• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Focusing on a student’s individual needs in special education

Classroom teachers in Woodford County Public Schools rely on a variety of special education services for support when educating students with social, vocational, emotional or other needs. The foundational skills to support the education of a student can involve something as simple as providing a pencil grip to the child who can’t hold a pencil correctly or giving a student a ball chair to improve focus, occupational therapist Rhonda Wade says. Wade says she works very closely with teachers across the district to make sure a learning environment is accessible to students with autism, spina bifida, motor delays, learning disabilities and other special needs. Teachers explain the need a student has, and Wade says she keeps providing them with options “until we figure out what works best.” Wade says she typically goes in the classroom so special and general education teachers see what she does and how she’s helping a student who needs her services so teachers know what to do. “She helps us so much,” says Trish Appel, a special education teacher at Northside Elementary. In co-teaching situations, a special education teacher supports the classroom teacher’s lesson in language arts, math or other core subject area by providing one-on-one support to students. Resource classrooms are another avenue to educate students with learning disabilities or other special needs. On a recent morning at Northside, Appel was providing students with additional, focused instruction to help them improve their writing. Students at Woodford County High School sometimes need a place where they can do their work with fewer distractions – and a resource classroom gives them that space to learn, with support from special education teacher Allison Culbertson. If a student has difficulty going up and down stairs or needs help navigating a school building in a wheelchair, they get support from district physical therapist Jennie Hayes, who’s responsible for making sure students can move around their school environment safely. “I teach kids in wheelchairs how to open doors. I teach kids who have balance issues how to control their body … or develop their strength or balance so that they do things alongside their peers – whether it’s in PE (physical education class) or on the playground, or even just walking around the school building,” explains Hayes. Hayes says she provides physical therapy services to students – usually around 30 – in the schools, including children being educated in the home for a variety of medical reasons. “If they have trouble accessing their environment,” Hayes says, she provides the necessary supports they need. How often Hayes sees a child varies, but typically the need is greater when students transition to another school building, she says. Hayes says she sometimes accompanies a student on a fieldtrip if, for example, he or she has an opportunity to experience zip-lining, which happened recently. It’s her aim to adapt a situation so students can participate in an activity with modifications or adaptations, explains Hayes, who has been a physical therapist in Woodford County schools for 11 years. She began her career working with adults in a hospital setting, but after becoming a mom she started working with children and discovered the rewarding part of being able to help kids navigate the stairs or learn how to hop, jump or skip – or walk with the aide of a gait trainer – alongside their peers. “I absolutely love when a child learns a new skill … and they’re so excited to show their teachers or their peers,” explains Hayes. Speech pathologist Tammy Willett has been helping students in Woodford County schools with difficulties communicating for over 20 years. She provides support to give students “a voice” using communication boards or other devices, as well as helping them improve articulation, fluency and stuttering. She helps students who have difficulty following directions and others with their grammar. One of seven speech and language pathologists in the district, most of whom work in more than one school, Willett spends her workday at Southside Elementary School because a large number of students there need her services, including about 20 students with autism and cerebral palsy. She typically sees students with severe needs twice a week for 30 minutes a session – mostly working with them one-on-one. And she provides each child individualized services based on what he or she needs. “Every kid is different in how they communicate – just the things they need in a classroom,” explains Willett. Director of Special Education Tracey Francis says she meets with the district’s speech pathologists each month to ensure their caseloads are balanced so they can screen, evaluate and provide services to students. A student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a plan developed and then updated annually by a special education team in consultation with his or her parents, she explains. “… The key to special education is communication … because it takes a team” to meet the needs of a student, says Francis. “We need that support from parents too,” agrees Appel. “So it’s definitely a team approach.” School psychologist Katie Moore evaluates students to see if they are eligible for special education services and regularly reevaluates them to ensure they continue receiving what they need. “… In addition to that,” she explains, “I also help the whole team look at the whole child and meet any needs – socially and emotionally, cognitively, adaptively and academically.” School social workers and guidance counselors often provide support to students needing direct therapy, but psychologists also provide that support if it’s needed based on a student’s individual plan, Francis says. Special education teachers in the elementary schools may need to teach their students some foundational skills so they know how to learn in a structured setting and “just how to be a part of a classroom,” Appel says. “… Again, it’s individual to what that child needs.” Throughout her day at Woodford County Middle School, special education teacher Stephanie Terry sees her students on a regular basis and gets to know them very well. “It’s so cool to see them grow from sixth- to eighth-grader – not just academically, but developmentally and (with their) maturity. It is really, really cool to see that progression,” says Terry, who has been at WCMS for 12 years. She describes a special education teacher as their students’ “go-to person” and advocate. So she continues to checkup on her students (and their families) – even when they move onto Woodford County High School, she says. As a special education teacher at WCHS, Culbertson says she regularly collaborates with WCMS teachers so she can get to know students before they come to her. Culbertson say she’s learned during her 20 years in special education “that you either have a heart for it (or you don’t), and I just do. I love my kids. And I think we all do.” During her 10-plus years in Woodford County, she says she’s been able to work alongside other educators who are invested in their students and willing to go “above and beyond” because they want the best for them. Culbertson, like most special education teachers, provides support to her students in general education classes. “The whole goal is to ensure that all of our students receive their core instruction in reading or writing or math just the same as every other student,” Francis says, “because the gen-ed teacher is the expert in those areas.” Students also need specially-designed instruction in the smaller environment of a resource classroom so they can have foundational skills to help them succeed in their core subject classes, she adds. Special education teachers at all grade levels face challenges, and one of the biggest for teachers at WCHS is helping to get their students ready for life after high school. As employment specialist at WCHS, Chrissy Cress works with students – typically juniors and seniors – under the umbrella of Occupational, Vocational and Rehabilitation services and get them ready for a training program or apprenticeship. She also helps them get a driver’s permit, apply for college or vocational school and learn valuable life skills like how to grocery shop or open a bank account, she says. “And then the big part is finding a job because that is the end goal … ” says Cress, who’s currently helping 28 students get ready for life after high school. In her third year as employment specialist at WCHS, Cress says, “It’s challenging, but rewarding.” She got to know students in her previous role as an assistant in the school library, but says she’s now their advocate, “and they’re going to touch base with you when they leave here – ‘Thank-you for helping me do this,’” or they’ll come back to ask what they need to do to apply for college. Job shadowing opportunities with several local businesses and organizations plus a variety of fieldtrips give students receiving special education services an opportunity to go on interviews and learn other life skills. For students with severe disabilities, the goal may be to live as independently as possible “and have a fabulous quality of life,” Francis says. Being the director of special education in a small district equates to Francis knowing students who receive services and regularly being in the schools, her team says. About 570 students – preschool through high school – receive special education services in Woodford County schools, according to Francis. Students “may only need an accommodation (like extending the time allotted for taking a test or finishing an assignment) as opposed to specially-designed instruction, which is what this (special education) team does,” Francis says.

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