Thursday, October 1, 2015

Special Education Programming

Two weeks ago I wrote an article revisiting the concept of categorical funding. Within that article, I shared that our special education expenses for the year that just ended were in excess of $1.5 Million. Considering that total general fund expenditures for this year were $7.4 Million, that is a significant percentage of our total (20%). However, students served in special education programs are not tied to the same per pupil limitations ($6,541 in Hudson this year), and therefore the normal cap of spending authority for Iowa public schools does not apply. Depending on the student served in the program and their specific needs, students are weighted from 1-3. For example, a student with minimal needs may be weighted at 1.72. A student with moderate learning needs may be weighted at 2.21, and a student with significant educational needs is weighted at the maximum of 3.74. This means that a student with a 3.74 weighting wouldn't generate $6,541, but would instead generate $24,463.34. That is a lot for one student, but believe it or not that often isn't enough for the neediest of our students! We'll discuss why that is in a minute.

But first, why aren't special education programs limited by normal spending authority limitations? Because special education law is governed by the federal statute known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In this law, a students education is guided by what is known as an individualized educational plan (IEP). This educational plan is designed and developed by a team of people that include the teachers working with the student, consultants from the AEA, the building principal, and the parents. From time to time additional team members may be added as the need arises. When appropriate, the student also participates in the discussion. The IEP outlines what educational services will be provided, by whom, and any other factors that are of pertinent value. The plan also specifies what the learning difficulty is and how instruction will be designed to meet the specific and individual needs of that student.

As you have probably already surmised, special education programming is more expensive than general education programming. There are multiple reasons for this, but for starters it is important to note that special education classes are much smaller than general education classes. The specific size of the class is determined by the teachers case load and they never reach the capacity of a typical general education classroom. The higher the weighting of the student, the smaller the class size. Further, some of our students may require the assistance of an adult one on one during the day, and as a result have a paraprofessional that is assigned to them. In the majority of cases, our students are served right here in Hudson. However, for some of our students we either don't have the capacity to meet their specific needs or we don't offer the very specialized programming that will best meet the needs of that individual. We are very lucky to have some excellent options in our area to serve these students!

The process to identify students for specialized education is quite lengthy and very involved. It includes the collection of a vast data set over an extended period of time, many meetings with a team of educators and the principal, and having the classroom teacher try and test multiple teaching strategies to see if there are other factors that might be impacting the child's education that fall outside the realm of special education. While this is oftentimes frustrating for the parents, student, and even classroom teacher it is important the process is followed. At the end of the process, we must ensure that we are serving those who truly qualify for services. Because we are so committed to getting this right, we have to take our time. Also, since this is governed by IDEA and funded in part with federal money, we have to ensure that we are not over identifying students. As a general guideline, special education populations in schools should not exceed 10%. In Hudson, we are oftentimes above that, most recently we were hovering right around 12%, The good news here is that as we identify our students in the elementary, by the time they reach the higher grades they begin to 'age out' of the programming. That is a testament to the hard work of our educators and the effectiveness of our programming. The goal is always to get students to a point where they don't need special education.

Finally, if you believe your child is experiencing difficulty in learning, please contact your child's teacher or principal.

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