Putting together special education: What special education is, how it works and why it’s important

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Throughout middle school, Class of 2019 alumnus Daniel Stuber took creative problem solving seminars as part of the gifted program. In eighth grade, after being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and generalized anxiety disorder, he also entered the special education program.

Like Stuber did throughout high school, over 1,130 students in the T/E School District receive special education to address needs that range from anxiety and concussion-related learning problems to disorders like autism and ADHD. According to Stuber, the variety in special education needs is often not understood.

“There are a huge range of people that are in special education programs: people that you know, people that you could be very close with, people that you see in your classes every day and have no idea if they have anxiety, depression or ADHD, or any number of issues that don’t present as being super obvious on the outside,” Stuber said.

The issues that Stuber deals with aren’t visibly apparent. Because of his ADHD, Stuber faces problems with executive functions — mental processes in the brain’s frontal lobe that help us organize thoughts, switch focus and remember details. In one college English class, Stuber didn’t find out a paper was due until the class before. A fast writer, he finished the five-page research paper in 45 minutes.

“It sounds like a flex but then you realize that I literally didn’t turn in other papers because I forgot,” Stuber said. “You know, it’s like, ‘Are you serious? How do you forget?’ For me, that was another thing where you just have to go to the extra trouble of watching when she writes stuff on the board. You have to sift through it and find the important stuff. And I have to remember to write it down, which is tough.”

The services he received in T/E Middle School and Conestoga helped him address those executive function problems and succeed in school despite them. Looking back and forth between the textbook and his paper for homework assignments was extremely difficult for him. In eighth grade, academic support staff began assembling the textbook problems into worksheets, making certain homework assignments easier. In 10th grade, an aide began accompanying Stuber to his classes, reminding him to write down due dates and make schedules.

Under the national Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all students aged 3-21 with a disability have the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). That FAPE varies from student to student and sometimes includes special education services. Students receive special education services through an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, a plan unique to them and their needs that designates what those services will look like.

“Without special education or special services, the right to education, which has been recognized as a human right, is compromised for children with disabilities because they are deprived of the opportunity to realize their potential,” said Minyi Dennis, an associate professor and researcher of special education in early childhood at Lehigh University.

Gifted education also falls under the umbrella of special education. Students who demonstrate gifted abilities through a screening assessment and gifted multidisciplinary evaluation receive GIEPs, or Gifted Individualized Education Plans, designed to offer opportunities for acceleration and enrichment. GIEPs are similar to IEPs in that they are designed to maximize a student’s education through unique plans.

Since IDEA was enacted in 1975, special education enrollment has steadily increased nationwide from 3.7 million students in the 1976-1977 school year to 7 million students in the 2017-2018 school year. In the T/E School District, enrollment has similarly increased from 608 students in the 1993-1994 school year to 1,137 students in the 2018-2019 school year. (To find out why, see Enrollment and costs in special education rise across nation for more.)

The Process

Students enter the special education program through a multidisciplinary evaluation process that starts after a parent requests an evaluation or after a staff member requests it and parents give their consent. At Conestoga, counselors file referral forms — sometimes suggested by teachers or administrators — with school psychologists Cynthia Knapp and Kathleen Quinlisk. 

After receiving parental consent, Knapp or Quinlisk have 60 days to complete an initial evaluation that assesses whether a student has a disability that falls under one of 14 disability categories defined by IDEA. Then they must determine whether the student’s disability or disabilities indicates he or she needs special instruction and accommodations. 

School psychologists get input and information from parents, teachers and sometimes physicians throughout the process.

“I would say the most difficult (part of the evaluation process) is how important it is to get all the pieces and how easy it is to miss one,” Quinlisk said. “You’re asking (for) parent information and teacher information. You have to remember, ‘Ask the nurse’s office, make sure there’s no medical condition that may explain this.’ The most difficult thing is keeping all those balls in the air and making sure that it all winds up in one document.”

As part of IDEA, all public school districts are federally required to provide students with the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), meaning that students with disabilities must receive their education in general classes with nondisabled peers as much as possible without hurting the quality of education. Hence, the school psychologists consider whether the student’s needs can be met through general education options before recommending special education. (General education options include conventional classes — no changes in curriculum — 504 plans and interventions by the Multi-Tiered Intervention Team.)

