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The Sunnyside Unified School District will outsource its program for emotionally disabled students — one that district officials say has struggled with staffing for years — to a behavioral health agency.

Cenpatico Schools, a division of Centene Corp., which also owns Pima County’s regional behavioral-health authority, will take over Sunnyside’s Emotionally Disabled-Private program, or Ed-P, starting next school year. The partnership will cost Sunnyside more than $600,000 annually, which the district’s chief financial officer said is cost-neutral.

“It’s a good opportunity,” said Eugenia Favela, assistant superintendent at Sunnyside. The district has had numerous challenges with recruiting and retaining qualified staff members for the program, she added. It’s especially challenging because the program deals with students who have significant needs.

Ed-P programs serve students who have an “intense need for therapy,” according to Chris Lane, an Ed-P specialist for the Arizona Department of Education. They are required to provide additional supervision, mental-health counseling, psychiatric services, case management and to isolate the students from schools’ general population.

“This is a real serious decision to make for these kiddos,” she said.

At least two people are required to be present in the classrooms, which can have a maximum of 12 students, at any given time, she said. There is typically a third person who can be readily available to help.

School districts are not mandated to provide such a program, Lane said. But they are responsible for finding some sort of arrangement for emotionally disabled students, whether it be a private-care system or within the schools.

Sunnyside officials say the district had no choice but to establish its own program — which serves between 15 to 32 students annually — in 1999, as options for care for emotionally disabled children have disappeared in the area, said Sue Tillis, the district’s special-education director. Agencies the district previously worked with stopped providing Ed-P services.

“It’s been a really challenging program,” she said.

What finally pushed the district to decide to outsource the program was continuing vacancies for teacher and staff positions for the program, she said.

“We were never able to be fully staffed this whole year,” she said.

Under Cenpatico’s management, the program will move to Los Ranchitos Elementary School, which closed as a school in 2014, from the STAR Academic Center. The Los Ranchitos campus is occupied by other district programs, including Native American studies, social services, language acquisition, a clothing bank and a health clinic.

The STAR Academic Center did not have adequate space to allow for the most positive environment for emotionally disabled students, district officials said. At Los Ranchitos, the program will have four classrooms and an office.

Tillis, the special-education director, said she hopes with Cenpatico’s national pool of candidates, staff support and training, recruitment and retention will be less of an issue.

“I would like to see the program be fully staffed,” she said.

When Cenpatico takes over, the agency’s staff will be responsible for specialized instruction aligned with state standards, mental-health services, case management, parent engagement, student reintegration and transition planning.

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“We are an organization that focuses on serving children with special needs,” said Erik Ryan, the vice president of Cenpatico Schools. “We don’t lose sight of that objective. That’s what all of our staff are coming to work to do.”

Cenpatico Schools has been working with schools, primarily in Maricopa County, for about 20 years, he said. The agency has also worked with schools — mostly charters — in Pima County in the past decade. Some of the partners in Pima County include Tucson International Academy and Great Expectations Academy.

Eventually, Ryan said, the agency wants to expand its Ed-P services in Pima County to serve students in other districts.

The deal with Sunnyside includes up to three special-education teachers, up to three classroom aides and up to three behavior coaches. It will also include a full-time program administrator, licensed clinician and material support from Cenpatico.

As a result of the partnership, the district will eliminate eight positions from the program. However, Favela, the assistant superintendent, said two teachers have been placed in other positions in the district, and the remaining six employees can apply for any openings in the district or with Cenpatico.

Lane said she believes outsourcing Ed-P programs to be a win-win for everyone; behavioral-health agencies wanting to serve a community do not have to find their own space, and the school districts can get someone else to run the programs.

“From my understanding, it’s kind of beneficial for everybody around,” she said.

Contact reporter Yoohyun Jung at 520-573-4243 or yjung@tucson.com. On Twitter: @yoohyun_jung