Special-needs students get priority at TPS

Sheri Gourd | Daily Press

Heather Zimmer engages with students from multiple grades at Cherokee Elementary School. As a special education teacher, she can have a class containing kindergartners through fifth grade at the same time.

More than 750 students are served by special education programs in Tahlequah Public Schools. That marks a rise from just shy of 600 five years ago.

Students from birth to age 21 can receive services through TPS, and they can be placed into one of 12 different classifications for special education courses: autism, developmentally delayed, emotional disturbance, hearing impaired, intellectually disabled, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairments, specific learning disability, speech and language, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment.

After “specific learning disabilities” and “developmental delays,” “other health impairments” is the largest group, and it has risen slightly in number over those five years.

"That includes so many different things. It could be epilepsy, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder; it could be a multitude of things," said Susan VanZant, director of special services at TPS.

Other categories that have seen a rise in numbers are "specific learning disabilities" and "autism." The number of students on the autistic spectrum has doubled in five years.

While an increase in district enrollment during that time frame could add to the numbers, early identification of special education needs adds to it, as well.

“Seven years ago, we never identified anyone in kindergarten,” said Anita Lightcap during the January TPS Board of Education meeting. “Speech is a big thing; they are coming to us not talking.”

The number of students and instructors in the district can fluctuate throughout a year, and TPS reports it currently has 29 special education teachers; seven speech-language pathologists; 38 paraprofessionals; and one certified school psychologist.

As the number of special education students has risen, so has the number of paraprofessionals. Some paras stay in the field and may earn their teaching certifications. That is what Heather Zimmer did. After being a para for a few years at Cherokee Elementary School, she went through the “bootcamp” to get her teaching certification, and is working on her master’s degree in special education. This school year, she has 11 students with varied disabilities in a multigrade classroom.

Students are identified for special education services through a comprehensive evaluation.

“If a student is not making progress through general education interventions, a referral can be made by parent or local education agency staff to determine if the child meets eligibility requirements for a disability,” said VanZant.

Along with individual assessments administered by school staff, data is gathered related to the suspected disability from sources, which can include parents, teachers, and physicians, according to VanZant.

“A certified school psychologist, qualified examiner, or speech-language pathologist administers a full individual evaluation depending on suspected disability,” she said. “A Review of Existing Data meeting is held to determine if further evaluation is necessary to determine if disability exists.”

Once the evaluation is completed, the data is reviewed by a multidisciplinary evaluation team, which can include parents, teachers, special ed teachers, administrators, and a qualified examiner. If it is determined the student has a disability, the team completes an Individual Education Plan. This will include services and goals in identified areas of need, according to VanZant.

“Preschool students ages birth to 3 years of age may be identified and served through Oklahoma’s SoonerStart program. Local education agencies coordinate with SoonerStart to transition a preschool student for possible educational services through special education when the child reaches three years of age,” she said.

Parents of those who did not receive SoonerStart services, and believe their child has a disability, can contact VanZant or Monica Spears at Sequoyah Pre-K Center when the child is 3-5 years old for evaluation.

The district sets educational goals for all students based on Oklahoma Academic Standards.

“Goals are met by utilizing resources through textbooks, literature, online resources, and supplementary aids,” said VanZant. “Students with disabilities may need accommodations and-or modifications to meet the goals of a standard. In addition to accommodations and modifications, a student may utilize an assistive device to meet educational goals.”

The devices can include communication tools, large-print books and worksheets, and text-to-speech devices or programs.

“Bookshare, an online resource for visually impaired students or significantly reading disabled students, allows settings to change font, color, and reading speed to meet the needs of individual students,” said VanZant. “Assistive devices can be as simple as a paper marker to assist students in following print-to-software applications allowing a nonverbal student to formulate sentences using pictures or words.”

Based on a weighted funding formula, school districts receive a per-pupil expenditure from state funding.

“Additional weights are added based on the number of students served using a percentage factor determined by the special education category served. The least weighted amount factored in the formula is .04 percent for speech and language impairment, to a highest weight of 3.8 percent for visual impairment or deaf/blind impairment,” said VanZant.

School districts may also receive federal funding through an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Consolidated grant.

“These funds are determined through federal funding available and based on the weighted formula of students served by disability category,” said VanZant.

Learn more

For information about evaluations or special services at Tahlequah Public Schools, contact Susan VanZant at 918-458-4100.

What's next

The final in the three-part series, to be published Feb. 11, will focus on gifted and talented programs.

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