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'It can make all the difference in the world'

BEMIDJI -- In eight years, the Bemidji School District has experienced a growth of more than 124 percent in the number of children enrolled in its Early Intervention Program.

In the 2004-05 school year, there were 78 children enrolled. In 2012-13, there were 175.

"With that, the complexity of the disabilities and the severity of the disabilities have also increased," said Stephanie Hubbard, special education director for Bemidji Area Schools, speaking generally. "We're not only talking about more students, we're talking about more severe (disabilities)."

The Early Intervention Center offers special-education services to children up to age 5, including, for example, speech, physical and occupational therapies.

"It's so very important that we get these kids when they're young, because it can make all the difference in the world," Hubbard said.

The program, part of the Help Me Grow initiative through the Minnesota Department of Health, aims to identify qualifying children early to help them achieve the best developmental outcomes.

For the youngest children, from birth up to age 3, the EIC offers home-based services to support families as they work with teachers to develop objectives and goals for each child. They might meet weekly with parents, teaching them strategies to put into action on their own throughout the week, to reinforce those behaviors.

"It's really more family focused," Hubbard said. "It's what the family sees as the needs and the goals."

Qualifying children from age 3 to 5 then receive preschool special education with services again tailored to meet the needs of the child.

Ami Aalgaard, principal at Horace May Elementary, oversaw the EIC last year. She said the 3- to 5-year-olds move into center-based programming, with a variety of options throughout the district, such as BiCAP Head Start, Jack and Jill Preschool and classrooms at the Early Childhood Family and Special Education offices.

"It's just like a typical school, it just happens to have very young children," Aalgaard said.

Parents and teachers collaborate to decide the best scenario for each child, whether it be placement in an inclusive setting -- a classroom with typical kids -- or in a setting with special-needs children.

Aalgaard noted that while Horace May will not have a kindergarten this year -- its sections have been relocated to Paul Bunyan Elementary at 3300 Gillette Drive NW -- she could see the preparedness of EIC students transitioning into kindergarten.

"Those in the EIC has some sort of schedule experience, they were more used to a schedule and routines," she said. "They seemed a little bit more comfortable, the families were more comfortable. They understood the support system."

After a year of juggling her duties at Horace May and the EIC, Aalgaard this year will be focusing solely on Horace May. The Bemidji School Board on Monday voted to add a principal position, at a cost of $134,500, to oversee the EIC and the Paul Bunyan Elementary.

Following the 2004-05 school year, due to decreasing enrollments at the time, the school board began reducing the number of building principal in the district, going from 14 that year to just 10 in 2012-13.

Jordan Hickman, director of human resources for the district, recommended to the School Board this week the district add back one position due to now-increasing enrollments.

"As the district has experienced student enrollment growth over the past several years, we have increased the number of teachers and support staff positions to provide appropriate levels of staffing for the additional students," he wrote in a memo. "However, we have not increased the number of building principals during that time. This has resulted in an increase in the student-to-principal ratio of approximately 48 percent over the past 10 years."

Paul Bunyan Elementary was reopened in fall 2011 because of growing enrollment and limited space in existing elementary schools. That, combined with the growth of the EIC, prompted the board to consider the additional principal position.

"I will miss my little kids, but I'm very thrilled that they're going to have more support, more time dedicated to their needs," Aalgaard said.

Hubbard said the new position makes sense as the new position will include a smaller elementary school -- just kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classes -- and will have more time available to also focus on the EIC..

"It will be wonderful to have someone who can really give about half of their time to the Early Intervention Center and the other half to Paul Bunyan Elementary," she said. "I think this move was really needed."

Does my child qualify?

The Bemidji School District provides free screenings to families concerned about their child's development.

For more information, call 333-8330.

For those outside of the Bemidji School District, referral numbers for the state Help Me Grow program are as follows:

Akeley, Nevis, Park Rapids and Walker: 218-237-6547

Bagley and Clearbrook-Gonvick:: 218-694-6581

Blackduck, Cass Lake-Bena, Kelliher, Laporte, Mahnomen: 218-751-6622, Ext. 110

Red Lake: 218-679-3329, Ext. 1320