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The new special education: Classroom integration enhances skills

Three students help each other out through computer games during a school day. (Brian Basham/Record)

Years ago, special education needs weren't targeted as much as they are today. Students were often taken out of the classroom for individualized attention, leaving them out of the loop when it comes to core instruction.

The Detroit Lakes School District Special Education program is constantly developing as more research now guides educators on how to address students' needs, at the same time, not let them fall through the cracks when it comes to standardized testing.

All student groups need to learn core instruction, in other words reading, writing and math, to be able to move up the education ladder.

"If the students don't have those, they can't be as successful in the world," said Marcy Matson, the district's special education program director.

As of December 2010, the student caseload was up to 614 -- a number that includes 536 resident students in addition to a number of others from Frazee-Vergas, Lake Park-Audubon, Waubun-Ogema, Pelican Rapids and other districts.

Matson said that before parents of students of special education move to the area, they inquire about the services the district offers to make sure their needs will be met.

"It's becoming more of an issue," she said.

Special education is a complex system that covers a wide range of disabilities, she added.

The different criteria defined by federal and state laws include Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD), speech and language impairment, and other health impairments such as diabetes, epilepsy, heart conditions and leukemia.

Since 2004, students in the Detroit Lakes program diagnosed with ASD increased from 26 to 92, while those with EBD declined from 65 to 47, according to figures provided by Matson.

There has been a lot more research on the intervention side of things, and this year, district psychologists are coaching teachers on how to deal with behavioral problems.

"If the behavior doesn't get in the way of the students' learning, then students benefit more from being in the classroom," Matson said.

Numerous benefits have been encouraging teachers to bring students of special education into the regular classroom with their peers.

The youngsters, especially, learn social skills when they're around their peers more often. The Early Childhood Family Education, Head Start and Early Childhood Special Education programs are now integrated so that all students get to spend time together every day.

"If they are behind in some skills, they really catch up better if they have role models," Matson said, adding, "We want them to have all the joys of playing with other kids and interacting with teachers."

The No Child Left Behind Law has also contributed to the integration model that works to bring students with special needs into the classroom.

"We have kids that have very little awareness of what's around them but they can still be in a school setting," Matson said.

It's difficult to say how test scores have improved over the years because each student's growth is measured individually. But Matson said every three years, students are tested and the results have shown tremendous improvements.

Sandy Nelson, Rossman Elementary principal, said back in the 1970s when he first started teaching, the special education model didn't look at the achievement gap like today's model does.

"If you think about kids as people in general, we all have our strengths, we all have our weaknesses," he said.

Allowing time for core instruction so students are at or above grade level is key in the constantly improving special education research.

Additionally, school psychologists, therapists, paraprofessionals and teachers, are now aware of the different mental, emotional and intellectual concerns that affect children's learning abilities.

"It's kind of a double dose of teaching," Nelson said, adding that it's about "addressing the needs and also addressing the core instruction."