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Revamped special ed program ‘continuing to grow’ in D300



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Updated: November 30, 2011 12:36AM

WEST DUNDEE — Thursday’s sixth-grade language arts class at Dundee Middle School started with five minutes for students to write freely on a topic in their journals.

Teacher Kristine Pizzolato brought up a five-minute timer on the interactive whiteboard at the front of the classroom. Meantime, co-teacher Judy Yuvan wrote out the writing topic on the chalkboard:

“Describe a place where people congregate. Do you know what ‘congregate’ means?”

Pizzolato added, “Use your senses. What do you see, hear, smell?”

It’s not all that different from the way Pizzolato and Yuvan have taught the last few years, before they became co-teachers, both agreed.

They shared the same classroom at Dundee Middle years ago, Yuvan said, when teachers outnumbered classrooms at the school. And Yuvan, the learning disabilities teacher on Pizzolato’s sixth-grade teaching team, always has sat in on the other teacher’s classes with the students who are part of her caseload, she said.

Only now it’s official, she said, pointing to a class schedule stuffed into one student’s binder. The schedule listed General Math, followed by both Pizzolato and Yuvan’s names.

And it’s one of Community Unit School District 300’s priorities for the new school year shared with staff by the district’s Teaching and Learning Leadership Team at last month’s rally before the start of the 2011-12 year.

Being responsible

The Carpentersville-based district has restructured its special education program — renaming its Pupil Personnel Services Department “Education Services” — following the recommendations made by the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative last spring.

Those recommendations followed a state audit which found that the district’s students with special needs consistently lag about 10 points behind the state average in the time they spend in regular classrooms.

At the rally, Shelley Nacke, assistant superintendent for Teaching and Learning-Education Services, said part of the idea behind the new program is that “every student is the responsibility of every teacher in the district.”

“To us, that’s not a change. That’s continuing to grow what was started before us,” said Linda Breen, director of education services-instruction.

Most of that growth this school year is in professional development — training general and special education teachers to work together in a classroom, Breen said.

In the past, that co-teaching has occurred only in District 300 middle and high schools, she said. Now it’s started with some lessons in some elementary schools.

“The audit supported what we already were doing. It confirmed what we knew we needed to do,” Breen said.

Good idea

That’s because research shows it’s good for students in the special education program to be in classrooms with their peers.

For one, they learn the same curriculum. And, Breen said, many of the students with high-incident disabilities “are of average to above-average cognitive ability. The difference is how they learn.”

“High-incident disabilities” include communication disorders, specific learning disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, emotional or behavioral disorders and other health impairments, according to the district.

And the students are not sequestered in a separate special education classroom with the same handful of students, learning how to “push each other’s buttons,” through all their schooling, she said. That leads to a decrease in behavior referrals as the students in general education classrooms model the behaviors expected of them, according to Breen.

But that doesn’t mean the program will push each of the 2,830 students who receive special education services into regular classrooms.

Nacke called the program — and the decision whether to put a student in a general education classroom — “student-focused.”

”It’s really looking at the individual student and the IEP (individualized education plan) team determining whether it’s appropriate to put them in a general education setting,” she said.

The bigger change to the special education program this year is the creation of 10 education service specialist positions, Breen and Nacke agreed. Those include an early childhood specialist, an autism spectrum specialist, an emotional disability specialist, a speech and language specialist, a low-incident specialist and five high-incident specialists, the district has said.

Those positions will replace 13 supervisors, assigned by building — which makes sense, Breen said.

“If you have a heart problem, you’re not going to go to an internist. You go to a cardiologist,” she said.

The education service specialists not only are knowledgeable in specific areas but also provide support for families with those needs through their entire District 300 education, Nacke said.

That meets several recommendations of the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative: Reorganize the district’s central office to support education services, develop a vision and plan for transitioning students between grade levels and beyond, and increase the number of first-year students with disabilities on track to graduate.

Active teachers

About a month into the new program, Breen said, ”We’ve noticed parent phone calls going right to specialists. They’re able to answer those questions because they’re there in those classrooms.”

The education services department also has beard from teachers — mostly that it’s “really great” to have someone in the classroom to help write lesson plans that meet students’ individual needs, she said.

Three of Yuvan’s students with learning disabilities are among about two dozen sixth-graders in the language arts class she co-teaches with Pizzolato at Dundee Middle, she said. Another eight are in their general math class afterward, which is even larger.

Having a co-teacher “does help with the larger class sizes,” Pizzolato said.

And Yuvan said, “I love it. I love having an active part of the classroom, rather than being one of the teachers who hangs out in the back.

“My kids on my caseload know that I’m here for them, but all the other kids see me as part of the class,” she said.

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