Ignacio schools work to help special needs students

Ignacio schools have a larger share of special needs students than other districts, and that affects district test scores as well as costs to serve these students, according to discussion at the Jan. 14 school board meeting.

The district has struggled for years with low scores on state-mandated accountability tests, including the PARCC test given for the first time in March 2015. Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto said the recently released PARCC scores were affected by a higher than average percentage of special education students in the district, 15.6 percent versus an average 10 percent in other districts.

It’s 123 out of the district’s 788 kids, he said. The number has grown this year, including “center based” students with very serious needs who until this school year were bused to a program in Durango. “We were paying Durango $15,000 per student, $150,000. For that we decided we could hire our own people,” he said. It also eliminates the wear and tear of four bus trips a day for those kids.

District Assessment and Federal Programs Director Kathy Pokorney told the Pine River Times the center-based program is for students with severe cognitive or emotional disabilities. One of the foci is life skills. “The community wants them educated in the community if you have the programs, so they become a part of the community. We didn’t have the program before,” she said. The center-based classroom is at the high school, but it could be at whichever school has the need, she said.

The district has received several new special ed students this month, she said. They were already on Individual Education Plans, known as IEPs.

Elementary School Principal Kathy Herrera told the school board that only two of their special needs kids don’t have to take PARCC. “I sat with them last year when they took it. It was painful to watch,” she said. “It’s not adjusted to their level. We take breaks and have snacks, but it’s difficult. We can read the math, science and social studies to them, but not the reading.”

Pokorney said, “We’re well aware that special ed kids aren’t at proficiency level, but they are expected to grow” academically from whatever level they are starting the year at. “The only kids allowed to take the alternative (to PARCC) test are kids with significant challenges,” meaning mental handicaps. “We started a reading program for the elementary special ed kids. We look more for growth than proficiency from them.”

Pokorney continued, “The very first test (of the school year) is at grade level for the baseline score. You should be seeing growth. We don’t expect them to score at grade level. The other thing that’s the impetus for this, historically special ed kids, the attitude has been, ‘They don’t need to learn this.’ Just because they might read at a third-grade level doesn’t mean they think at a third-grade level.” They need material they can read, but with subject matter appropriate for their age, she said.

“The philosophy (with special ed) has changed,” she said. “Math too. It will hit the key essentials that they need to understand a concept.”

The district is doing very individualized reading comprehension lessons, including at the middle and high school, using English language learner techniques, Pokorney said.

Board member Yvonne Conley-Chapman commented, “If you can’t read, everything becomes hard.”

Some special needs students need one-on-one aides. The district is supposed to get some state reimbursement for that cost. Fuschetto said he is lobbying for 100 percent reimbursement. “Now we have to hire another aide. It’s not in the budget we passed back in June. But we have to because it’s federal law.”

That’s the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Pokorney said.

The discussion of special needs students came out of a presentation by representatives from the Southwest Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), which serves districts in Southwest Colorado. The agency provides specialists to work with special needs students in the districts, instead of each district hiring its own specialists. They are in demand and can be hard to find, BOCES Director Mary Rubadeau said.

“One of the biggest challenges is hiring the specialized staff in a small district,” she said. “That’s not going to go away. We are working with Fort Lewis College and other post-secondary partners to get people certified in special ed and ELL.”

Rubadeau said Alaska, where she previously worked, provides 100 percent reimbursement for required aides. “The state (Colorado) only put $2 million into the pool, so districts are getting only a percentage of the cost. Once they distribute the $2 million, nobody gets anything. They need to put more money in the high-cost pool.”

She cited costs for transportation and special ed teachers. “We applied last year for over $800,000 reimbursement and only got about 30 percent of that. That’s not OK. Those services are required by law.”