Sometimes, all it takes to discover a student's abilities is pairing them with the right tools.
At least that's been Jada Conner's experience. Conner, the special education director at Northwest Allen County Schools, said it's important to focus on the abilities of special education students, not just their disabilities.
“We're always amazed what a student is able to do when given the right strategies and tools,” she said.
Providing that education can be challenging, however.
Along with funding issues, schools are facing shortages of special education teachers, uncertainty about new graduation standards and a growing special education population.
Nationwide, the number of children ages 3 to 21 served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has increased from about 3.7 million in 1976-77 to nearly 6.5 million in 2013-14, or from about 8.3 percent to 12.9 percent of total public school enrollment, according to the most recent information from the National Center for Education Statistics.
At 168,107 students this academic year, the number of special education students in Indiana schools is the highest since at least 2005-06, when enrollment was slightly more than 160,000 students, according to the state. In both years, special education students represented about 15 percent of students.
The population cannot be easily generalized. Special education has 13 disability categories, including autism, traumatic brain injury and deaf or hard of hearing. The range includes children unable to say certain sounds as well as those intensely challenged, in a wheelchair and unable to speak.
“It encompasses all of that,” said Connie Brown, director of special services at East Allen County Schools.
A federal law enacted in 1975 requires public schools to serve eligible students with disabilities.
“If we are not able to provide the services they need, we must work with outside providers,” said Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for Fort Wayne Community Schools.
National data show that 95 percent of 6- to 21-year-old students with disabilities were served in regular schools in fall 2013. The rest attended separate schools for students with disabilities (3 percent); regular private schools (1 percent); or elsewhere, including hospitals and separate residential facilities (1 percent).
Those attending public schools are likely sitting alongside non-special education students. Educators across Allen County emphasized a commitment to placing students in general education classrooms.
“General education teachers have our kids as much or more than we do,” said Roxanne May, director of special education at Southwest Allen County Schools.
National statistics support this local approach. At regular schools in fall 2013, about 62 percent of students with disabilities spent at least 80 percent of their time inside general classes, although that percentage varied by disability.
Students in the “multiple disabilities” and “intellectual disability” categories spent the least amount of time in general classes.
At age 14 or upon entering ninth grade, students' Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, become transition IEPs. They focus on developing a plan to help students move from high school to adult life. Plans must include transition services needed to help them reach postsecondary goals and documentation of whether they will pursue a high school diploma or a certificate of completion.
Most special education students in Indiana graduate, although their graduation rates lag behind those of the general education population. The rate for special education students has exceeded 70 percent since 2011-12, compared with more than 90 percent for general education students in the same period.
Recent changes regarding graduation have educators uncertain about the effects in schools.
In December, the Indiana State Board of Education approved new graduation pathways that will take effect with the class of 2023. Essentially, a diploma will no longer be enough for students to graduate. They will also have to demonstrate workforce skills and college readiness through a variety of paths, including internships or volunteer experience.
Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, was among the critics expressing concerns, which included the effect on special education students.
“Teachers strongly believe that every student should have the opportunity to earn a diploma – it is unclear whether some of the requirements will pose special challenges for students with developmental disabilities or who are otherwise challenged,” Meredith said in written testimony.
Additionally, in response to a new federal interpretation of graduation rates, the Indiana's General Assembly directed the State Board of Education to establish a standard Indiana diploma in place of the four current diploma options, including the general diploma.
General diplomas – which were earned by about 2,500 special-needs students in 2016 – are available to students falling short of passing the required Core 40 courses. Indiana's Core 40 diploma was designed to help students succeed in college and the workforce.
Now, Indiana will have one diploma with designations that can be earned for achieving Core 40, academic and technical honors. The State Board of Education must create an alternative diploma for students with significant cognitive disabilities. At its April meeting, the board granted staff permission to begin the rulemaking process.
Educators said the changes can be scary, especially with so many unknowns. But this isn't the first time rules have changed affecting the special education population. May was a teacher when a testing exemption for those students was discontinued about 20 years ago, she said. She wasn't pleased, recalling it would be too difficult for students.
The students surprised her, however.
“I was probably more upset than the kids were,” May said.
Now, students are graduating with better skills, and they generally succeed in meeting current expectations for graduation, May said. She added that accountability must be reasonable.
Conner agreed it's important to have high but reasonable expectations. Educators don't want students frustrated or overwhelmed, she said, but they do want them to know their potential.
“I know we'll figure it out,” May said of the impending changes.
