Payson Struggles To Help Special Needs Students

District shifts many special education students into regular classes hoping to boost test scores

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Payson schools are struggling to meet the needs of a growing number of special needs students despite a dwindling number of qualified teachers.

Fortunately, the district has also had considerable success integrating students with physical, mental and emotional challenges into regular classrooms, said Director of Special Services Barbara Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald recently reported to the school board that the district has given up trying to find a certified special education teacher to fill one vacancy. Instead, the other special education teachers have agreed to give up preparation periods to provide enough coverage.

The problem underscores a chronic shortage of special education teachers, especially in rural school districts like Payson.

Meanwhile, the district continues to embrace a philosophy that includes students with disabilities in regular classrooms as much as possible, said Fitzgerald. About 40 percent of the district’s special education students spend most or all of their time in regular classrooms.

That’s largely because a growing body of research shows special needs students do better when they spend more time in regular classrooms.

“We’ve been doing a lot more of it,” said Fitzgerald of the embrace of a policy of inclusion.

“The education research in the past several years has shown that separate educational environments don’t have a high impact on student outcomes. There’s some concern that in separate classes they’re not exposed to the curriculum in the general classroom.”

For instance, one recent California study found that on average the more time special education students spent in regular classrooms the higher their achievement and the lower their dropout rates. Researchers from the American Institutes for Research identified eight California School Districts where special education students did especially well.

The researchers controlled for things like income levels, minority enrollments, English proficiency and other impacts, then examined the characteristics of the schools that had the highest scores for special education students.

They discovered that schools that had the best success included special needs students in regular classrooms as much as possible, provided teachers with more training and encouraged teacher teamwork and “learning communities” involving both special education and general education teachers.

Payson schools have largely embraced that approach in the face of a steady increase in the number of students in the special education program because of everything from autism to dyslexia.

About 17 percent of the district’s students have tested into the special education program, compared to a state average of about 12 percent. Some 400 of the district’s 2,400 students are included in the program.

Special eduction students on the rise

Nationally, the percentage of special education students has been rising steadily for 20 years, partly because federal law provides extra resources for students who need that extra help.

The nation’s schools spend more than $77 billion annually to provide extra help for special needs students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Such students suffer from a wide variety of challenges, including speech impairment, mental retardation, emotional disorders, learning disabilities and other problems.

That sharp rise in the special education population poses special challenges for school districts facing mounting state and federal penalties should students fail to make gains on standardized test scores.

Studies show that even with expensive extra help, many special education students cannot keep up with their peers. Such students are roughly four times as likely to drop out of school and far more likely to fail the AIMS graduation tests. However, the state’s new grading system will judge schools heavily based on test scores of the worst-performing students.

Rim Country Middle School received a “D” grade on the first, preliminary rankings under the new system, largely due to poor test scores for the bottom 20 percent of students.

Fitzgerald said the district’s 18 special education teachers and 40 special education aides have been working to shift students into regular classrooms as much as possible.

Sometimes, that involves having an aide in the regular class with the special needs student to provide the extra help and attention necessary so the student can keep up. Often, it involves help outside of the regular classroom.

However, in the majority of cases, students have such specialized needs or such disruptive behavior problems that they can’t function in normal classrooms, Fitzgerald said.

“If you have got a kid who is disruptive of the other students, then you have to consider whether that’s an appropriate placement. It’s all based on their individual needs.”

The inclusion program has leaned heavily on the district’s development of its “Response to Intervention” program, which identifies students struggling to keep up and then provides extra, small group tutoring and extra help in problem subjects.

“So you can provide some small-group instruction, extra materials, different resources; maybe they need a book on tape or someone to take notes for them.”

Autism students get extra support

Some of the students have major disabilities, like autism. Those students generally don’t end up in regular classes. The district can get up to $20,000 in extra support for a student with a problem like autism. That money goes into the general special education budget, not necessarily strictly into help for that individual student. Such students with serious “cognitive disorders” account for less than 3 percent of the special education population.

However, most diagnosis involve learning disorders and other less serious problems, which might generate only a couple hundred dollars in extra support, said Fitzgerald.

Determining what each student needs remains a complicated juggling act, especially given the shortage of fully trained special education teachers.

“I really am a proponent of saying that it has to be what works for the kid,” said Fitzgerald.

“That’s one of our challenges in rural Arizona — we don’t have the staff with a very particular type of training.”

The district also struggles to keep a full staff of special education teachers’ aides, who take on big responsibilities — especially for students who need help performing the most basic functions. The school board recently approved the firing of one popular special education teacher’s aide out of concern for methods she used to keep control. Special education aides attended that meeting to offer support for the fired worker and recounted the serious physical and emotional demands of a job that pays $10 to $15 an hour.

No clear cut statistics on success

Fitzgerald said the district doesn’t yet have clear-cut statistics on whether the shift to mainstreaming special education students has begun to yield the gains in test scores evident in a number of national studies.

“I believe it has changed over time, but I can’t give you specific numbers,” she said. “We’re doing more mainstreaming at the elementary level than in the past. Probably in the high school, it’s about the same.

“Middle school has significantly increased the amount of time the students are spending in regular classrooms. I think the jury’s still out, but the evidence is beginning to demonstrate that it is helpful — kids are performing better, for the most part.”

Even if the test scores don’t show a sharp improvement, Fitzgerald said the new approach has given students more exposure to one another.

She said special needs children without an obvious disability mostly just want to blend in without anyone knowing they’re “different.”

“They just want to fit in, so being mainstreamed means that they feel just like anybody else,” said Fitzgerald.

But the approach can yield benefits in self-esteem and socialization even for students whose disabilities are obvious.

“You get increased awareness and tolerance of differences. The kids with the real behavior challenges, sometimes people want to reject them. But for the kids, perhaps with disabilities that make speech difficult, they can generate a lot of empathy on the part of their peers.”

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