Special education numbers, programs added in D51

Students with autism are gaining their voices for the first time in a classroom at Redlands Middle School.

The four middle-school-age boys in Mara Brownell’s classroom did not talk before District 51 started a program for them this year at Redlands Middle School. A grant allowed the program to purchase iPad tablets, an interactive “smart board” and an interactive “smart table” to help the students communicate.

With the flick of a finger, they can choose keys with words and pictures on an iPad program to make a sentence and unlock messages they may not have been able to easily convey before.

Students can use the tablets and “smart” technology in conjunction with reading, writing and math lessons. The class focuses on academics as well as social expression and communication, which can be a challenge for students with autism. The students in this class are on a part of what is called the autism spectrum that means they need more assistance than a regular classroom can provide, but they are independent enough to work on interaction and engagement in the school and the community on a regular basis.

“I feel like I’m helping these kids access their world,” Brownell said. “We are mobile. We’re not baby-sitting.”

The class is one of a handful of new programs started this year to assist students with special needs. The district population overall dropped by 174 students year-over-year in fall 2011, but the district gained 146 special-education students this year.

The district has 2,585 students on individual education plans, which means they need some form of specialized education, from a little extra time on a standardized test to one-on-one assistance throughout the school day.

Increases were made across the board, according to District 51 Executive Director of Student Services Tanya Skalecki, but a few of the larger increases were in the number of students with autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and preschoolers with speech or language disabilities.

In addition to the autism program at Redlands Middle School, the school district this year introduced a program for students with autism at Clifton Elementary; added a half-time special-education teacher for the district’s new K–12 online school, Grande River Virtual Academy; created a program at the Career Center for students who are 18 to 21 years old who have cognitive disabilities or autism; and added a significant-support-needs classroom at Taylor Elementary School.

The classroom at Taylor opened in January and offers support to students who are medically fragile or have cognitive disabilities and need the most intense interventions at school, according to Skalecki. She said Taylor has the new class because the population of students who needed the program has increased in Palisade.

Skalecki said Clifton added a room for students with autism because of an increase in students in the Clifton area with autism.

The district saw an overall increase of 23 students with autism this year compared with last year, she said.

Skalecki said the increase does not concern her, and she attributed part of the reason for the increase to professionals becoming better at identifying students who may have autism.

“We continue to follow national trends” with autism numbers, she said.

The program at the Career Center for 18- to 21-year-olds was created this year to help students with autism or cognitive needs learn self-sufficiency techniques.

Students legally can stay in school until age 21, Skalecki said, and this program helps students learn how to ride public transportation, maintain a job, cook and pay bills. Most students are expected to be in the program for a year to a year-and-a-half. There are 12 slots for students in that program, which is housed in a modular unit outside the Career Center.

“It’s going really good. We already had three students graduate from the program,” Skalecki said.

The Grande River teacher works with students based on their needs. Students can get everything from a little extra coaching over the phone or over the computer to assistance one-on-one for up to three hours a day at a brick-and-mortar school.

Skalecki said the district added the half-time teaching position because the school expanded from a dropout-retrieval program to a full K–12 program and enrolled 25 special-education students. The school has about 170 students total.

The full-time teacher who works in Taylor’s significant-support-needs room, Brownell’s position and the half-time special education teacher at Grande River were the only two net gains in positions in special education after the student increase, Skalecki said. The full-time position leading the 18–21 program and the position at Clifton were reapportioned from other jobs that existed elsewhere in the district last year.

Skalecki said the district’s plans for the future in special education may include a high school program for students with autism.

“We have five kids identified we think would benefit from a high school autism program. It’s in the talking stages,” she said.


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My son is enrolled in the program at Redland’s Middle School and he has made amazing strides using the IPAD technology. He is able to express his basic wants and needs where he wasn’t able to before. Really hoping this program continues thru high school.

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