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Special education teachers (from left) Craig Lankford, Kate Dunlap, Cathy Worcester and Tracy Davidson meet as part of the La Grande School Districtís Professional Learning Communities program. The district is seeing a decline in the number of students needing special ed services because of various programs, like the PLC program. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)
by Dick Mason/The Observer
The La Grande School District is bucking a statewide trend.
The number of students in Oregon school districts needing special education services is now 85,418 and is up for the 12th consecutive year, according to figures released by the state’s Department of Education. The La Grande School District, however, is defying this trend. Five years ago, 19.6 percent of the district’s students were in special education, a number significantly above the state average. Today, the number still tops the state average but is down to about 16 percent.
The decline is no accident.
The district is catching more children at risk of developing learning disabilities much earlier through a Response To Intervention program.
“We are intervening earlier, so we can correct deficiencies at an earlier age and prevent children from becoming special education students,” La Grande School District Superintendent Larry Glaze said.
RTI is a program where individualized instruction is provided to students early in grade school who appear in danger of falling behind in reading, math or writing.
Many students, if identified and helped early, will never need special education services. However, if these students’ problems are not addressed, they may fall behind and not be able to catch up without special education assistance, Glaze said.
Students are receiving the extra help in areas they need assistance without being separated from their classes.
Cathy Worcester, Greenwood’s special education teacher, used a math subject students in one grade are studying to illustrate how this works. The students are learning about equivalent fractions and recently had a test on them. The students who appeared to be having a hard time mastering equivalent fractions are now receiving 20 to 25 minutes of instruction about them each school day.
“We started this right away,” Worcester said. “We are not letting anyone fall through the cracks.”
The instruction is provided during an intervention session each day in the students’ classrooms. Students not in intervention work on enrichment activities during this time.
The children in math intervention for equivalent fractions will continue studying them until they have the concept mastered. In the meantime, they will continue studying the same math concepts their class is covering and not miss a moment of time with their core class.
Years ago, some of these students might have been pulled out and put in special education programs. Today, though, the odds are good that few of these children will need special education for math.
Greenwood Principal Mike Gregory finds RTI, which prevents children from falling hopelessly behind, exciting.
“The days of teachers saying, ‘Most of the students understand it so let’s move on’ are over,” Gregory said.
The RTI program is not the only reason special education numbers are dropping.
The number is also falling because of an increased focus on the monitoring of student progress through a Professional Learning Communities program the school district started two years ago, Glaze said. Through the PLC program, teachers meet regularly to evaluate student academic success based upon test score data. Teachers, working as teams, then develop individual strategies for helping students succeed.
Reducing the number of students who need special education assistance is saving the school district money because of the state’s 11-percent cap.
The state provides school districts with double funding for each special education student until the percentage of special ed students tops 11 percent. La Grande is given about $12,000 for each special student up to the 11-percent mark, twice what it receives for standard students. The district receives some extra funding for the students over the 11-percent mark, but not nearly enough to cover the additional costs.
“We have to take money out of the general fund (to make up for the difference),” Glaze said.
The superintendent hopes that someday La Grande is able to trim the special education student total to 11 percent.
“We would love to get down to 11 percent,” Glaze said.