Special Education Centers Prepare for Students

Special Education Centers Prepare for Students

Aug. 21, 2002

There is an even bigger day on the September calendar for the students of the Armstrong Center than the first day of school on the third.

On Sept. 11, local radio station 94.7 will broadcast the students singing the National Anthem at 7 a.m. to mark the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

"It's just our kids singing," said Dianne Philips, administrative assistant at Armstrong Center, which is co-located with Armstrong Elementary School in Reston. The radio station had recorded the children last year, but has not previously aired the song, Phillips said.

The Armstrong Center's students' singing debut notwithstanding, most special-education schools and centers in the Fairfax County Public Schools system are counting on the first day back to be the big event of next month.

The school system has 23 special-education schools and centers across the county. Most of the centers are co-located in other schools, however, they have their own budgets.

Special-education services are provided to children with disabilities between the ages of 2 and 22 either at one of the centers, through home services or by referral to a private school when it is determined the school system can not met the child's needs. The services are offered to children who have autism, developmental delay, emotional disabilities, hearing impairment, mental retardation, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairments, specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairment, serve disability, traumatic brain injury and visual impairment.

THE RADIO SHOW marks one of the few times, the elementary-school students do not participate with the center students.

"We get mingled into together. We have a section for special needs in the school, but our students join the general education students for physical education. We share the library, share the playground, have plays together," Phillips said. "We try to do activities together."

The center caters to children with emotional disabilities primarily from the Herndon, Reston, Vienna and Oakton areas. It's staffed at a student-to-teacher ratio of 8-to-2, which includes a teaching assistant. The school also has a psychologist and social worker. Other than the psychologist and social worker, the center is like any other elementary school with seven-period days.

Approximately 55 students will begin the school year at the center— as will a practically new staff.

"This year is a transition year. We had a staff of about 24 to 28 and only six to eight are returning from last year," Phillips said. The turnover, she said, was for a variety of reasons including maternity leave, marriages and people moving out of the area. "Everybody just seemed to leave at the same time."

The center's back-to-school night is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 17, beginning at 7 p.m., for the morning kindergarten and grades one through three.

JILL JAKULSKI, principal of the Herndon Center, will also be welcoming new staff members along with students on Sept. 3. She has a new psychologist, new counseling resource teacher, new safety and security assistant and a new long-time substitute. She also has two teachers returning from extended absences.

The staff changes should not be too difficult for the 60 middle-school-level students, 70 percent of which come from schools other than Herndon Middle, where the center is co-located. Jakulski said the center, which is staffed at a 10-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, typically has an enrollment of 60 to 75 students.

"We handle the kids who don't do well with transitions or large groups," said Jakulski. "We really do try to facilitate them to handle a less-intensive environment starting late in the seventh grade and in eight grade."

The Herndon Center students are not as integrated with the general education population as they are at the elementary-school level. She said the philosophy at the middle-school level is more of a teaming approach, which tends to leave the center to its own devices.

"A majority of our students spend a majority of their time here. As appropriate, we might have them in self-contained classes, small groups or even in general education," Jakulski said. "We share the PTA. For everything else, we're on our own."

The goal of the center, however, is to help the students function in a less-restrictive environment so they can return to their base school. In addition, the students at the center do take part in the extra-curricular activities that are offered at the middle school, such as band. And just like the middle school, the students have a seven-period day plus lunch.

"We're the same as any other school. The biggest difference is we are able to offer more of a therapeutic environment," Jakulski said. "We know every student. We have a close relationship with every child."

The center will be holding a new-student orientation on the morning of August 31 and back-to-school night is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 19, for the seventh grade and Thursday, Sept. 26, for the eighth grade. Both evenings begin at 7 p.m.