Special needs for special ed classes
The staff at Jefferson Elementary School does what they can to disguise the fact that their special education classroom was once a locker room.
To help camouflage the room, it’s decorated as an aquarium. Colorful paper fish swim are pasted across blue walls. Blue streamers hang from the ceiling; when the heater kicks on they shimmer and shake. A good imagination could give the ocean the credit. Brown and green construction paper wrap around plumbing pipes to mimic trees.
Even so, space it tight. Kellie King-DeNoon, a special education resource room teacher, said her job would be easier if there were more space. Sometimes, staff must move furniture to accommodate activities.
A proposal to build a new elementary school would create larger classrooms, designed to meet the needs of special education students as mandated by law. Voters will decide April 2 whether to approve $25.5 million in bonds to build a new elementary school, with options of $7 million to build a new science and technology building at the high school and $2.8 million to replace heating, ventilation and cooling systems at the middle school.
Educating students with special needs presents unique challenges that weren’t considered when USD 257’s buildings were constructed, with some facilities more than 100 years old.
Administrators and staff have come up with some creative solutions to accommodate students with special needs, Doug Tressler said, citing the converted locker rooms. He’s the director of the ANW Special Education Cooperative, which serves USD 257 and four other districts.
But even with efforts to make the best of challenging logistics, he said new facilities would result in significant improvements for those who work with special education students.
“It means more equity of access,” Tressler said. “One of the better ways to support special education students is to have bigger classrooms, where teachers can work together in a partnership.”
About 250 students in USD 257 qualify for special education services. That can include anything from gifted students to those with learning disabilities (the majority of special education students fall into this category) to those with serious mental and physical disabilities. Some students have ambulatory problems, which means they can’t navigate stairs at facilities like Jefferson. Some are medically fragile and require the care of a nurse.
Federal laws require schools to provide an education for all children in “the least restrictive environment.” That means students, no matter their disability, should be in a classroom with their peers as often as possible, Tressler said. Special education teachers will pull students out of their general education classroom from time to time for specialized instruction. Students who have severe mental disabilities or severe multiple disabilities may be transferred to another facility, like an alternative education school, if necessary.
SPECIAL education teachers are among the most difficult positions to recruit, especially in the face of nation- and statewide teaching shortages. Tressler has advertised an occupational therapist position for two years; until recently, he had no applicants.
Typically, ANW has to fill about 10 vacancies each year.
ANW employs a variety of teacher positions that require a higher degree of education than general classroom teachers. Most must have a master’s degree. Most will be based at a specific school, while others may travel to numerous buildings.
If voters agree to build a new school, Tressler could consolidate some positions and improve efficiency. Although some may worry that would result in lost jobs, the current teacher shortage means he likely would have other positions available.
Cost savings from reduced positions means he could invest in areas of high need, like hiring another position to help with those who are deaf or hard of hearing. He also needs to increase the number of social workers in the district.
It’s especially difficult to recruit special education teachers to a small, rural community, Tressler said. He’s become quite the salesman for communities in the five districts served by ANW.
When he tries to recruit teachers to Iola’s schools, he promotes things like the bicycling trails and the Bowlus Fine Arts Center. Iola’s lower cost of living and affordable housing prices help sell the community.
The primary reason a teacher chooses a town like Iola is because he or she has family or other ties to the area, he said. Students fresh out of college typically prefer to work at bigger districts, where they earn more money and often work in more modern buildings.
New facilities make a big difference in the recruitment process, Tressler said.
“Regardless of the pay, if they know their environment is going to have all the technology they need, they can use the things they learned in school, they’ve got room to move around in and good equipment, that just makes it easier for them. They love that,” he said.
The quest to fill positions led ANW to partner with the University of Kansas. Doctoral students will do a rotation with ANW staff, which gives students an opportunity to work in rural communities. As the students become more familiar with the communities and the people who live in them, they are more likely to take a position in the area.
“That is the most attractive thing for our area. We have good people, good families who want to have a nice community. That has left the biggest impression on the students who come down here.”
Because of the program, Tressler now has two applicants for the occupational therapist position and expects to hire one of them.
TRANSPORTATION issues present other challenges for special education staff. That’s another area that can be improved with a new school, Tressler said.
Some staff members must travel between Iola’s three elementary schools. Combining all preschool through fifth grade students into one building would reduce time spent traveling.
It also would improve communication, King-DeNoon said. She primarily works at Jefferson but also collaborates with teachers at McKinley and Lincoln. Being able to interact with those teachers more frequently and in a more personal way would make it easier to discuss student needs and improve programs, she said.
It’s also especially difficult for some special education students to switch schools every couple of years as they advance through elementary grade levels, King-DeNoon said.
“It’s very scary to have a new special ed teacher, a new teacher, a new principal, a new building,” she said. “I like to get to know all the kids, and it would help them get to know all the teachers at different grade levels.”
Iola Middle School features an ideal classroom for students with special needs, Tressler said, but Iola High School does not. Some students will remain at the middle school through the rest of their school career because the facility is better equipped to meet their needs. They attend some classes at the high school, which means they must be transported to the other building on a special bus.
Similar challenges face elementary students, especially at Jefferson, which has two stories. Administrators shuffle classrooms to accommodate students who have physical disabilities and cannot negotiate stairs. In some cases, a student has been kept at a lower grade level because a classroom was not available to meet specific needs.
“Explaining that to parents is one of the most difficult things we have to do,” Tressler said. “They miss out on some of the things about being a kid and being with their age-related peers and their friends.”
New facilities must meet standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as wider doors and handicapped-accessible restrooms. New schools are more likely to be one-level buildings with shelters and evacuation routes to accommodate those with special needs.
“All the way around, the biggest obstacle for us is just space,” Tressler said.
IN THE end, Tressler said, it all comes down to doing what is best for the students.
“We as a community need to treat all children like they’re our child. That to me is the other part of the new building question. We’re always always teaching. We’re teaching these kids what they’re worth. We’re teaching them how to invest. We’re teaching them how to build a community. We’re teaching them how to become the leaders of tomorrow because we’re teaching them how to build the next school.”