ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ALEEN RATZLAFF
With openings for special-education teachers going unfilled in many of the state’s school districts, Unified District 410 will begin the year with its eight positions filled, most by teachers with years of valuable experience.
Dianne Myers has worked for 13 years as a special-ed teacher in Hillsboro High School. After taking a year’s break, she’s returning to teach students with special needs in Hillsboro Middle School.
“I’m excited about teaching a different age group,” said Myers, who, like many special-ed teachers, began her teaching career in regular education. “I love the kids. All kids have problems-some have more, some have less.”
This year, Myers expects to have a caseload of about 15 students.
Myers and other Hillsboro special-ed teachers are employed by the Marion County Special Education Cooperative-District 617-rather than USD 410. The cooperative provides services by professionals for students with special needs in the county’s five school districts.
Special educators are responsible to oversee their students’ individual education plans. The IEP is a management plan that addresses the strengths and needs of the child.
“We meet with parents once a year for the IEP,” Myers said. “I’ve advocated that parents are my best help, so I try to communicate with them all the time.”
A team, made up of those involved in addressing the special needs of the child, meets to determine what should be included in the IEP.
“You have a roomful (of people),” Myers said. “If there is a specific need the team believes should be addressed, it’s written in the IEP. If it’s in there, you’re required to implement it.”
Even though the services in IEPs can be costly, the federal mandate requires those services be met. Such services could include one-on-one help from paraeducators, sessions with a psychologist, lesson adaptations or speech therapy.
USD 410 shares the costs for these services with other districts that are part of MCSEC.
“Basically all the schools in the county contribute to the special-ed cooperative, based on the size of the school,” said schoolboard member Reg Matz, who in the past has represented USD 410 on the MCSEC board. “Hillsboro is the biggest school, so it pays the most.
“By sharing those costs, we’re able to meet-as far as I know-about everybody’s (need).”
The special-ed teacher implements the IEP, which includes specific goals and objectives for the child with “related disabilities,” a term that is replacing “learning disabilities” and “behavior disorders.”
Categorizing children as LD or BD is artificial because the symptoms are related, said special educator Sue Railsback, who taught in the Hillsboro Middle School last year after teaching special-ed for two years in the Canton-Galva school district.
She said pushing children in the wrong way-because they have a learning disability-can result in them acting out with behavior disturbances.
“So they really have a learning disability, but now we see them as having a behavior disorder, but we never noticed the learning disability,” Railsback said. “Instead we finally noticed them because they’ve acted out enough. So we put them in BD. Then we realize that they’re such a sweet kid-they just have a learning disability.
“So, to me it helps when I don’t have to worry about those categories.”
Railsback said, when deciding what best meets students’ needs, “to treat these kids differently is fair, but some people have a hard time understanding that.”
Karen Benda will start her 15th year in special ed at HHS.
“I look at a learning disability as an invisible handicap,” Benda said. “We provide a lot of assistance for your visible handicaps-elevators, wheelchairs and crutches. But when it comes to the invisible ones, we want to somewhat ignore them and pretend as if they aren’t there.”
Benda, who works closely with paraeducator Jannette Brubacher, develops strategies and adapts materials and activities to fit a child’s learning style or abilities.
“What the paras do is very one-on-one with the students,” said Brubacher, who will begin her sixth year as a paraeducator.
A paraeducator may do many things that a teacher does, except develop lesson plans and give diagnostic tests.
Sometimes Brubacher reads the test to a student or takes a student to another room to help alleviate test anxiety or have more time to take a test.
“That requires a lot of trust on the part of teachers-trust that we are just reading the test and not giving answers,” she said. “It also takes a lot of integrity on the part of the para.”
In some districts, the distinction between teachers and paraeducators can create tension because they may not be seen as equal team members.
“I can’t say I’ve never felt that,” Brubacher said. “As a whole, I think in Hillsboro there’s a lot of support from teachers for what we do and they appreciate our help-that’s true of the majority of teachers and administrators.”
Brubacher has found HHS principal Dale Honeck particularly supportive of paraeducators.
“He started inviting us to staff meetings with the teachers, including us in some staff in-service with the teachers,” she said.
In USD 410, 17 paraeducators are assigned among the three attendance centers, plus two who work with specific needs of students at all age levels, said Lisa Peterson, MCSEC paraeducator facilitator.
Paraeducators fill 80 to 85 positions county-wide, Peterson said, adding MCSEC hired 20 paraeducators during spring and summer for the upcoming school year.
“We still have one position to fill,” she said.
Special-ed experts recognize that an effective special educator is a passionate one.
“Passion and caring are essential for good special educators,” said Deborah Bailey, chair of the special education program at the Associated Colleges of Central Kansas in McPherson. “They need to be able to cheer about seeing a small amount of progress, to be able to support and encourage the students.”
The passion for teaching, plus patience and humor, goes a long way when working with children with special needs.
“You have to have tons of patience with children with disabilities,” said Carol Brungardt, recently retired ACCK practicum coordinator. “What’s done is done today-both for the kids and yourself.
“You have to be able to laugh at some of the things that happen and laugh at yourself and know that the next day you’re going to start over.”
Caring for students helps energize special educators when they face the inevitable day-to-day challenges that are part of their job.
“To me, they’re the best kids to work with in the school,” Railsback said.
“These kids are learning to deal with the reality of being human-that we’re not all perfect and we’re not like everybody else.”