The Lee County School Board was provided with a very lengthy, thorough presentation on exceptional student education, which showed fluctuating numbers on the number of students who have an individual education plan.
Exceptional Student Education Director Theresa Bowen said there is certain criteria to be met for meeting specialized instruction in order to have an individual education plan (IEP) for students.
They have moved past the 11,000 mark in the last 10 years of students with some form of qualifying learning disability.
Pre-pandemic there were 11,485 students identified, which dropped last year to 11,083 and then increased to 11,319 in fiscal year 2022.
“We continue to see an increase in the number of students coming through student enrollment with IEPs that are transferring from other states. In fact, from November through today, we have had 266 new students with IEPs come in. We are feeling that, our schools are feeling that,” Bowen said at a recent school board meeting.
One of the things they have done is look at the data because they believed, without looking at the numbers, that students with less significant learning disabilities were leaving the district, while pulling in students with more significant needs, she said.
“When compared to pre-pandemic to now, we see a 14.4 percent increase in students coming to us that need either a specialized classroom or center school placement. When they do transfer to us we have to provide comparable services on their IEP and we have an increase in that need,” Bowen said. “We have seen a 13.1 percent increase of the number of students coming to us that have a positive behavior intervention plans.”
The district is looking to see if they have the same evaluations and criteria that the state requires for that area of eligibility.
“One label in one state may not be the same as another. We even have states who don’t assign disability categories, just have an IEP,” Bowen said. “We have to look at it in the eyes of our state and we then have to determine eligibility in our state. If we cannot get that information, then we have to do a reevaluation, then it puts more evaluations on our team at schools.”
The funding comes through the IDEA grant, which ties to the additional cost of educating a child with a qualified disability. Bowen said there are two questions that have to be asked — in the absence of special education needs would this cost exist and is this cost also generated by students who do not have a disability.
“If the answer is yes to either one it is not an excess cost and federal funding cannot be used for that,” Bowen said. “Each year we get approximately $19 million in IDEA funds and that has been around the same the last few years. That is not the full funding cost of educating students with disabilities.”
Bowen said students who have an IEP are reevaluated at least every three years to see if the student still requires services. This does not mean they do formalized testing, but may use evaluations and progress monitoring, unless the team needs more specific formalized testing.
Each school has an intervention support specialist that teachers can go to if they have a student they believe would benefit from services.
“There may be that there is information that is already there that triggers that team to say we suspect this is a disability. A lot of cases the teacher might come forward and say they are not doing well, I don’t know what’s going on. They start to begin a process of multiple tiered systems of support where the tier one for all is not working for them, so they put in tier two supports and collect data about what is happening with that,” Bowen said. “They have a team of people looking at this with problem solving methods to really address what is happening with the student. At any point in this process if what they are seeing points to a disability they can have consent form signed by the parents to have an evaluation. Once the consent is signed there is a 60 day timeline for the evaluation.”
School and program support
Assistant Director Scott Kozlowski said their main focus is getting into the classrooms and providing such things as curriculum support, behavioral support, coaching, training, monthly meetings with staffing specialist and department heads to provide updates.
There are four school-based coordinators that provide training, coaching and modeling strategies, IEP compliance and supporting parents. Kozlowski said they have one coordinator who works with parents and student enrollment reading IEPs to welcome new students and parents to the district.
There also are nine resource specialists; five are currently supporting behavioral issues. There are 35 staffing specialists that are assigned three to four schools each.
Kozlowski said there is a new position, a board certified behavioral analyst who has been developing more comprehensive, functional assessments and positive behavior prevention plans, as well as training and coaching to implement.
“Although she has only been in the district a few months, we have found the plans she has written have shown a lot of progress in the students that have these more intensive plans,” he said. “We are looking at maybe build the team of certified behavioral analysts.”
Currently, Kozlowski said student behavior seems to be the biggest issue at this point, so building a team of analysts will better support schools.
The model includes consultation, social functioning, social emerging, behavior intervention, Buckingham/Royal Palm, life skills, functional skills and instructional support.
Consultation, a lower level of service than instructional support, Bowen said services are delivered for students in general education programs.
“It’s about the needs that the IEPs have provided to the team in order to look at this,” she said.
