A Team Effort

Story by Lisa Savage

Wood County School Districts Join Forces to Provide Special Education Programs.

Thanks to the efforts of several area school districts, parents and community members, a growing number of special needs students in Wood County receive the educational services they need to become lifelong active learners. Along with those valuable lessons, the program also provides community and a sense of belonging for students and their families.

Teacher Savannah Sides reads with students.

The Mineola, Quitman, Alba-Golden, Yantis and Hawkins Independent School Districts launched a cooperative effort more than 50 years ago to provide educational services for children with significant disabilities and in special education. The co-op is known as the Wood County Special Education Shared Services Arrangement. Each district's financial commitment to it is based on its share of the student population.

Each participating district has special education services within its own schools. However, the specific needs of some students can exceed a district’s staffing and financial resources. Students from member districts who have more significant challenges — for example some autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, auditory impairments and behavioral disorders — are bused to the WCSESSA location in Quitman. By working together, the districts can provide these students with better services.


Changes in statewide education policy in recent years resulted in a rapid increase in the number of special education students across Texas. In Wood County alone, the special education population has grown by 74% to about 800 students. About 90 of those students between the ages of 3 and 21 are enrolled at the Wood County Co-op, says WCSESSA Director Tammy Willis.

There were comprehensive studies completed in response to the co-op’s growth, with the first-ever community meeting last spring to discuss findings of the facility and safety studies. The meeting was organized by Mineola Superintendent Cody Mize and hosted by Quitman ISD.

“We’ve grown so fast over the past six years, it has been very difficult to keep up with this growth with our current staff and facilities,” says WCSESSA Assistant Director Donya Mooney.

School district funding is tight everywhere, and staffing costs take up most of the budget at the co-op, where a staff of about 30 works directly with students. Roughly 75%-80% of most school budgets are spent on personnel.

“Our students require more supervision and specialized care. Therefore, we are probably closer to 85%,” Mooney says. “We do not have education foundations, booster clubs and PTOs like typical campuses, and we rely on donations when we run across the nonessential things that we need to purchase.”


As enrollment grows, the Wood County Co-op is adapting. In less than a year, the co-op added a two-classroom portable building for the Behavior Intervention Class, also called BIC, and a storm shelter.

In recent years, donations were used to create a sensory room, designed for students sensitive to lights and sounds. Another classroom was converted into a safe area for physical education. The school also has two nice playgrounds donated by Harold G. Simmons many years ago.

“We used our fund balance to do the upgrades this year, and it didn’t cost the districts any additional funds,” Mooney says. “We would love to have a gymnasium/multipurpose building where we can have large group activities for kids and accommodate families, and it would also free up additional classroom space. But that costs so much money, and it’s just not in our budget.”

The building that once housed BIC classes was remodeled for the Vocational Adjustment Class. In this program, students ages 18 and up practice the skills they’ll need to join the workforce. For example, they fill out timecards every day for a Friday payday — typically some reward or a special lunch — teaching the value of being paid for the work they do. “They moved into that building to help them develop more independence, life and job skills,” Mooney says.


Because WCSESSA students attend the same school for many years, families and school personnel develop trusting relationships and collaborate on the best plan to help the students grow.

Physical education teacher Scott Yoakum stretches with elementary student.

“Relationships are so important with our babies and their families. Most of our kids cannot communicate in traditional ways with their parents about how their day went,” Mooney says. “We have many of the same kids from the time they are 3 until they leave us. There are a small percentage that transition to a regular campus if everyone agrees their need can be met there.”

WCSESSA’s staff and students’ families are devoted to providing students with a comfortable and welcoming facility where they can make progress that will make a real difference in their lives.

“It’s our goal to provide a safe environment where students become more independent and have an opportunity to develop life skills and, for some, become employable by the time they complete our program,” Mooney says. “The districts’ continual contribution to the co-op provides the opportunity to continue these vital services a central location.