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Special education, EL strain district’s crowded quarters

Prairie Elementary EL Teacher Molly Scheidt works with a group of third-grade EL students in her classroom, which was converted from its previous function as book storage. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)1 / 2
Fourth-grade special education instructor Mary Blanchard splits her classroom with third-grade special education instructor Jenny Neuman. Blanchard's half is shown. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)2 / 2

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a multi-part series covering issues pertaining to District 518’s space concerns and the Feb. 13 bond referendum.

WORTHINGTON — The Independent School District 518 student population was at one time greater than it is today.

With 308 graduates, the class of 1970 marked the highest class on record from the mid-1950s to today. At that time, the high school housed grades 10 through 12.

One difference from a space and resource standpoint between now and the early ’70s, the district and board of education argue, is the development of mandated special programs, particularly special education and English Learner Education (EL).

Of the district’s current estimated enrollment of 3,189 students, more than 1,500 students receive some degree of supplemental programming either through special education or EL.

While the existence of such programs today does not have a direct influence on the total population at each school — those students would still occupy space in their designated buildings — the programs do require additional environments for small group work, behavioral calming techniques and support tools to educate those students according to their needs, program coordinators say.  

Special education

According to District 518 Special Education Director Deb Stoll, students with disabilities were not introduced into the public school environment until after 1975, when the federal government passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law required all school districts nationwide to provide free and appropriate education to all students with disabilities.

“So if someone went to school in the ’60s and ’70s, they might not have seen too many students with disabilities,” Stoll said. “In 1976 and in the late ’70s and early ’80s, those students went back into their residence districts. In Worthington, they came into the elementary, middle and high schools.”

There are currently 485 students in the district (about 14.9 percent of the total student population) that meet one of 13 identified special education categories and criteria. Some of the categories include students with cognitive delays, learning disabilities, hearing or vision problems and autism.

Stoll said through continuous implementation of a systematic intervention and Child Find process, which is in accordance to federal and state guidelines, the district is able to identify within about 99 percent accuracy students that have at least one of the 13 special education qualifying categories. This year’s district-wide special education population is a 2 percent increase from last year, she added.

“That’s a huge increase because we’re seeing an increase of students on the autism spectrum — and that is happening nationwide — and it’s not the only category that’s growing,” she said. “With that growth, you need classrooms, you need space for the kids and you need sensory areas for the kids to practice their calming techniques.”

Stoll said the district has about 52 professional special education staff, related service providers and assessment team members to provide service to its special education population.

Each building — Prairie Elementary, WMS and WHS — has nine general special education instructors.

At Prairie Elementary, two of those teachers split their classroom in half using portable dividers, which contain a cork board on one side and a marker board on the other.

“We have a visual divider, but it doesn't do anything for auditory,” fourth-grade special education instructor Mary Blanchard said.

Blanchard said the current environment — which is intended to facilitate alternative learning methods for learning disabled students — is not only distracting for her group of six to eight students, but for Jenny Neuman’s learning disabled third-grade students, who are taught simultaneously. Up to an additional four paraprofessionals may occupy the space at one time, Neuman said.

As instructors, Neuman said they hate feeling guilty about showing a video or using other alternative learning techniques because that’s what those students need.

“But in the back of your mind, you’re always thinking, ‘how am I disrupting the students from learning on the other side,’” Neuman said.  

Blanchard said 75 percent of her students have attention-focus concerns. They will often answer questions that Neuman asks her students when they’re supposed to be working on reading.

Likewise, Neuman said her students have chimed in to a catchy math tune being sung on the other side of the portable divider during their reading time.

When that happens, Neuman lets her kids participate, too.

“Because that’s beneficial to them,” she said. “They’re unfocused, and I know that anytime during instruction while (Blanchard’s side) is singing is going to be wasted otherwise.”

Blanchard and Neuman said the constant need to add more general education classrooms causes them to live in a bit of fear, as their divided classroom space is a bit bigger than spaces like storage closets and hallways where instruction is already occurring.

“They could turn this into a general education classroom and put a cap (class size) on it,” Neuman said.

Should that happen, they’re not sure where they’d be moved.

“I cannot think of a room in the building, so it would likely be out in the commons hallway,” Neuman said.

“Walls in the halls,” Blanchard added, referencing the use of portable dividers in hallways.

According to seventh-grade significant learning disability instructor Vickie Lord Anderson, distractible special education learning environments are also a reality at the middle school.

Lord Anderson, a crisis prevention intervention specialist and assistive technology team representative — said she has anywhere from six to 14 learning disabled students and select students with behavioral issues in what was intended to be a small conference room.

She said her space — and the space in other special education teacher classrooms — does not allow students ample room to spread out, which she said is necessary to avoid distracting other students.

“There are more behavior issues I have to deal with because there are kids who are packed in and they’re kids who need their space,” Lord Anderson said. “You work really hard to establish that sense of community where nobody is judging you, but that’s hard when you’re right on top of one another.”

