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Schools Adjust for Special Ed

Kathy Collins likes that the buddies of her six students have to take turns. The special-education teacher at Sully Elementary School works with students with moderate- to severe-mental retardation to teach them life skills.

When possible, Collins’ students are integrated into the general-education classroom, where those students agree to help the special-education students practice what they learn in class and to help them out with their lessons.

“There are more students volunteering to assist than is needed. They’re very aware they’re setting … good examples,” said Collins, a special-education teacher for the past 26 years. “Seeing a student being with their peers and being successful is what it’s all about.”

Integration is one of the policies and regulations of Loudoun and Fairfax counties' special-education programs, which both follow state and federal requirements.

“The difference would be from the standpoint of school sizes. Fairfax County is a larger school system,” said Mary Kearney, director of special education for Loudoun County Public Schools.

Loudoun County has 4,000 students in the special-education program and Fairfax County has 23,300 students, according to the Dec. 1, 2002 count for both systems. Loudoun’s total student enrollment during the 2002-03 school year was 37,375 while Fairfax’s was 166,072.

SPECIAL EDUCATION as a requirement was initiated in Virginia in 1968. Since then, the law has been changed with the latest reauthorization in January 2001 to outline the student selection process and the requirements for students’ Individualized Educational Programs (IEP), first established in 1978.

In general, students are identified for the special-education program if a parent or school staff member is concerned about their learning or through the screening process required of all children through grade three. With the parents’ consent, the students are evaluated by a group process to determine the students’ educational needs with parents included in the group.

“Before the law came into being, there was concern that students who were different learners were identified as needing special education without a group process,” Kearney said. “The intent is not a single individual is making a decision.”

As a result, parents can accept or reject the group’s final recommendation for students evaluated and determined to have autism, deafness, visual impairment, developmental delays, emotional disturbances, mental retardation, learning disabilities or traumatic brain injuries, among other difficulties.

If the parents accept, the students are placed into a special-education program to receive services based on their learning needs, which could include equipment and extra staff support, interpreting and transliterating services, speech-language pathology and audiology services, physical and occupational therapy, and counseling services.

PATRICIA LOCKWOOD'S daughter Alicia Lockwood was identified as having autism and placed into special-education services until last year, when she graduated at age 20 from Loudoun County High School with a modified standard diploma. She now is attending Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center to learn pet grooming.

"Alicia was very fortunate in that she had excellent teachers at Loudoun County High School, and they were very accommodating to me," said Lockwood, a special-education teacher at Sterling Middle School who lives in Leesburg. "I had a realistic view of what her learning potential was, and we sat down and made a plan to get her to her maximum potential."

Most of the students, including Lockwood, receive special-education support within the general-education setting, Kearney said. “We may have two teachers in a classroom so students with special needs are not pulled out into a special class. From an instructional standpoint, we found that makes sense. Students need to participate in the SOLs,” she said, referring to the Standards of Learning.

The SOLs serve as state benchmarks of learning that are tested at certain grade levels and, if necessary, modified for some students with disabilities as the Virginia Alternate Assessment, which links what the students learn in life skills to the standards. “We found if we support students, the teachers can do the teaching and we can [provide] the accommodations and academic adjustments we do. We’re meeting the student where he or she needs to be,” Kearney said.

“If we want independent adults, we need to serve all children wherever they start,” Collins said.

SPECIAL-EDUCATION students may be placed in a separate learning setting for part of or the whole school day or entirely integrated into the general-education classroom. “You have the whole spectrum of students we serve. That’s why we have the IEP,” Kearney said, adding that students’ needs are identified through the IEP, not according to the identified disability.

The IEP shows the student’s present level of educational performance and the strengths and weaknesses within that performance, along with predicting the student’s needs and the services that will be used for the next school year and providing program planning with goals and objectives. Students placed on an IEP are re-evaluated annually.

"The kids are taught at their own level. Some are taught academics, and some are taught functional life skills, depending on where the children are and what their goals are. Loudoun County is very adept at that. They are very accommodating," Lockwood said. "Loudoun County does encourage inclusion as much as possible for socialization and for peer modeling."

Some of the students may receive assistive technology services to help them learn, communicate and access the educational system. In Fairfax, 2,200 students received the services during the 2002-03 school year. In Loudoun, 172 students received the services during the same time period.

Loudoun and Fairfax public schools educate special- and general-education teachers on using the technology in the classroom. Loudoun has a full-time team of specialized individuals who observe children referred for assistive technology services while they are in their education settings and work with teachers to provide ongoing support for the students. Fairfax holds an annual assistive technology conference to train teachers on how to use the technology in their classrooms and for each school building, identifies a Technology Outreach and Program Support (TOPS) teacher to serve as a liaison between the school and the special-education office.

THE SPECIAL-EDUCATION program at Fairfax County exceeds the state and federal requirements, said Pat Addison, director of special education for Fairfax County Public Schools. Fairfax was the first county in the nation to begin sending surveys to special-education graduates about 10 years ago, she said, adding that the information gathered is used for program planning and evaluation. Fairfax conducted a multi-year survey of 1992, 1997, 1999 and 2001 graduates and found that 93 to 96 percent of the graduates were employed, engaged in post-secondary education or involved in other meaningful activities. Loudoun County plans to establish the survey for the 2003-04 school year.

Other aspects of the special-education program Addison pointed to include parent outreach, a Career and Transition Business Advisory Council to gather information on employment trends and to help place students in jobs, and the Transition Liaison Services to prepare students for post-secondary experiences and provide information on available resources.

“I’m very proud of our special-education program. Our principals and schools work hard to ensure students receive the services needs,” Addison said.

Alternatively in Loudoun, there is a vocational advisory group that serves both general- and special-education students since Loudoun is a smaller county than Fairfax. Loudoun also has a Special Education Advisory Committee that addresses the unmet needs of special-education students and identifies the steps that can be taken to meet those needs.

Fairfax County’s special-education program costs $282.7 million, 17 percent of the proposed budget for fiscal year 2004. Loudoun apportions $43.6 million of the $231.7 million spent on classroom instruction and instructional support to educate students. Special education spending is 11 percent of the total $504 million budget for FY '04.

“Day in and day out, I see the special-education support we provide to students really makes a difference. It’s those successes that we get day to day that keeps me in the field,” Kearney said.

Likewise, Collins said, “I’m glad to see we’re in a time where differences are not always seen as a negative and where school is ultimately an accepting and welcoming place for all children, and for that I’m grateful every day. … We have many students once they exit school, nobody will recognize they have special needs.”