If the school psychologist determines that general education options are not sufficient, they may recommend that the student receive special education through an IEP. Then, a preliminary IEP team draws up a plan; parents give final consent for the school to implement the services described in the IEP. Once approved, Conestoga typically begins providing services immediately.

Due to the unique nature of each student’s IEP, the special education curriculum is flexible. Depending on students’ needs, Conestoga offers learning support services, emotional support services, speech and language services, autistic support, and life skills support.

Learning Support

For students who need help in academic areas, learning support provides resources and strategies to help students overcome barriers they may face in a classroom. Learning support teacher Esther Chi works with students everyday, providing extra help in reading, writing, math, study skills and organization.

“I help students with assignments, clarify any questions they have and also re-teach concepts,” Chi said. “I have two aides in my classroom who are a huge help. I also reach out to teachers and help students make a plan if they are sick.”

Chi’s learning support class has a routine which her students follow, allowing them to plan their schedules and assignments. Learning support students check Schoology when they come to class to write down their homework and then work on assignments or study for tests. Chi uses this time to check in about her students’ day and progress monitor their IEP goals.

“The part I really enjoy about working with students is to be able to help them understand things they may not have been able to get before and seeing them grow as a learner and as a young adult,” Chi said.

Emotional Support

Sometimes emotional problems like anxiety are the root cause of students’ learning difficulties. Emotional support teacher Trish Keller often finds that anxiety or stress, rather than content, is what’s really hindering students.

“There are some students that do struggle (with learning material), but (with) most of them, it’s more like a writer’s block,” Keller said.

One focus of emotional support is developing resiliency skills. Keller and Kate McGranaghan, fellow emotional support teacher and chair of academic support, encourage students to consider possible “thinking traps” when they face hurdles in their work. On the back wall of their shared classroom are posters detailing thinking traps like jumping to conclusions and minimizing, when individuals downplay positives.

“What can happen with our students is that they fall into these (thinking traps) in a way that gets them stuck and prevents them from moving forward,” McGranaghan said. “When we help them to identify that pattern, then it’s easier for them to sort of take a step back and say, you know, this isn’t really about my English paper. This is about my response to the English paper. And if I can challenge that counterproductive thinking, then I will be able to move through it.”

Speech and Language Services

In speech and language therapy, students work with speech therapists Bridgid Lodato and Christine Lemmo to improve skills that range from expressing oneself and understanding others’ messages to articulation and stuttering.

“If there’s something standing in the way of (students) accessing their curriculum and it has to do with speech and language, it’s our duty ethically to help them — either have strategies to overcome, either to fix the issue, so that then they can better access the curriculum and be more effective communicators in their daily life at Conestoga,” Lodato said.

Students often receive other services along with speech and language services. Most of Lodato’s students also receive life skills or autistic support. To help students implement what they learn through speech and language therapy, Lodato and Lemmo often go to class with students and facilitate communication.

Autistic Support and Life Skills Support

In autistic and life skills support classes, students learn a variety of skills that help them become more independent, including how to choose an outfit that coordinates with the weather, how to start conversations and how to be a good friend.

Autistic and life skills support teacher Nikki Stagias often creates her own curriculum based on her students’ IEPs, contrasting it with her general education pre-algebra class, in which the curriculum is “pretty strict.” Life skills support teacher Madison Galanti also appreciates the freedom she has with the curriculum.

“(It’s) really strongly based off of the needs of the students in the class, which is really nice. If we need a little more practice on a subject, we can spend as much time as we need on it.” Galanti said. “The whole point is just to help students become independent and successful in life.”

Junior Evangeline Wu takes the independent living skills class, in which students help organize the wrestling team’s uniforms, sort books in the library, and sell coffee and tea during the library’s fall coffee house.

“Special education classes are important to me because I can learn about different skills. I learned typing skills, public speaking skills and how to interact with other people,” Wu said. 

Wu takes a mix of special and general education classes throughout the day, including a job skills class and a writing class. Her favorite class is the elective Culinary Arts.

“I really like the cooking class because I get to make food (and) get more practice, and I like making cupcakes,” Wu said. “It feels good being in a class with a lot more people, and I get to know them very well by asking them (their) names and some questions.”

Senior Manasseh Teshome, who takes the independent living skills class as well as the social skills class, shares this sentiment.

“There’s so much I can learn from that class,” Teshome said. “It helps a lot.”

Teacher relationships

In support classes, students often have the same teachers every year and build relationships with them over time. Emotional support teacher Trish Keller believes that structure is important for students’ special education experience.

