" toward a new idea known as "response to intervention," Zepecki said.
Still, "one of the largest populations of students in special education are learning disabled students under the discrepancy model," she said.
Other categories include mental retardation, emotional disturbance, multiple disabilities, hard of hearing, orthopedic impairment, autism, deafness, traumatic brain injury, speech and language impairment, "other health impaired," visual impairment and blindness.
A diagnosis of attention deficit disorder does not qualify a child for special education, although parents lobbied to include that category when the federal law was last reauthorized, Zepecki said.
"A student with attention issues sometimes is identified as learning disabled, and sometimes it's significant enough, medically related, that they might be identified as 'other health impaired,'" she said.
As to whether Palo Alto has a disproportionate number of minority children in special education, the answer is mixed, Zepecki said.
Looking at children in resource programs (those who spend less than 50 percent of their time in special education, but excluding those in "special classes"), Palo Alto "has been found by state formula to have a disproportionate number of African-American and Latino students" in special education, Zepecki said.
"But if you look broadly across the program, we're not disproportionate," she said.
"Five years ago we had a study from the Office of Civil Rights. They looked at our disproportionality and found that if we didn't support some of the students we would be discriminatory in the other direction.
"We were following all the rules and we need to support the kids. It's a very difficult balance. We're aware of it, and keep working on it."
Though the primary focus of her 12 years in Palo Alto has been special education, Zepecki has added other roles as well -- most recently, as the district's point person following a series of student suicides from May to October 2009.
It fell to her to compile research on so-called "suicide clusters," confer with national experts, handle a flood of calls and advice that came to the school district and work with local medical institutions and community agencies to form a response.
One result is Project Safety Net, a multi-agency collaboration to create a healthier environment for Palo Alto teens.
Zepecki also has worked to craft the district's internal response to the suicides, including suicide-prevention training for faculty and staff and a recommendation to adopt the developmental assets model of the non-profit Project Cornerstone as a way to support teens.
Besides upcoming trips to India and South America and spending more time with family -- including five grandchildren who live locally -- Zepecki plans to stay professionally active in retirement.
She is interested in teacher training, and has been invited to join several boards of nonprofits that support students with disabilities.
For families entering the daunting world of special education for the first time, she offers this advice:
"Keep the lines of communication open with the teacher or therapist who is assessing or managing the IEP.
"If something does not work, contact them and try to figure it out together. The parents can discuss their ideas and views and the district staff can then discuss their ideas.
"Together, they can hopefully put together the best program for their child. At times they may not agree, and then there is a process for resolving those concerns."