Lord Anderson said her students are also being shifted out of the classroom so other classes can occupy the space because they lack their own. It’s not the ideal situation for a group of students that need more consistency than others.

Further accommodations at the middle school were made throughout the years for a growing special education population. A wall was added in what was once entirely designated as the middle school’s industrial technology classroom to provide additional special education space and support equipment.

The industrial technology’s storage space was also eliminated; it now houses cardiovascular equipment and is a small health and fitness center.

Another area that was renovated to a special education classroom is the back of the media center, which Stoll said is unfortunate.  

A growing special education population has also been the trend for the high school, said Charon Doyscher, WHS special education teacher and team lead. The high school has 18 additional special education students this year than what graduated last year, Doyscher said.

To accommodate a growing population of special education students, special education teachers and support staff positions were added at the high school every year for at least the last five years, she said.

With six classrooms for nine teachers and 22 paraprofessionals in the high school special education department, some classroom sharing and flexibility is necessary. That can cause negative implications.

“I have students with emotional and behavioral needs and they can’t come to my classroom because someone else is teaching,” Doyscher said.

Two of the department’s six classrooms are not as flexible as the others, Doyscher added, as those classrooms facilitate for students with higher needs and occupy those spaces most every block of the day.  

Stoll said her ultimate concern is the student’s education.

“Our goal is to provide the best possible service to all of our kids with disabilities,” she said. “In order to do that, you need adequate space.”

English Learner Education

Just as the district has experienced an increase in special education-certified students, its students who qualify for EL instruction has also continued to climb since the state’s first official English learner law, the Bilingual Education Act, was enacted in 1977.

According to District 518 EL Coordinator Mara Borges-Gatewood, there are currently 1,069 students receiving ESL instruction district-wide. There are an additional 186 students that have transitioned out of EL and into traditional classrooms but continue to be monitored.

To provide that service to its EL population, the district employs about 30 EL teachers, which often requires space outside of a general education classroom.

According to Borges-Gatewood, the environments in which many EL teachers are working in — which in some cases includes storage spaces,  division of classrooms and in the hallway — are not adequate.

“At Prairie (Elementary) their rooms are just too small,” Borges-Gatewood said. “We’re using every space we can. It’s just not feasible.”

Borges-Gatewood, who has been employed by District 518 for three years, said EL continues to grow each year, thereby requiring additional staff.

“We get new students almost every week, if not every day,” she said. “Even if we need to hire another teacher, there is nowhere to put them.”

Molly Scheidt is one of 14 Prairie Elementary EL teachers. Her third-grade EL classroom is a repurposed book storage closet where she meets with 34 students throughout the day.

“I can fit four comfortably and my largest group at one time is 11 students,” Scheidt said.

Given her space and the number of students she meets with on a daily basis, Scheidt said it would not be possible without the help of her paraprofessional, Pam Westendorf.

The students split up and rotate between Scheidt and Westendorf to receive their lesson and work time. Westendorf takes some of the students into the common-area hallway just outside Scheidt’s classroom.

“I have to check up on those students because they don’t fit into my room,” Scheidt said.  

A larger space would allow Scheidt the ability to meet with more students of the same level at once.

“We make it work, but the small space is making things a little more difficult than we’d like,” she said.

Borges-Gatewood said the goal with EL at the elementary level, which usually has the highest EL enrollment, is to set a solid foundation to prepare them for the many years ahead.

However, because EL qualifying students are entering the school system for the first time at different ages, EL instructors are on-hand at each district facility.

The EL instruction for high school-aged students can vary from lower grade levels, as the teachers and students work more on a deadline as graduation looms.

“We move them as quickly as possible without limiting their progress,” said 19-year WHS EL teacher Krista Van Note.

For the high school’s current 183 EL students, seven teachers teach 20 ESL classes daily per quarter in five classrooms.

Van Note said the department must share the classrooms, which is not critical. But perhaps the biggest issue, added WHS EL Teacher Kelli Borrero, is student testing, which occurs within a 10-day period after a new student that qualifies for EL registers in the district. New EL students are enrolling on roughly a weekly basis, she added, but that number can be higher depending on the time of year and what may be occurring in students’ home countries.

To determine the student’s level of proficiency and what additional support they may need, EL staff must test those students in a secure location void of any distraction or posters that could be seen as aides. Van Note said that causes the EL department to reserve and shut down other common-use areas within the school.

“It has gotten better because someone is coming from community education to do testing,” Borrero said, adding that it was once the responsibility of the EL teachers, which took them away from classroom instruction.

Van Note said EL is more than academic support for students.  

“Emotionally, we’re a safe place for them,” she said.

Borrero said students come to the EL teacher for a variety of questions beyond what is assigned to them, as they’re often the first adult school figure to whom the students are exposed.