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Special education program taking strides: Becoming training site and piloting new programs

The Frazee-Vergas School District’s special education program is on a clear path filled with successful accomplishments.

They are leading the way on working with autistic children and will likely be a training site for the new STAR program.

This success could not be attributed to any one or two people though. School Psychologist and Special Education Director Bardie Skjonsberg said there are so many people involved in the success of students from the parents to the special education teachers, the general education teachers to the early childhood teachers, the superintendent to the school board and of course, the students themselves. “We have a very active program,” he said.

Getting an IEP

Years ago, children who were identified with needing special education services were segregated from the rest of the students, which only proved to be more detrimental to the child.

“Now, you need a reason to justify why they shouldn’t be in the classroom,” Skjonsberg said.

That means more and more teachers are going into the general classroom and helping the individual student along. The student then gets the services he or she needs but is also interacting with peers and the homeroom teacher.

Regulated through both federal and state guidelines, school districts have a lot of requirements for their special education students. And a lot of paperwork for the district.

“In my special ed world, there’s a vast amount of paperwork, and it has to be done in a certain way at a certain time,” he said.

There are several ways of getting a child into special education. There is the Child Find, which is the process of finding students who may need some extra help.

Teachers are also instrumental in determining what children are struggling and may need a little extra help. Regardless of how the child in need is identified, Skjonsberg said it’s essential for the parents to be involved.  “It is all based on parent approval and permission,” he said.

Once children are identified, staff conducts a comprehensive evaluation. Students have to have a disability, show that disability has an adverse effect on their education and that there is a need for services.

“We develop goals and objectives to reach those goals,” Skjonsberg said of each individual child.

There are 15 special education teachers in the Frazee district, which includes 13 licensed teachers and two specialty licensed teachers, like speech, for example.

There are also student assistance teams in place at both the high school and the elementary school to assist the students in reaching their goals.

There are 178 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade on IEPs (Individualized Education Plan); 80 of those students are in the high school and the remaining nearly 100 in the elementary.

The state average is 12 percent of a district’s students are on IEPs. Frazee’s is 17-18 percent.

Students are on an IEP until they have met their goals. Some may stay on throughout their education; some are able to reach their goal and not have special education instruction after that.

Students and their goals go through an annual review process to see what their progress is and what changes need to be made to their IEP, if any.

Keeping up with autism

This year, the Frazee district was able to hire a full-time special education teacher that specializes in autism. Skjonsberg said the district has been seeing more and more children on the autism spectrum, as there have been nationwide, and the focused position was needed.

“The Early Childhood staff has been phenomenal with working with autism,” he said.

He added that the school board has “been very, very supportive” of the special education department, the work it is doing and the progress with autism. They approved a special funding source to allow the district to hire back teacher Sara Jacobson, who was with the district the prior year through other funding that ended. She specializes in working with autistic children now.

He said the school district started planning a couple years ago to add autism-specialized services because of the increase in students needing those services.

“Their needs vary so much,” he said.

Not that the district wasn’t working with autistic students before this year, getting as much training as possible, but with a specialized teacher, the district can be that much more successful, which translates into student success.

“Stability is so important,” he said for the students and the program.

That stability and success is leading into even more success for the district, which Skjonsberg hopes to pass along to other districts in the near future.

STAR district

A few years ago when the special education department in Frazee heard about the STAR program (Strategies for Teaching based on Autism Research), they decided it sounded like something they should be involved in. They purchased the start-up kit and implemented it in Early Childhood.

The program is based on repetitive work for a student, getting quick rewards when they succeed at each little step. Early Childhood started the program a couple years ago and has seen great success with it, and now this year with Jacobson in place, the district can use it even more.

“We’ve had such good luck with it,” Skjonsberg said.

And others are noticing as well.

Lead trainers of the STAR program, based out of Oregon, saw Frazee’s success and visited Frazee about a week or so ago to see it firsthand. Skjonsberg said that while staff was nervous to have the lead people on the project in the district, it was a fruitful visit.

“The ultimate goal is to be a training site where other districts come watch us and learn,” he said.

Though all signs point to Frazee being a training site, Skjonsberg said they will know within the next school year if they are chosen for sure.

“It’s a great thing. I’m glad we’re growing in that direction because it’s helping our kids.”

And since it’s working so well in the Early Childhood, the district is also working to implement it in the higher grades as well.

The earlier the district can help students overcome their learning disabilities, the more successful the students will be in their education, he said.

Another conference that led to the Frazee district being lead on a new special education program is Inspire Action.

When the state decided to test out the program, school districts were encouraged to apply to be a test site. Frazee applied and was chosen.

The program helps teachers meet the needs of students and get referrals and services. The district was awarded $1,500 for being a pilot site, which Skjonsberg said they will be using to attend conferences to learn more.

When the state decides to implement the program in school districts, Frazee will be that much further ahead after already using it for a year as a pilot site.

Transition Tuesdays

While many of the programs begin in the elementary school, there are focused programs in the high school for special education students as well.

There are five special education teachers at the high school and one of the programs they provide is Transition Tuesday.

By the time a student is 14 or in ninth grade, they start looking at what they want to do after high school. Students are required to determine what job they would like to have, research it, develop a resume and hold mock interviews.

“It’s a great thing to learn these skills that they will use in life after high school,” Skjonsberg said.

A team effort

“I can’t say enough about our staff,” he said.

Helping students, regardless of their education level, is a team effort.

Skjonsberg said that he is more than happy to get or give any support he can for his staff to make the department as strong as possible.

But it goes beyond his core staff as well.

“The paras play a big role in supporting our students,” he said.

Some students have a paraprofessional that works with them throughout the day, going into the classroom and spending the day with them. Others just have a para that comes for certain times throughout the day.

Skjonsberg said it’s important to have paraprofessionals work with the same student for a period of time because it builds a lot of trust. On the flip side though, many times the pairings change from year to year so that students don’t become dependent on the para either.

The general education teachers need to be supportive to make the process work, too, he said.

“We’re looking at the whole child,” he said, adding that children need the interaction with their peers as much as they need the specialized learning tools.

Skjonsberg said students, and the population as a whole for that matter, are trying to overcome the stigma of special education.

“Everyone learns differently.”

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.