Policy Changes Considered to Help Special Needs Children in the Classroom
School choice including charter schools, magnet schools and private schools are options for many families in North Carolina. But as the state’s education landscape continues to change, many parents with special needs children are facing major challenges.
Brent Greene is a minister at First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem. He is also a parent partner with the Exceptional Children's Assistance Center.
“I think my wife and I felt like no one cared for our child,” says Greene.
Greene’s 9-year-old son Ray is a special needs student at an elementary school in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School System. He says over the past year, Ray has been struggling in the classroom.
“One of the challenges that we face and our great teachers face is where does Ray fit. Sometimes it seems like he is in no man’s land. For example, recently when his grades dropped dramatically, we realized we weren’t getting progress reports and so there was a real lack of communication,” says Greene.
Greene says the communication gap with his son’s school began when Ray’s teacher went on medical leave.
Bill Hussey, the state Director for Exceptional Children, says one of the major challenges the state is facing is not having enough teachers who are certified and trained to deliver special needs services.
“The state doesn’t produce enough teachers through the schools of higher education to meet the needs and our autism group and for our hearing impaired and visually impaired kids, there are just not that many of them, so trying to provide appropriate resources to those low incidents groups that is really a challenge,” says Hussey.
There are 195,000 children who are in special education programs in North Carolina’s public school system. Currently, there are a little over 9,800 exceptional children’s teachers statewide.
Susan Long teaches in the infant-toddler program at the Children’s Center in Winston-Salem. She has been a special education teacher for the past eleven years. Long says she’s worried about growing class sizes and losing teachers due to work overload and low pay.
“With all of the demands placed on educators today, it becomes more and more difficult to develop the kinds of relationships we need with the families in order to help them feel comfortable sharing with us, so they really know that we are on their side. We have so many things to do in the classroom and so much paperwork and growing expectations. Time is not allotted for that work behind the scenes,” says Long.
Long says educators and administrators spend a lot of time working with parents on a child’s individualized education plan or IEP. An IEP is a written plan for a child with a disability. It states the goals and services a child will receive to help them make adequate progress in the classroom.
Greene says the long and complicated process is frustrating for many families like his.
“I think the approach is flawed because the team consists of everyone employed by the school system except for the parent. You are trying to be an advocate and many parents are just completely uninformed and uneducated about an IEP process, so you are in this meeting with a team of professionals who I think mean well, but there is some subjectivity to how the child is doing and certain things don't get resolved,” says Greene.
Greene sought mediation through the Department of Public Instruction to help resolve his dispute with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School system about his son’s IEP. He was able to move Ray to a title one school in the district, which receives more federal funding for special needs programs.
Hussey says in January, the Department of Instruction will form a study commission to look at ways to simplify the language and process of the IEP.
“It’s not just a North Carolina issue, but it is a national issue. Ours has gotten to the point that it is very difficult and we need to look at it and see if there is a way to simplify it. This is a big challenge right now to simplify it and make sure it affords parents due process,” says Hussey.
Over the past year, the state’s Special Education Services in the public school system has lost around $17-million because of sequestration, or federal budget cuts.
Meanwhile, Hussey says a group of local directors from exceptional children programs hope to see a bill re-introduced in the legislature this session that takes a closer look at funding for children with disabilities. He says since 1992, school districts have received the same amount per year for each special need student.