She has concerns, however, about requiring students to take the ACT or SAT. A recent legislative change requires Indiana high school students to take a nationally recognized college entrance exam instead of a graduation test or end-of-course assessments. It takes effect in the 2021-22 academic year.
Conner said some subjects can be especially challenging for students in special education. She hopes math course options will be addressed in new high school requirements to provide some flexibility.
Statewide, less than 10 percent of sophomores in special education passed the math portion of ISTEP+ in each of the last two years, compared with about 40 percent of sophomores not in special education, according to the education department.
Locally, special education enrollment ranges from about 600 students in Southwest Allen to more than 4,500 students in Fort Wayne Community, according to the education department.
School officials noted, however, their tallies don't necessarily match the state's data, which is annually collected from schools in December. There could be many explanations for the differences, agency spokesman Adam Baker said in an email, saying it's possible for a school's numbers change throughout the year.
In Northwest Allen, special education enrollment is keeping pace with the district's overall growth. State data shows it had 751 special education students in 2005-06, comprising nearly 13 percent of the student body. This year, special education students make up 12 percent of enrollment, but the count is approaching 1,000 students.
Staffing can require dozens of employees. East Allen, which has more than 1,000 special education students, employs 169 staffers to provide mandated services, according to a report to the school board last month. Positions include teachers and such support personnel as school psychologists, paraprofessionals and sign language interpreters.
Financing special education programs takes millions.
In fiscal 2017, Indiana distributed more than $550 million in special education grants through the state's funding formula, up from nearly $517 million in fiscal 2014, according to an education department report. Allocations are based on districts' special education enrollment and the severity of students' disabilities.
Even with federal special education funding – which school officials say always has been underfunded – the financial support usually falls short of districts' special education costs, school officials said.
Fort Wayne Community's special education costs total $37.6 million, which is supported by about $19 million in state and about $8.4 million in federal funds. The district makes up the $10 million funding gap through its general fund revenue, Chief Financial Officer Kathy Friend said.
She and others said the state's rate for preschool special education is particularly troublesome. It's remained at $2,750 per student for more than 20 years.
May credited Southwest Allen's leadership for backing her program requests.
“We have support to do what we need to do as long as we can justify it,” she said.
The behavior of students with disabilities can sometimes mask their abilities – just ask Christina Immroth, a teacher assistant at Wayne High School who works one-on-one with a student with autism.
The 18-year-old, who has a high-functioning form of autism, began taking classes with the general student body this school year, Immroth said, noting he started with algebra and later enrolled in science and history courses.
Immroth, who accompanies him to those classes, said his late inclusion was due to his history of acting out. His behavior, she said, has “improved by leaps and bounds.”
Educators say students benefit by being in general education classrooms. Benefits include peer relationships and instruction by content-area specialists, which special education teachers are not, Conner said.
When not in general education classrooms, students receive instruction or services based on their needs. Students with certain disabilities might take adaptive physical education instead of regular P.E. Others, like the student Immroth works with, might spend most of their days in a program focusing on life and work skills.
Even those in general education classrooms might have various supports, such as assistive technology or extra assistance from personnel. They might also qualify for accommodations, including getting teachers' notes in advance; more time to get to classes; and permission to test in less distracting environments.
Ideally, parent Julie Goodman said, every child would have an Individualized Education Program because they deserve to have their individual needs met. She encouraged her daughter Shellee Goodman, a Carroll High School graduate who was classified as having a specific learning disability, to take advantage of accommodations available to her. Not using them would be foolish, she said.
“Her issues aren't severe,” Julie Goodman said, “but they're severe to her.”
Brown, who has worked in special education for more than 30 years, called it a rewarding career that involves innovation and problem solving and has resulted in lifelong relationships with students and their parents.
“The majority of our students are just kids who happen to learn a little differently,” she said. “But they're kids, just like any other kid.”
About this project
Like any other students, they have goals and aspirations. They play sports and attend dances. But special education students face special challenges.
A teacher shortage affects their education. High school graduation changes threaten their future. Employers often overlook them.
The Journal Gazette today begins a special series on students with disabilities. On Monday, a bridge between school and adulthood.
At a glance
Students may be eligible for special education services in one or more of these areas:
• Autism spectrum disorder
• Blind or low vision
• Cognitive disability
• Deaf or hard of hearing
• Developmental delay (early childhood only)
• Emotional disability
• Language or speech impairment
• Multiple disabilities
• Other health impairment
• Orthopedic impairment
• Specific learning disability
• Traumatic brain injury