A daunting 18 percent of Payson Unified School District (PUSD) students are enrolled in special education classes (SPED), some 10 percent more than the average Arizona districts, said Director Barbara Fitzgerald at the Feb. 25 school board meeting.
That number has increased by about 3 percent in the past four years, she said.
However, only 38 percent of those students are meeting their state-mandated learning goals, Fitzgerald reported to the board last week.
“Special education students are never the same — they have strong days, and weak days,” said Fitzgerald. “However, I was surprised when I analyzed the numbers.”
She said she noticed that the worst performing students on the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) test were at the middle school.
“There could be many factors for that, but is it a hormonal thing?” she said.
School board member Jim Quinlan did not believe so.
“We just can’t use the crutch of hormones,” he said. “Other schools are doing great. Could it have anything to do with three members from the same family teaching in special education at the middle school?” he said.
Fitzgerald said she would look into it.
The state is beginning to raise the bar of special education, said Fitzgerald. It now has mandates for how many special education students it expects to perform at grade level.
The percentages have steadily increased from 44 percent three years ago to 88 percent this year, to 100 percent performing at grade level by 2014.
The federal No Child Left Behind law requires all the students in the district to perform at grade level by 2014, although it allows schools to give waivers for up to 1 percent of its students based on disabilities. The law originally threatened schools whose students don’t perform at grade level with federal takeover, but the federal government has since allowed states to seek waivers to develop their own standards.
Fitzgerald said PUSD faces many hurdles to reach that mandate, especially with high school students. “When you get to the high school students, you have students with minds of their own and they just don’t show up,” said Fitzgerald.
In addition, conflicting expectations between federal and state law affect student achievement. Because laws allow special education students to stay in the PUSD system until they are 22, students progress logically through the grade levels, until they reach high school. Once they finish their senior year, if they stay on longer they become fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-year seniors.
“We have so many students who don’t graduate on time because they are doing rehab,” she said.
“The biggest challenge to special education students is that they are expected to run the 100-yard dash,” said Quinlan.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) lists 14 different categories of disability: autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, developmental delay, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, visual impairment, including blindness.
Most disabilities are self-explanatory, but others are more vague. Take developmental delay. That includes children from age 3 to 9 that have not reached certain “benchmarks” in cognitive, communication, social, emotional or behavioral areas.
Another vague standard applies to emotional disturbances, including when problems with moods, interpersonal relationships, fears, or any other inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health issues affects a student’s performance in school.
Since 2010, IDEA has defined intellectual disability as a “sub average general intellectual functioning.” Often behavior issues accompany this disability. A child has a learning disability if he or she has challenges with language, either spoken or written that creates difficulties listening, thinking, speaking, reading, writing, spelling or calculating mathematical equations, according to the act.
Students may have a speech or language impairment, which includes stuttering, an inability to articulate or voice or language difficulty.
Fitzgerald said that despite the challenges her staff faces, they smile and are helpful to everyone.
“I get lots of compliments about the staff.”