School District Introduces New At-Risk Program for Middle and High School
Special education at the Marshfield School District is no small endeavor.
Besides helping students with a wide spectrum of disabilities achieve their goals and close achievement gaps, the district also works proactively to support students early on, whether they are affected by trauma or struggling academically in a subject, before deciding to refer them to special education.
The district is required by law to provide a continuum of services, from removing the student from general education entirely to the most desirable option, which is providing support in the normal classroom setting. “Our emphasis is to keep the students with their same age peers in the classroom if at all possible, as much as possible, and provide support to them,” said Tracey Kelz, Director of Student Services.
A student can be referred to special education through a process which follows federal law. The Child Find mandate requires schools to discover children who have disabilities as a step toward finding them the services they need to succeed. Pediatricians, teachers, and parents are among those who can refer a child for assessment if a cognitive, emotive, or learning disability is suspected.
The school psychologist will begin the initial referral and fill out paperwork that includes an assessment plan and which areas to evaluate; for a behavioral concern, it could be an emotional behavioral disability, or for an academic concern, a learning disability.
Parents are involved in the whole process, said Kelz, and are walked through the assessment plan. They can also provide additional info. Wisconsin criteria determines whether a student qualifies for special education.
Once a student qualifies, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is put into place that determines the student’s goals for the school year, their current functioning, and what program interventions would help meet their goals. The IEP team meets at least once a year and includes specialists, special and regular education teachers, the school principal, and parents.
“Families are an important part of the IEP team and are involved in the decision-making process,” said Kelz. “They have that right to ask questions and get input.”
Parents are updated quarterly on their children’s progress toward IEP goals. IEP managers are available for questions at any time as part of the district’s open-door policy. “Families need to feel like they’re being heard,” said Kelz. “I think most misunderstandings come from lack of communication. As long as we have that communication, things tend to go well.”
The ultimate goal – and biggest challenge – of special education anywhere is closing the achievement gap between a student with a disability and their peers. Every three years, there is a complete re-evaluation to determine where the student is at, and if they still need intervention.
“Of course, the goal is always to close that gap to where they can 100% integrated back into general ed,” said Kelz. “What we tend to see is trying to get students, especially as they get up to secondary level, more and more integrated with the general ed classes. Those students might have a resource period once a day where they’re going through very specific interventions with a special education teacher.”
As part of Results-Driven Accountability, a revised accountability program through the federal Office of Special Education, Wisconsin has chosen reading as a priority since that area sees the biggest gap between students with and without a disability. “If you get students proficient in reading, there’s a lot of other areas that you can have an impact on as well,” said Kelz.
Part of closing the gap, she said, is looking at IEPs closely to set high but attainable goals and provide interventions matched to that level of expectation.
There are plenty of processes set in place to provide support to students who are struggling before referring them to special education. “That really should be our last resort. We want to try to help them as much as we can first in the general ed setting,” said Kelz. Direct intervention is determined based on the area of concern, such as a low math score, which can be addressed through one-on-one help in the classroom.
New this year is the individualized at-risk program at the middle and high school, a network for students with trauma or in an at-risk situation. The at-risk program was developed after a district team, which included Kelz, looked at needs that were being unmet and found there was a need for a support system for students who were not qualified for special ed, but were struggling. “It’s really taking those at-risk students and looking at what they need as a student to be successful,” she said.
The program is customized to the student, who might spend half a day in the classroom and then the other in general education. Another might come in for study hall to receive additional support. A student may also be in the program the entire school day. One teacher will be assigned to the program, since an important part of the program is relationship-building.
“Students with trauma backgrounds, they need those relationships,” said Kelz. “When they come to school, we want them to feel safe here.”
The district has spent much time the past two years looking at trauma responsive practices, a trend nationwide. Part of that is recognizing that students come to school having adverse experiences, from divorce to abuse, that affect their performance. Madison Elementary was the first school involved in a study with the Marshfield Clinic where students are given consistent brain and body breaks during the school day and taught basic lessons about the brain. Teachers are also given information on how trauma manifests in the classroom and strategies to help students. The study will expand to Lincoln Elementary this year.
“All behavior is communication: whatever students is doing, it’s not bad behavior, it’s communication,” she added. “It’s our job to figure out what they’re trying to communicate to us. If we take that approach and really work on relationship building with students, you’re going to see a huge impact.”