Changes ahead for special education in school district

There are some changes in the works for the Warren County School District special education programming for the 2017-2018 school year.

Some of the changes have already begun and Director of Pupil Service Patricia Hawley has made several more recommendations. The district will act on them without the need for board action.

The district offers itinerant and supplemental services for students with emotional disturbance (ED) and autism diagnoses in all of its schools. And, it will continue to do so next year.

This year, full-time support is only offered in the western attendance area.

In the 2017-2018 school year, full-time emotional support services will be offered in both the western and central attendance areas, she said.

“There are several reasons why I recommended to move the program,” Hawley said.

Students with emotional disturbance (ED) diagnoses in the central and eastern attendance areas will have shorter rides to school. “Transportation is a big deal,” she said. “We have a (hypothetical) student coming from Sheffield or Clarendon and we’re driving them to Sheffield. We’re reducing the amount of time these kids are going to have to be on transportation.”

Being schooled in their neighborhood school, or nearer to it, brings them closer to a “least restrictive environment” LRE situation.

“Keeping them in their least restrictive environment is in the best interest of the child,” Hawley said. “Bringing the program back to the central attendance area now allows some of those kids access to their neighborhood school.”

That change will directly impact less than 20 students next year. Hawley said the numbers vary week-to-week, but there are five elementary students, six middle level, and four high school level students expected to receive services in the central attendance area rather than the west.

The western attendance area will continue to provide full-time emotional support for students from the western and northern attendance areas and there are numbers to support that program

“Sixty percent of the kids in full-time ED are from Youngsville” schools, Hawley said.

Some, but not a large percentage, of that can be accounted by the presence of a residential treatment facility in the community, Hawley said. Some of the maximum of 12 students in that facility are in full-time ED with the district.

Other than that, she could not explain why one of four attendance areas, and not the one with the largest population, has the highest rate of students diagnosed with emotional disturbance.

Providing full-time ED programming in the central attendance area has another significant benefit.

Students who receive itinerant or supplemental emotional support do so at their neighborhood schools. But, sometimes, they need the kinds of supports offered by a full-time program.

“The children might only be itinerant-supplemental level ED, however, there’s a given day in the course of a school year when they need access to that tier of ED support,” Hawley said. “When you have a child with supplemental learning support in the largest attendance area, the central attendance area… we’ve essentially taken away the full-time supports, the training that goes with that, the expertise in that field, and you still have kids who are supplemental level or itinerant level who might have a bad day or need access to that continuum of services and it’s not available.”

Those services will be available next year to the largest concentrations of the district’s students.

Full-time autistic services will continue to be provided only in the western attendance area.

There are not a lot of students in full-time AS classes, and Hawley’s rationale for keeping the program the way it is in terms of location is the success of the program. “It is working phenomenally,” she said. “We’re running small class sizes. They’re also receiving social skills intervention and curriculum.”

District staff are in the middle of a two-year training initiative on autism through Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN).

The district has allocated resources to the AS program. “We have taken these teachers and put them through the training, we’ve bought the resources, and they’re implementing that in the classroom,” Hawley said.

Teachers are working on applied behavior analysis (ABA) and discrete trial training.

“ABA and Discrete Trail are two key pieces with a child on the spectrum before age five,” Hawley said.

ABA is not traditionally part of an education curriculum, but the courses are available.

The district has a contract with behavioral specialist consultant (BSC) Sabrina Mong. She has ABA certification and is sharing her knowledge with district staff while she provides direct support to about 120 students who are on the autism spectrum. “She can also be consulted for crisis intervention,” Hawley said, and is available to work with parents.

“She’s extremely valuable,” Hawley said.

More training for staff is on the way.

“Before the work stoppage we had other seminars and things set up to allow the AS and ES teachers in the sending schools to have access to this training,” Hawley said. “Next year we plan to roll it out.”

Education is a key to avoiding emergencies.

“We can either always be in crisis or we can have trained, professional support for that child,” Hawley said. “As we begin to teach these children appropriate social interactions, role modeling… organizational skills, what you see at the tail end is the need for less interventions, because you’re teaching them.”

While there are not many students in the full-time AS program in the district, the county has an unusually high rate of autism.

“The one thing that has not changed here is the demographics,” Hawley said. “We are twice the state. When I speak with other districts, they’re comparable with the state.”

If she had to speculate why that is, she said she would look at lead poisoning.

“I look at the lead levels,” she said. “There are two counties in the state that are in the red, and we are one.”

The other county in the red for high levels of lead in children is Lehigh. Lehigh County ranks 14th in the state in autism prevalence according to the most recent Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare Autism Census.

Hawley said there is now one teacher in each building assigned to AS and one to ES.

They will be training throughout the year in their particular fields, “learning how to provide these interventions to kids,” she said.

Each of those teachers is assigned one period per day for planned intervention support — not crisis response.

The district does not have to provide full-time AS and ES services, it could contract them out.

“The district is not responsible to offer full-time programming in the district,” Hawley said. “We are responsible to offer access to full-time programming.”

But that kind of contract would not be beneficial to the district nor its students, she said.

The district also overhauled its Child Find processes. The state requires that all school district “identify, locate, and evaluate” all children with disabilities.

Along with Child Find, the district updated its Section 504 policies that prohibit discrimination against any student with disabilities.

The district has maintained special education teacher positions through several rounds of cuts to the staff.

“Our staffing in special education hasn’t been reduced,” Hawley said. “Our overall percentage (of special education students) is 17 percent. The teacher-pupil rate has remained consistent.”

“As we’re going through the budget, that’s one thing that we’re focused on, we want to be able to provide programming,” she said.

The district is not going to stop trying to make improvements.

“There are always things in special ed or anywhere that you can make better,” Hawley said. “As a whole, I think our program has really turned a leaf and we are doing good things for kids.”