Special Ed teachers need all the time the budget can give them

Large increase in preschoolers with special needs noted



Beginning in 2009, additional demands will be placed on the Orcas Island School District’s (OISD) staff and budget as the Individual with Disabilities Education Act will require that school districts to extend special education services to children in the birth to age three group. Currently, the OISD serves children with disabilities starting at age three.

While school districts receive additional funding for Special Ed students, it is not enough to fully cover the cost of serving children with disabilities.

Special Education in all districts is required to be overseen by a Special Education Director; on Orcas Island, Superintendent Glenn Harris fulfills this duty. In addition to educating Special Ed students, in 2009, the school district will assist in finding and assessing these children, a process now overseen by the Department of Health.

The Special Education program was the sole topic at a workshop of the Orcas Island School District board, with Special Education teaching staff, OISD principals, parents and community members in attendance on March 5.

The meeting highlighted the laws and processes regarding Special Education, with Special Ed staff explaining their experiences and findings to the Board. The complexities of modern education, including new requirements such as developmentally appropriate testing, new resources such as the Digital Learning Commons – the Internet education program – and new concepts, such as multi-tiered instruction for intervention, not to mention the plethora of forms for each step of the modern educational process, were discussed in the meeting.

Special Ed at OISD

Special education is instruction that is specially designed for students identified as having a disability in one of 14 general categories, whose disability adversely affects the student’s educational performance, and whose unique needs cannot be addressed solely through education in general education classes.Federal regulations stipulate that special education must take place in the “least restrictive environment” possible in general education classes, and students may be removed from that setting only if “the nature or severity of the disability is such that education…cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

Harris brought out that “Special education does occur in the general education classrooms,” and identified accommodations such as seating and larger print that enable special ed students to stay in the general ed classes.

To illustrate the point, teacher Kari Schuh brought out that she is .4 fulltime (FTE) Special Ed teacher but serves Special Ed students in all her other classes.

At OISD, 65 students currently are enrolled as special education students. The highest numbers of Special Ed students have specific learning disabilities (25) or communication disorders (22).


In determining if a student should be in Special Ed, a study team is first assigned to a student who is being considered. The student’s history, strengths and concerns are discussed, and the meeting concludes with am action plan including assignments and a monitoring schedule. Often “alternative remedies” to Special Ed are implemented.

School psychologist Terry Whitman, who is contracted to serve OISD, said, “Here [at OISD], there is a real sense of community with the staff, they are all concerned about the child.”

Upon evaluation as a Special Education student, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is designed. The IEP “is the cornerstone of a quality education for each child” according to the federal office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and involves parents, teachers, school staff, and often the student. The IEP sets measurable annual goals in academics, behaviors, and, beginning at age 15, transition from the school to the adult world.

Special Ed staff

In reviewing her Special Ed workload, Schuh said that, in addition to specialized instruction, she oversees the Student Store, where job skills training in budgeting, inventory, purchasing, and customer service are taught. Another part of her job is coordinating WASL testing, particularly at the 10th grade level for Special Ed students.

Linda Sullivan works with general ed teachers to adapt curriculum for Special Ed students. She commented that often high school students are wary of being identified in Special Ed, but once they are invited to her study halls, they can see their progress and want to be part of the program. Sullivan also works with the Middle School in language arts and math, helping prepare the students for high school.

Bonnie Dahl, who instructs 16 Special Ed students in fourth through seventh grades, teaches basic skills in the reading resource room for 50 minutes to three and a half hours each day, depending on the needs of the students.

Dahl commended the assistance provided by Special Ed aids, especially in helping the students do their work in the general classrooms. Dahl said that her students were mildly to moderately disabled with two having communications disorders, one being hearing-impaired, two with health disabilities, one with behavioral disability and eight with specific learning disabilities in reading and writing.

Dahl also travels to Waldron Island school four to five times a year to set up programs and monitor their progress. Dahl stated, “The biggest challenge is time.”

That sentiment was illustrated in a handout prepared by Suzanne McClure. An hour in the life of a Special Ed teacher is depicted in the accompanying graphic. Sometimes McClure is “lucky” enough to have several classrooms during one time period for her students, and she rotates through them as she provides Special Ed instruction.

McClure also works with Orcas Island preschools, which she described as excellent; but she spoke of the “big bump” in preschool children needing Special Ed this year. Usually one out of 20 preschoolers has a learning disability, but that “this year, the number is 10 out of 20.”

McClure sets up programs at the preschools with para-professionals, but she is frustrated that time constraints keep her from providing more support to the preschool programs. She feels that a developmental preschool for even two hours once a week at the district school site would be more efficient than an “outside” teacher coming into a preschool.Elementary principal Tom Gobeske noted that all the preschools are interested in a stronger link with the schools.

Gail Glass, OISD speech and language pathologist, works with 35 OISD students, as well as with seven preschoolers, as a .6 FTE staff member.

Whitman praised Middle/High School Principal Barbara Kline as “an administrator who knows the kids and their parents, and brings a level of trust to the school’s Special Ed program.”

“Parents slowly come to the realization that their child’s disability is being helped [by Special Ed],” said Whitman. On the mainland, he said students are “shunted around and not getting answers or services.”

The OISD experience

The board recognized that all Special Ed teachers work more than the hours allotted in their contracts. Schuh spoke of the “Five-year Special Education teacher cycle” where teachers burn out within five years, but noted that Dahl has 25 years experience, McClure has 23 years, Sullivan has 10 years, and she has 6.5 years. Schuh added, “Overall, we feel like we make a difference, and we stick it out because we’ve gotten the support of administration and teamwork.”

Response to Intervention

Last spring, the OISD board approved additional spending for teacher training in the Response to Intervention (RTI) program. Harris described the RTI program as multi-tiered instruction for intervention in special education needs, ranging from preventive and proactive solutions to targeted at-risk groups to intensive, individualized instruction.

Board member Keith Whitaker asked about the relationship between Special Ed and RTI, and Dahl responded that Special Ed teachers often see students in their programs who could have advanced into general education classes had the early intervention provided by programs such as RTI been adopted. ,

Gobeske said that RTI focuses on the skills for younger kids that enables reading and other learning skills. “Multi-tiered instruction doesn’t prolong evaluation, but it initiates intervention earlier.”

Board member Charlie Glasser asked how far along OISD is in implementing RTI. Dahl said that much of the record-keeping, data collection and planning for the program is already done, but McClure pinpointed the obstacle to further implementation of the RTI methods: “We don’t have the staff to go to the next step.”

Which all comes back to the budget. This year, science classes decreased from nine to five; a literacy coach for the pre-school was lost, and the board soon faces another cycle of budget and program planning for the 2008-2009 school year.

Whitaker said that regardless of whether the district formalizes the approach teachers are using, the Special Ed program needs more staffing. “While identifying a program is important at the building level, I think it’s a more difficult issue to discuss at the board and community level. Teachers need to be able to do more and use more resources.”

Board member Scott Lancaster said “I hear the teachers and the principals supporting this program. I think we need to listen to that.”

Whitaker replied, “It’s not that the staff needs outside structure – they need more time and assistance.”