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Schools try to make progress while addressing special-needs students
Levi Pinnell works with Rehabilitation Industries of Northeast Georgia as part of a partnership with Hall County and Gainesville schools. - photo by Tom Reed

The federal No Child Left Behind mandate was passed in 2001 to hold schools accountable for getting students to meet grade-level standards, earning schools their Adequate Yearly Progress stamp of approval.

But two subgroups, special-needs students and English-language learners, are proving most difficult for schools locally and nationwide.

Only two local schools, Gainesville Middle and Hall County’s Chicopee Elementary, did not meet AYP this year.

But a closer look reveals below-standard test scores for only a handful of Hall’s English-language learners and a margin of less than one Gainesville special-needs student holding the schools back from AYP, district administrators said.

Susan Macken, special education director for Gainesville schools, said that while she feels some elements of the federal mandate are moving special education in the right direction, she has concerns about the weight put on small subgroups’ state test scores that may result in an entire school missing AYP.

She said Gainesville Middle is a case in point, where a school of more than 1,300 students missed AYP by a margin of six-tenths of one special-needs student.

"And that drives home the point that when you read a headline that says, ‘This particular school did not make AYP and is classified as Needs Improvement,’ it can be misleading. I believe it can be very misleading," she said.

While teachers are using visual aids and research-based methods to penetrate language barriers to reach English-language learners, what are teachers doing to reach the special-needs students filling 10 percent of local classrooms?

Early intervention

Renee Hilley, education director at Challenged Child and Friends, said getting students with disabilities to perform at their highest potential in K-12 settings should start with bottle feeding.

"The quicker that we can get to children and address their specific needs — both with the child and the family — the better the progress is that the child is going to make," she said.

Hilley said the Gainesville nonprofit agency, which is the only one of its kind in the region, typically educates 160 students younger than kindergarten age each year. Two-thirds of the students at Challenged Child have special needs and have been diagnosed with various disorders or diseases, including autism, Down syndrome, spina bifida and cerebral palsy.

She said teachers, nurses, therapists and parents come together to help children with disabilities develop basic functional skills, like feeding themselves or holding a pencil, as well as speech skills and beginner reading and math skills.

"We want them to have a positive experience with school," Hilley said. "We want them to realize what they can do and not what they can’t do."

Instructional models vary

Once children with special needs enter the K-12 domain, they’re greeted by special-education teachers trained to develop individual education plans that cater to the learning styles and physical and academic goals of each student.

Macken said the plans are linked to the state curriculum and aim to provide a realistic road map for students with disabilities to perform at grade level on state tests and earn regular or special education high school diplomas.

Vince Yamilkoski, a professor of education at Brenau University, has 31 years’ experience in educating teachers, and began his career as a special education instructor.

He said teachers try to prevent children from ever being labeled "special needs" through response to intervention approaches. Yamilkoski said once they are categorized has having a disability, students can be taught state standards through several delivery methods:

Co-teaching/inclusion: Students with disabilities are streamlined into regular education classrooms where a special education teacher or paraprofessional works with the regular teacher to meet the needs of all students in the room. Regular students also can positively challenge special-needs students and serve as models of appropriate behavior.

Resource rooms: Traditionally, special-needs students have been instructed under this method, where they are pulled out of regular classrooms for one to two hours daily for more one-on-one attention in classes of about eight students.

Self-contained: Special-needs students spend four to five hours daily in classrooms with only special-needs students. Educators, however, do try to integrate the students with the general student population during lunch, recess and electives.

Yamilkoski said he feels these models are serving special-needs students well in public schools, but he does have a concern that not enough teachers are being trained to meet the needs of severely handicapped students.

State testing changes

Students with mild disabilities are required to take the same Criterion-Referenced Competency Test as gifted students and average students without special needs, but students with severe or profound disabilities take the Georgia Alternate Assessment test. The test is a portfolio-based assessment that reviews a student’s body of work over the school year, Macken said.

"It takes our teachers an incredibly long time to put them together," she said of the portfolios. "They’re treated as secure testing materials."

The Gainesville school system is appealing the analyses of two special-needs students who were evaluated by the alternate assessment, Macken said. If the state Department of Education grants just one of the appeals, Gainesville Middle will be granted AYP status in the second determination to be made this fall.

Kathy Culver, Hall’s special education director, said she’s hopeful the state will adopt a third assessment for students with mild disabilities. She said the test is on the horizon and would more closely match the intellectual capability of that "2 percent group."

"We all want to be measured on what’s appropriate for us," she said.

Transition to real world

Paula Phillips, executive director of Rehabilitation Industries of Northeast Georgia, said the agency, which trains special-needs students for entry-level jobs, has had a partnership with Hall and Gainesville schools for at least 30 years. School counselors refer students to RING as part of students’ individual education plans, she said.

"I think our school system is working really hard to meet their needs," Phillips said. "... We take that education piece and show it’s applicable to finding a real world job."

At RING, students learn appropriate work behavior and job skills alongside adults with disabilities. Counselors at RING also help students to find jobs they will enjoy.

Phillips said the agency helped place 17 out of 20 students in jobs this past school year. Students with mild disabilities also are taught how to use Hall County Area Transit to help them get to work.

"Our goal is kind of, we don’t want to fish for them, we want them to be able to fish for themselves," she said.

Phillips said because of changing regulations in the Department of Labor and with more emphasis on state testing, RING’s partnership was limited to only high school seniors in the 2008-09 school year.

Thelma Pinnell has two sons with special needs, one of which has bipolar disorder and recently graduated from East Hall High School. He landed a job bagging groceries at the J&J Grocery on Limestone Parkway with RING’s help.

Pinnell said she’s grateful for the time RING counselors and public school teachers devoted to her son.

"I’m real proud of the teachers at East Hall High School," she said.

Phillips said while there are still "missing links" in meeting all the needs of the area’s population with disabilities, Hall County has more resources that most.

"With Challenged Child, our school systems and RING, we have almost a full spectrum," she said. "We’re fortunate to have that in this community, because many communities don’t."