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'A good place to start' - School district looks at special ed changes

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

BEMIDJI - It came as no surprise to Tricia Denzer, Bemidji School District's director of special education, to hear what could be improved with special education programming in the district.

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The district spends roughly 20 cents out of every dollar on special education, but this amount is increasing at a faster rate than what is spent on other programs in the budget, according to a study completed by Futures Education, a firm hired by the district to assess its special education program.

If the trend continues, at some point the district would spend all its money on special education, Charles Kyte, a senior educational consultant with Futures Education, told School Board members last week.

Roughly 950 students receive special education services in the district, a number which has grown by about 100 students in the last five years.

As more students continue to require special education services, Denzer intends to work with staff and administrators to take the firm's findings and work to control special education spending while increasing the quality of services to students.

Throughout the school year, more than 50 people in the district were interviewed and more than 100 individual education programs were reviewed as part of the Futures Education study that investigated the district's special education programs.

The study reports three main areas needing improvement:

E The district needs to better manage its individual education programs.

Students in need of specialized instruction receive an individual education program, a blueprint that educators follow in helping a student make progress.

E The district has too many staff members in some areas of special education, specifically paraprofessionals.

The school district currently employs 117 certified special education staff members, 144 special education paraprofessionals and a special education director.

The number of special education paraprofessionals in the district has grown by 25 in the last five years. Kyte suggested the district bring the number of paraprofessionals down to 100 full-time positions.

The firm found paraprofessionals are being assigned to individual students, rather than to programs, Kyte said. This can be a problem because the job of a paraprofessional can become dependent on whether a student needs their assistance, he said.

"If you work it as a program the folks will have their job but the kids can move on and become more independent," Kyte said.

Kyte also recommends adding three or four more psychologists to help diagnose students' needs, a move the district could afford, he said, if it reduced its paraprofessional staff.

E The district needs to ramp up its Response To Intervention program, an early intervention program identifying and evaluating students at risk for learning disabilities. The goal of the program is to catch students before they need to be placed in special education classes.

"RTI is in its infancy in the district," Kyte said. "As a result, it's very inconsistent from school to school."

Throughout the state, Kyte said his firm has seen schools now in their seventh year of implementing the RTI program. The Bemidji district, he said, is in its second year.

Other recommendations in the study include not pulling students out of regular education classes to receive special education; reviewing Bemidji High School's alternative programs; creating better exit plans for special education students to reenter into regular education programs and doing more community outreach on special education.

Kyte praised Denzer, the district's special education director, for her work in aligning the district's special education programs with regular education state standards.

"We've seen almost heroic efforts this year, in our observations, of what (Denzer) is doing to get the district to line the special education programs with the standards of what you should be teaching the children, as opposed to everybody doing their own thing," he said.

He suggested the district hire middle managers in the elementary, middle school and high school buildings to assist Denzer, adding the district cannot manage its special education programs and services effectively with one manager.

Having to manage roughly 900 individual education program meetings per year makes for a busy job, which is why Denzer agreed receiving more help from middle managers, as the firm recommended, would be a good thing.

She also agreed the district should build Response To Intervention program, and called the special education study "realistic." It could take roughly three to five years to implement some of the changes, she said.

Some changes have already been made. On April 23, the school board approved hiring one full-time psychologist to replace a .90 fulltime equivalent special education position.

"I think this study was something the district needed," Denzer said. "I think now it's a matter of following through and finding a more effective and efficient system for our kids."

Board member John Pugleasa said he was encouraged to hear discussions take place on keeping special education students in regular education classrooms.

Superintendent James Hess said he felt it would take several years to make changes to the district's special education program, but added the study "is a good place to start."

BEMIDJI - It came as no surprise to Tricia Denzer, Bemidji School District's director of special education, to hear what could be improved with special education programming in the district.

The district spends roughly 20 cents out of every dollar on special education, but this amount is increasing at a faster rate than what is spent on other programs in the budget, according to a study completed by Futures Education, a firm hired by the district to assess its special education program.

If the trend continues, at some point the district would spend all its money on special education, Charles Kyte, a senior educational consultant with Futures Education, told School Board members last week.

Roughly 950 students receive special education services in the district, a number which has grown by about 100 students in the last five years.

As more students continue to require special education services, Denzer intends to work with staff and administrators to take the firm's findings and work to control special education spending while increasing the quality of services to students.

Throughout the school year, more than 50 people in the district were interviewed and more than 100 individual education programs were reviewed as part of the Futures Education study that investigated the district's special education programs.

The study reports three main areas needing improvement:

- The district needs to better manage its individual education programs.

Students in need of specialized instruction receive an individual education program, a blueprint that educators follow in helping a student make progress.

- The district has too many staff members in some areas of special education, specifically paraprofessionals.

The school district currently employs 117 certified special education staff members, 144 special education paraprofessionals and a special education director.

The number of special education paraprofessionals in the district has grown by 25 in the last five years. Kyte suggested the district bring the number of paraprofessionals down to 100 full-time positions.

The firm found paraprofessionals are being assigned to individual students, rather than to programs, Kyte said. This can be a problem because the job of a paraprofessional can become dependent on whether a student needs their assistance, he said.

"If you work it as a program the folks will have their job but the kids can move on and become more independent," Kyte said.

Kyte also recommends adding three or four more psychologists to help diagnose students' needs, a move the district could afford, he said, if it reduced its paraprofessional staff.

- The district needs to ramp up its Response To Intervention program, an early intervention program identifying and evaluating students at risk for learning disabilities. The goal of the program is to catch students before they need to be placed in special education classes.

"RTI is in its infancy in the district," Kyte said. "As a result, it's very inconsistent from school to school."

Throughout the state, Kyte said his firm has seen schools now in their seventh year of implementing the RTI program. The Bemidji district, he said, is in its second year.

Other recommendations in the study include not pulling students out of regular education classes to receive special education; reviewing Bemidji High School's alternative programs; creating better exit plans for special education students to reenter into regular education programs and doing more community outreach on special education.

Kyte praised Denzer, the district's special education director, for her work in aligning the district's special education programs with regular education state standards.

"We've seen almost heroic efforts this year, in our observations, of what (Denzer) is doing to get the district to line the special education programs with the standards of what you should be teaching the children, as opposed to everybody doing their own thing," he said.

He suggested the district hire middle managers in the elementary, middle school and high school buildings to assist Denzer, adding the district cannot manage its special education programs and services effectively with one manager.

Having to manage roughly 900 individual education program meetings per year makes for a busy job, which is why Denzer agreed receiving more help from middle managers, as the firm recommended, would be a good thing.

She also agreed the district should build Response To Intervention program, and called the special education study "realistic." It could take roughly three to five years to implement some of the changes, she said.

Some changes have already been made. On April 23, the school board approved hiring one full-time psychologist to replace a .90 fulltime equivalent special education position.

"I think this study was something the district needed," Denzer said. "I think now it's a matter of following through and finding a more effective and efficient system for our kids."

Board member John Pugleasa said he was encouraged to hear discussions take place on keeping special education students in regular education classrooms.

Superintendent James Hess said he felt it would take several years to make changes to the district's special education program, but added the study "is a good place to start."

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