The Real Scope of Special Education

St Johnsbury Special EducationSAINT JOHNSBURY - A local school district claims to need more money for special education, but others are concerned the district may be incorrectly labeling students. 





An increase in students eligible for special education has forced the Saint Johnsbury School District to hire new staff, including multiple special education case managers per grade, as well as 4 speech-language pathologists, an occupational therapist and a contracted physical therapist. These new positions come at a hefty cost for the town; this year the School Board requested an almost $200 thousand increase in special education funding, most of which would go towards contracting new services. 


The school says they need the new staff to keep up with the changing needs and an increase of special education students.
Kara Lufkin, St. Johnsbury School District’s Director of Student Support Services 
"We're finding students who are actually in need of services, so were having a lot more students eligible, explains Kara Lufkin, St. Johnsbury School District’s Director of Student Support Services. "We are just trying to increase our number of staff." 
Over the past five years, the number of students eligible for special education has risen from 196 to 234, and an increasing number of students under age six have become eligible. The increase of students may simply be an effect of a growing population in the district, but Education Professor Tara Fortner says the increase may indicate a problem within the school district. 
"If, there is evidence to suggest that the number of students  who are being identified as having special needs is increasing then I would guess that it is due to one of the following factors: MTSS is not being implemented with fidelity, there have been changes at the administrative levels in local supervisory unions which have altered their interpretations of the state special education regulations, the special education evaluation procedures are not being adhered to.
According to Fortner, research has shown a history of schools over-identifying students with learning disabilities. New procedures mandated by the federal government should actually be decreasing the number of students eligible for special education. Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) allows schools to use up to 15% of their special education funds to help identify students struggling in school.
"By providing these students with interventions in the youngest grades we are attempting to address underlying weaknesses before they become a major problem for the student," Fortner said. "This approach to meeting the needs of struggling students actually decreases the need for special education services because fewer students will exhibit the significant academic difficulties that warrant special education.”
The St. Johnsbury school district currently has MTSS that are in place and Kara Lufkin says they have been working to help identify struggling students at a young age.
"[Becoming eligible for Special Education] doesn't just happen overnight typically. It's a progression of students with long-standing difficulties in school with their academics,” explained Lufkin. "We've been working on our Tier 1 instruction, which is our first level of instruction in the classroom with our classroom teacher. We are also working on our curriculum... and strategies for our teachers to use at the first level so that hopefully kids may not need additional services along the way.
Even with MTSS,  special educators in the district and nationwide face challenges in trying to support the variety of students and their special needs. According to Fortner, it’s a job that not enough people pursue or understand. 
"Working with students with special needs can be a very demanding and scary position. To have a job wherein one is required to assist a student who has significant emotional, behavioral, intellectual, or learning challenges can be an emotionally exhausting and intimidating job. These deter many from pursuing a career in special education,” explained Fortner. 
"There is a high need throughout this nation for bright and caring individuals who have a passion for translating research-based best practices for the education of students with special needs, into the development of effective educational interventions. We know a lot about how these students should be educated, unfortunately, many schools struggle with translating research into practice."
Although St. Johnsbury's special education population may be increasing, statistics from the US Department of Education shows that statewide the number of special education students is slowly decreasing. 

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