Bowen said life skills, less involved students, and functional skills, more support built in, are used for students with severe cognitive disabilities. The students are learning functional academics and general life skills once they exit the school system.
The social functioning and social classroom emergings, for emerging communicators, or very little language, focus on behavior and sensory needs. Behavior intervention for those with severe behavior needs, which cannot be managed in a general education environment.
The center schools, Buckingham, is for students that have severe cognitive disabilities and medical needs and Royal Palm serves those with very severe behavior needs.
Tracks to Graduation
Kozlowski said they have two routes to graduation, with the first being students enrolled in a standard curriculum. The modified curriculum route is reserved for students with significant cognitive disabilities, which is 1,000 students a year.
“Although the two routes look different, the graduation requirements are exactly the same,” he said, adding that the modified curriculum provides flexibility to the teachers.
Assistant Director Susan Ellinger said schools support students with hands-on experience, which each school does a little differently.
“It has created opportunities for them to practice work-related skills through different jobs throughout the school campus,” she said. “It could be by supporting office staff with filing, or answering phones. It may be supporting custodial staff at a school by helping with ground cleanup and other duties around the school.”
In addition, Ellinger said they could be working with food and nutrition to rotate stock or unpack while it is coming into the facility.
“Schools have also created some mirco-enterprises to provide work experiences for our students for their transitional goals.” she said.
In addition, North Fort Myers created a Knights Kitchen, Ellinger said. Island Coast created a greeting card business and pumpkin rolls were made by students at Lehigh Senior High School.
Outside of the schools, there are also opportunities with a variety of businesses, such as Publix and Goodwill. There also is on-the-job training with paid employment for the students when they are comfortable and able to work independently.
Bowen said decreasing the number of students who have dropped out without a diploma is data they track. Last year, there was a sharp increase, which is expected with what was happening due to COVID.
“What we are seeing right now is back down to decrease,” she said. “We are engaged with schools with IEP teams at high schools and working with a number of skills to help them develop motivation plans for students to get them across that line.”
At the beginning of the school year there are students who do not show up and they are withdrawn, therefore leaving school without a diploma. In August that number was 86, compared to January of 43.
The decrease in achievement gap for students with disabilities with English Language Arts was another topic discussed. Bowen said they had 41 percent during the 2018-2019 school year, followed by a decrease to 29 percent, which may be a result of not all kids being tested.
“One of the things that we do know is that are second quarter data shows us back down to 29 for achievement gap. I am very excited to see that,” she said.
Teachers are monitoring the students with prevention materials to get the students started on additional intervention targeted to students with disabilities.
The achievement gap for math was 39 percent in 2018-2019 and 22 percent for second quarter of 2022.
For pre-kindergarten kids, The Tell Me curriculum is used to increase communication skills. The new program and evaluation tool had a 10 percent increase with communication skills from first quarter to second quarter.
Working with families
There are free supports for parents that the state, which are given to parents once provides they use the district’s programs.
Eliana Tardio, Parent of ESE Advisory, said she is an immigrant from Bolivia 18 years ago. She said she is the proud mother of two teenagers with Down syndrome.
“Disability does not define people. People are different. My children sometimes seems to be opposite,” she said. “I have been a Lee County parent for over 15 years.”
Her advice is to speak up, take risks, challenge others in a good way and listen to your heart.
“If one person listens that is the beginning of a long and complex path worthy of all sacrifices. As professionals, we need to open up to listening and we need to get excited about breaking systems. We need to get excited about learning. We can make things happen when we work in collaboration with families,” Tardio said. “As partners, parents and professionals we need to commit to work with each other, listen to each other, transparent to others and compassionate to each other.”
She took the board on a journey of her children’s education, where they began to where they are today, which is one of positivity and great strides in their education.
Board member Chris Patricca said she wishes more people would follow Tardio’s route of relentless pursuit of what is right for her children.
“What I have found is if you give us a chance, we are going to hold your hand and help you, but if you come at it with an adversary perspective we are not necessarily going to get here,” she said. “You were relentless, but you did it in a collaborative way.”
There are two surveys sent to parents from Pre-K and K-12 in regards to how schools are doing with parent involvement with parents with disabilities. Bowen said there is a dip in parents agreeing that schools are providing support. She said they will be brainstorming on how to get those numbers back up.