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Schools need help as special education needs increase

“We were in panic just shortly before the school year started,” said Katie Hegar, Underwood Elementary principal...READ THE FULL ORIGINAL ARTICLE HERE▶▶

Underwood Public School needed a special education teacher, ASAP.

Elementary principal Katie Hegar knew there could be dire consequences if they weren’t able to hire for the position, so they asked the state for help.

“The state says you have to keep advertising, and if you can’t provide minutes then you could actually be in trouble because you’re not providing the services that are required within a legally binding document, such as an IEP,” explained Hegar.

Hegar says the biggest problem with that is the fact that a school can then owe extra minutes or services to compensate for the lack of initial service.

“We asked, ‘What do we do? We can’t provide the initial, how do we provide more?’ And the answer is, figure it out,” Hegar said.

While they were able to figure it out and secure a special education teacher for the school year, Hegar says that’s not always the case for schools.

“Those that don’t have that resource can’t just figure it out,” Hegar said. “So, I think we need to look at what can the state do to help us. What kind of supports are out there, and resources that don’t break a school’s budget,” Hegar asked.

But it goes far beyond meeting the federal requirements of filling the position.

Washburn Public School is fully staffed with three special education teachers. Superintendent Dr. Penny Hetletved explains, having a full special education staff makes a significant difference in a student’s success rates.

“We’re seeing faster, more efficient gains, because we have the three that are doing the work,” Hetletved said. “And so, their case loads are smaller than what you would see in other schools, but the gains of the children are really amazing.”

While the caseloads may be smaller in number, that doesn’t mean the job is any easier.

“Even if they have 10 or 12 on their caseload, sometimes that can feel like 24, because their needs are so different, and also sometimes so unpredictable,” Hetletved explained. “And so, you have to constantly be in a respond versus react mode and that can be super exhausting. And then if you have that and it takes a little bit longer, and you don’t get a chance to decompress yourself, you know, and then trying to be very clean for your next person. That’s tough.”

The number of students in special education in the U.S. has doubled over the past four decades, according to a Pew report.

This trend, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. Hetletved says educators and medical professionals are getting better at diagnosing sooner and recognizing that it may not be only one learning deficiency.

It is not unusual now that they have two or three diagnoses and one might be a learning disability, or a deficit of some sort, but we have a lot of emotional behavioral, and that part is growing,” Hetletved said.

Which means an IEP may not be necessary, and other options need to be explored.

“Sometimes it is recovery strategies and redirections in coping skills that they need, versus an actual diagnosis,” Hetletved said. “It
might be something completely different in the mental health realm.”

Whether an IEP, 504 or behavior plan, communication among staff, students, and parents is key.

“We’re constantly looking at, ‘Okay, this kiddo seems like they’re falling behind, are you seeing the same thing?’ So, I think having that constant conversation to make sure that we don’t miss a kid, and a kid doesn’t fall through the cracks,” Hetletved explained.

 

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