CLEARWATER — Six students circled a small table at Skycrest Elementary, some standing, some folded over the table with hands over their mouths, and some bouncing their legs to hold in their excitement as Amy Brown flipped through words such as “gracious” on flashcards.
“The hardest part is not blurting out the answer,” said 11-year-old Brooke Woodall. “I can spell that word. And I can even spell it backwards.”
Spelling anything seemed impossible at the beginning of the year, the fifth-grader said.
But now, even the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test seemed easy for the Exceptional Student Education (ESE) students in Brown’s reading intervention group.
“Every student is different,” said Brown, a varied exceptionalities resource teacher of 44 students who learned Thursday that she is a finalist for the Council for Exceptional Children’s ESE Teacher of the Year award in Pinellas County.
“You have students with learning disabilities, language impairments, health issues, and disabilities that aren’t always easy to see or diagnose,” Brown said. “It’s hard, because you don’t want the kids to feel less, and they already do. Our job is to find that hidden key that will help them meet the same standards as everyone else.”
Due to low performance scores, the school district is embarking on a overhaul of special education that addresses everything from curriculum to instructors, ESE Executive Director Lisa Grant said.
The district hopes to hire 50 to 60 ESE teachers for next school year, Superintendent Michael Grego said.
But according to preliminary staffing models, about 296 ESE associate positions also stand to be cut, mainly in voluntary prekindergarten classes.
While ESE associates receive lower pay and aren’t required to have the same specialized training as teachers, many are worried about the toll the cuts could take on the department, said Katelyn Pilsbury, who teaches seven kindergarten and first-grade students with autism at Plumb Elementary.
Next school year, Pilsbury, named Florida’s Rookie ESE Teacher of the year last year, said she’ll lose one of her two classroom assistants, though she can apply to get a helper back.
“I don’t know how it’s going to work next year, I have kids that are still in diapers and kids that will run out the door once you turn your back,” the 25-year-old teacher said. “Who’s going to watch them while also working with my student that’s already reading, and helping another one that can’t even express his wants and needs? Our job takes one-on-one work with each student, and that’s impossible with just two adults.”
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School staffing decisions were made around February, with many cuts made with principals’ input through attrition or eliminating open positions, Grego said.
More associates will be assigned based on need throughout the year; some students and teachers may be reassigned to classrooms where they are a better fit; and middle- and high-school students will be divided into classes with one teacher and one associate based on their mild, moderate or intensive level of need instead of only classification of disability, Grego said.
Many ESE classrooms have students with a wide range of abilities and needs, with students ages 3 to 21, which makes individualized instruction paramount, he said.
“We typically have 150 associate vacancies each year, but we still can’t effectively say we’re meeting every student’s needs,” Grego said. “What we’re seeing with these student proficiency reports is that our kids have a dire need for high-quality teachers, and that’s where we’re going to invest with extra training and support to better serve our kids. It’s not cutting people; it’s making sure students are in a school where they’re getting all of the help they need.”
In the eyes of the state, Pinellas’ ESE program needs work.
Only 21 percent of about 12,900 students in exceptional student education programs met the proficiency score of 3 or higher in reading on last year’s FCAT, and only 22 percent met the standard in math, down from 27 percent on both tests in 2011-12.
The Florida Department of Education’s goal for special education programs is 34 percent scoring a 3 or higher in reading and 37 percent in math.
The state average is about 35 percent in reading and 40 percent in math.
Also, the graduation rate for Pinellas students with disabilities was about 40 percent last year, 10 percent below the state average and in the bottom 10 statewide.
It also has become more difficult to classify a student as needing ESE instruction in the state, Brown said.
In Pinellas and many other counties, many younger ESE students with less-severe disabilities are placed in general education classrooms, getting the same lessons and striving for the same standards as their peers.
As a result, ESE teachers have to work with general education teachers to ensure they can instruct special-needs children appropriately.
Statewide, the number of students identified as ESE is decreasing each year, from 507,661 in 2008-09 to 497,927 in 2012-13.
In 2012, Pinellas had 5,997 gifted students and 12,764 with disabling “exceptionalities” out of the 95,000 students — the seventh-highest population in any of Florida’s 67 school districts.
Of those 12,764, an unusually high number — 1,229 — were classified as having emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD).
Mary Canning, this year’s ESE Teacher of the Year for Pinellas, teaches about six EBD students at a time in her reading and history classes at Calvin Hunsinger Exceptional School, with the help of an associate.
Although EBD students can have a range of diagnoses from anxiety to autism, most will receive a standard high school diploma and are expected to meet the same general-education requirements as other high school students.
“If you got up every morning and said, ‘Oh, that’s going to be really hard,’ nothing would happen,” said Canning, whose son, 20, matriculated through Pinellas schools with Asperger’s. “You just have to get up every morning and say, ‘Things are going to happen and today’s going to be fine.’
“The important thing is to have a welcoming classroom full of joy and wonderment so you suck them into learning before they know what they’re doing. And before you know it, you have students that had never written anything before writing five-paragraph essays.”
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Last year, the school district saved about $6.5 million by cutting nearly 100 associate positions and closing K-12 Hamilton Disston School in Gulfport, while boosting enrollment at Calvin Hunsinger and Richard L. Sanders.
Hamilton Disston was built to accommodate 225 students but served 101 and had about 40 employees. Pinellas spent $64 million more than the state average to teach students with disabilities that year, though other districts showed better results in student performance, Grego said.
While cuts to the county’s ESE programs could scare away potential teachers, those who choose to teach the most struggling students will always continue to complete the extensive paperwork for each student, as well as hundreds of hours of additional professional development training, out of love, as they always have, said Theresa Nowak, a literacy coach with EBD students at Sanders School, and ESE Teacher of the Year finalist.
“I tell my students all the time that I realize they don’t choose to come here, but I do choose to come here,” Nowak said. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world, and that helps them understand how important they are to me and to all of their teachers. From the moment I walked into that school, I knew that was where I wanted to be; it’s where I’m supposed to be.”