“I think a lot of these kids have reservations about opening up about their emotions and things that have happened to them in the past,” Keller said, “so when they build that relationship with you and then they have to start all over again, it just makes for a horrible experience. I think for them to have that relationship with one teacher and know that each year they have that consistency is huge.”

Wu’s mother, Tiffany Wu, believes that the special education services at Conestoga are helpful for her daughter.

“As a parent, I am grateful for the teachers in CHS. They do their best to help the special students with their individual needs in education goals,” Tiffany Wu said. 

Accommodations

IEPs often include accommodations. At Conestoga, accommodations can include receiving homework assignments in a larger font; extended testing times; and allowing tests to be taken in Room 224, a testing center for students receiving special education.

Class of 2019 alumna Faith Walker, now attending La Salle University, found accommodations to be very helpful while at Conestoga. She was diagnosed with OCD, anxiety and depression at the beginning of high school. After her parents reached out to the school and she was evaluated, Walker entered the special education program.

“I had really bad OCD starting my freshman year, and I wasn’t able to get out of bed because my rituals would take so long,” Walker said. “I would have to do homework multiple times to get it correct in my mind, so it would take me a couple of days to do homework assignments.”

Walker’s accommodations included a free first period so she could come in late and extended time for homework assignments. She could also take tests in Room 224 and present projects in front of the teacher rather than the whole class. 

“I was doing better on tests and everything because I was actually able to get a different room and I was able to have extra time on it, which I definitely did need,” Walker said. “It definitely helped my grades and definitely helped my mental health.”

Misconceptions and Stigma

According to Walker, people often think accommodations from IEPs are unfair and don’t realize that they level the playing field for students like her.

“A lot of people, especially my friend group or close friends, just thought it was to get out of work or to push off stuff, but it really is not that,” Walker said. “You still have to do the same amount of work as everybody else, it’s just spread out over time.”

Class of 2019 alumnus Daniel Beale, now attending Delaware County Community College, often encountered the misconception that special education is “for dumb people,” Beale said, “which is I think why the stigma around it exists. People hate talking about it, and it’s almost taboo.”

The reasons behind individuals’ IEPs range widely, and students receiving special education include individuals with severe intellectual disabilities as well as individuals who do well in AP classes, such as Stuber, who took four throughout high school, and Class of 2019 alumnus Brian Christner, who took nine and now attends the University of Virginia.

“I was once told that I wouldn’t be able to handle AP classes on account of my IEP,” Christner said. “That obviously didn’t end up being the case, and there are many other IEP students who did very well in AP classes and in colleges.”

Christner is also very gifted in mathematics and has written a paper on an equation he’s written to model parametric equations, with consequences in auto-solving equations, graphing inverse functions and finding the nth prime. His paper is set to be published before the end of the school year in the Journal of the American Mathematical Society. 

While at Conestoga, Class of 2017 alumnus Ryan Nadel received special education to address his vision problems. The accommodations in his IEP included sitting in the front of the room, receiving assignments in 16 point font, and using an iPad in class so he wouldn’t have to look back and forth between the board and his paper. Although he was self-conscious at first about his IEP, he learned to push past it to get the services he needed to do well in school.

“Sometimes, IEP students just want to, you know, blend into the class and not stand out as much, just be able to do what the rest of the class does in the same way. But that’s not always possible, and you kind of have to push that to the back of your mind and be willing to ask for what you need,” Nadel said.

Nadel is now taking a course on special education as part of his teacher education program at Gettysburg College, where he plans to get certification to teach social studies to grades 7-12. The course is reaffirming what he already knew through his own experience.

“You’ll be surprised how well the students do in class if they just get what they need,” Nadel said. “Because a lot of times, it’s not that they’re worse at doing something — they just need to do it differently to be successful at it.”

Preparing for the future

Ultimately, Conestoga’s individualized special education program aims to prepare students for life after high school. 

“If we look at our education system as trying to prepare individuals to make a meaningful contribution in society and have appropriate levels of independence in society following high school, then that’s not a one-size-fits-all model at all,” McGranaghan said.

Manasseh Teshome’s father Gebremedhin Teshome appreciates Conestoga’s focus on helping students transition smoothly into the future.

“As for getting into adulthood, Conestoga certainly has a perspective to make sure that the children are equipped for not just what they’re doing there (in school) but going beyond by not only meeting the day-to-day academic needs but also beyond that with life skills,” Gebremedhin Teshome said. 

