Thursday, December 20, 2012

ESE: how can we best help kids with special needs?

Self-portrait my last day as a teacher
Self-portrait my last day as a teacher
I promised I’d eventually get back to last week’s post “Does ESE need an IEP,” and it looks like today (absent another turn of events that trumps all other discussion) is the day.
PUT UP or SHUT UP: I concluded my ESE post by saying, “There are – I believe – a number of viable solutions to what is a systemic malady.” So now, having said something like that, I guess I need to offer some thoughts.
#1 – First, reduce the size of schools: I’ve written before about problems with the “factory, production-line” education model. This is just one more example. “Economies of scale” are based on the theory that increased size/volume/concentration of resources results in greater efficiencies and the reduction of cost per unit of production.
But these are children we’re talking about, human beings with relational needs that far outweigh the benefits of a more competitive sports program, or more computers in the learning lab, or a large enough population to justify a ________ (fill in the blank here).
So my top choice – and this is helpful for ESE and regular education – is to cap all schools at 500 students. Give schools the opportunity to function as integrated, caring, everyone knows everyone communities.
#2 – Small K-3 class sizes that include well-trained paraprofessional staff: At least 50% of my middle-school ESE students could have been served “regular-ed” with better early intervention. Delayed reading alone can lead to frustration, chronic failure, behavior problems and more.
Small K-3 classes with trained paraprofessional staff (reading groups, social skills, behavioral interventions etc) may sound expensive, but by the time early difficulties escalate to intensive middle-school programs the compounded costs have grown exponentially.
#3 – demystification: This may sound contradictory, but I believe the exceptional education laws (PL 94.142 and IDEA) have inadvertently contributed to the problem. It’s possible that we’ve over-specialized, and have created separate classes of children at school.
One by-product is forgetting that children are children first; too many kids then become defined by their diagnosis rather than the more important consideration that they’re a child, simply going to school.
#4 – Take another look at “least restrictive environment” (LRE): I believe we’ve made some serious mistakes when it comes to the doctrine of “inclusion.” Inclusion promotes placement in the “least restrictive environment” for any given child.
But too often LRE is an idealistic, academic judgment. Ideally, for example, running free in a gym with the general population provides an ESE student with the closest possible match to “regular education” (Such a judgement made the combined/fused gym class, for the Hillsborough County ESE student who recently disappeared, “LRE” for her). However, if “least restrictive” really means “less compromise of learning,” then that child should have been in an adaptive PE class where her unique needs were actually addressed.
#5 Finally (for this post) more training and better supervision for paraprofessional staff:Real education always comes down to relationships. The tragic situation mentioned above involved paraprofessional staff  who used the “fused” gym class as “take it easy” time for themselves. If staff weren’t engaged then, they probably weren’t engaged in other learning situations either.
Almost any education dollar spent on something other than well-trained personnel who actually work with children is a dollar someone needs to explain. If this is true for regular education, then it is even more true for ESE.
SUMMARY: Each of the five points could be discussed beyond these few words, but I believe it all adds up to this: Exceptional student education can be highly successful where leaders cultivate a culture of nurturing community, where hands-on love is valued more than sterile diagnosis, and where 100% of the staff are both respected as and trained to be competent professionals.
If fact, that all goes for regular education too.
Just some thoughts to chew on - DEREK

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