A veteran West Contra Costa schools administrator has been honored for expanding the district's special education programs into some of the most comprehensive and effective in the state.

El Cerrito resident Steve Collins, 58, was recently chosen as 2013 Special Education Administrator of the Year by the Sacramento-based Association of California School Administrators.

The association recognizes school administrators statewide annually in several categories, including superintendents, elementary and secondary principals, human resources directors and others.

"Steve has developed more inclusive practices for special ed students, and three-quarters of special ed kids are served in regular classrooms," district Superintendent Bruce Harter said. "Even some of our more severely disabled students can participate in the regular programs."

Steve Collins, director of the Special Education Local Plan Area in West Contra Costa County, leads a staff meeting in San Pablo, Calif. on Thursday, May
Steve Collins, director of the Special Education Local Plan Area in West Contra Costa County, leads a staff meeting in San Pablo, Calif. on Thursday, May 16, 2013. Collins has been named 2013 Special Education Administrator of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

Collins took over as head of special education 16 years ago, turning it from what he called a "wait to fail" system to one that identifies students who need support and helps them before they require special education services.

Previously, the district would wait to evaluate students for learning disabilities when they fell two years or more behind their classmates.

"Now, we identify students who need additional help in reading and math in hopes they will never need (special education) services," he said.

Under Collins' leadership, the district developed a special program for autistic students, a category that has more than doubled in recent years, offering comprehensive classes at Wilson Elementary in Richmond, Portola Middle School in El Cerrito and El Cerrito High School.


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Collins also has secured grants to support additional programs. He obtained a state grant to create a resource program for parents of special needs students that he says has reduced the number of conflicts with parents and also increased Medi-Cal reimbursement from $50,000 to $838,000 annually for academic support and health care tracking of special education students.

Collins created partnerships with outside agencies to create a mental health treatment class at Kennedy High School in Richmond and a class for students with mental health and emotional issues at El Sobrante Christian School that is opening this fall.

The department also has reduced the number of students who need services from outside agencies from about 225 to 75, Collins said.

About 4,100 out of the district's 31,000 students, or around 13 percent, are in special education programs compared with a statewide average of around 10 percent, Collins said.

"We have a big, comprehensive program, and we've developed more and more programs to provide services to as many of our students as we can," he said.

Steve Collins, director of the Special Education Local Plan Area in West Contra Costa County, tosses a box of Cracker Jacks as he applauds a staff
Steve Collins, director of the Special Education Local Plan Area in West Contra Costa County, tosses a box of Cracker Jacks as he applauds a staff member's performance during a meeting in San Pablo, Calif. on Thursday, May 16, 2013. Collins has been named 2013 Special Education Administrator of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

"Special ed is extremely complicated," district trustee Todd Groves said. "Steve is masterful at keeping ahead of trends, being proactive when he can, adapting to the tsunami of new regulations and constraints thrown at him on an annual basis."

Collins started his career as a special-education teacher in the district in 1977 and served as principal of Harding Elementary School in El Cerrito during the 1990s.

An El Cerrito native, he attended Harding, Portola and El Cerrito High before returning to the district as a teacher.