When it came time to graduate, Stuber faced a difficult decision. With an SAT score of 1570 and solid grades, he had been accepted to seven or eight colleges including the University of Rochester and the Stevens Institute of Technology. However, he anticipated a difficult transition from high school, where an aide helped him keep track of his agenda, to college, where he would keep track of it himself. 

Ultimately, to ease his transition, Stuber chose to spend two years fulfilling general education requirements at Delaware County Community College before transferring to Drexel University to major in mechanical engineering.

“I kind of had to make the choice to do what was right for me, instead of just going with the perceived direction that everyone is supposed to go on, which is very difficult,” Stuber said. “It hasn’t been smooth sailing totally for me, but it’s been much, much easier.”

Looking back, Stuber is grateful for the role special education played in his life.

“It’s hard to imagine if I would have even been able to stay (in school) or if my life would have come crashing down. Without the help of academic support, or an IEP or something, so many people just fall off the map,” Stuber said. “The fundamental aspect of having an academic support program is tremendously helpful because it makes the game playable for them again.”

Enrollment and costs in special education rise across nation

Special education enrollment has increased steadily since the enactment of IDEA in 1975. In 30 years, the number of students who have IEPs nationwide doubled from 3.7 million to 7 million students. In the district, enrollment has similarly doubled from 608 students in the 1993-1994 school year to 1,137 students in the 2018-2019 school year.

Minyi Dennis, an associate professor and researcher of special education in early childhood at Lehigh University, believes that the rise in special education costs and enrollment is due to heightened awareness.

“When parents and teachers are more aware of disability conditions, they are more likely to refer their children/students to be identified,” Dennis said.

The identification of autism in particular has increased. Nationally, the number of students receiving autistic support services has increased 663% from 93,000 in the 2000-2001 school year to 710,000 in the 2017-2018 school year. Similarly, the district saw an increase from 13 students receiving autistic support services to 140 students during the same years, respectively: a 977% increase.

Chair of academic support Kate McGranaghan and district director of individualized student services Chris Groppe believe increasing enrollment may also be due to an increase in disabilities related to emotional distress. McGranaghan sees that as part of a nationwide trend.

“I would say in our world, the emotional support is certainly a growing category. I think that it mirrors what’s happening in other parts of society also,” McGranaghan said. “If we’re looking specifically at anxiety and depression, I don’t think those increasing needs are unique to public high schools. I think that’s happening across the board, including adults.”

As special education enrollment numbers have climbed in recent years, so, too, have special education costs. In the T/E School District, expenditure on special education has more than doubled from $11.6 million in the 2006-2007 school year to $26.7 million in the 2019-2020 school year. Across the state, funding has increased from $3.0 billion in 2008-2009 to $4.7 billion in 2017-2018, while state funding has remained stagnant at about $1.0 billion.

In Pennsylvania, those increased costs have not been accompanied by proportional increases of state and federal funding. State funding decreased from nearly a third of special education costs in 2008-2009 to less than a quarter in 2017-2018. Since Congress first passed IDEA in 1975, the federal government has promised to cover 40% of special education costs. In Pennsylvania, it covers less than 25% of total special education costs.

According to Reynelle Brown Staley, policy director at the Education Law Center, a Pennsylvania law firm that advocates for public school students’ rights, the stagnation of state and federal funding stems partly from tight government pockets during the 2008-2010 recession. Since then, the gap has never recovered.

“There is little political will to make the necessary investments in education that are called for,” Staley said. “There is a willingness to commit to certain services or to promises but not a desire to fund them, and that’s part of why the federal funding through the IDEA has been low.”

Without proportional funding increases from the state and national governments, local school districts get the burden to account for the funding gap, either by increasing property taxes or cutting special education expenditures according to Staley. Groppe said that thanks to a very supportive community and board, the T/E School District hasn’t had to cut special education programs but that the increasing gap does place a greater burden on local taxpayers.

Autistic and life skills support teacher Nikki Stagias, who taught special education at several different schools in Philadelphia before coming to Conestoga, highlights key differences in resource access at special education programs in more urban areas.

“Before coming here (and) working in special ed, we were always really short on resources and support,” Stagias said. “Compared to Conestoga, it’s like a complete 180. There’s just so much support and different options in terms of like curriculum resources that we didn’t have access to — and most teachers don’t have access to — in Philadelphia.”