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County leads state in special ed students

Updated:   08/06/2008 03:04:02 AM EDT

Wednesday, August 6
BRATTLEBORO -- Windham County schools continue to outpace the rest of the state in the number of special education students who are receiving services, according to a report released this week by the Vermont Department of Education.

The state average for the number of children with disabilities during the 2007 school year was just under 15 percent, but the Windham Northeast, Southeast and Southwest districts all recorded averages above 20 percent.

Windham Central came just under the state average of 14.96 percent with a district average of 13.38 percent.

The annual special education data report is required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, and tracks how districts are placing and serving students with disabilities.

In 2007, the Vermont Legislature passed a bill that requires high spending districts to work with the education department to try to contain costs and bring the child counts down.

Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley said that while the state officials have been working with the district staff and some improvements have been made, it is not realistic to expect any dramatic swings right away.

"These kids are here, and they are not going to go away," Stahley said. "We are going to continue to work more efficiently to reduce costs but when we've got students to serve, we've got to continue serving them."

The district average in Windham Southeast in 2006 was 21.46 percent and it increased slightly in 2007 to 21.59 percent.

The 2007 Windham Southeast average was the highest in the state.

The report released Monday measures the percent of children who are receiving special education services against the average daily membership which is the way the state tracks the average number of students during the school year.

According to Stahley, the state has completed two different reports on the district's special education department.

There are ways to save money, and there are some steps WSESU can take to make sure the children with disabilities are spending as much time as possible in their regular classroom, but Stahley said neither report found that the schools were over-identifying students.

Families with special needs students are drawn to the area because of programs offered at the Austine School, the Brattleboro Retreat and the Winston Prouty Center, Stahley said.

And he also said Brattleboro's location makes it easy for families from Massachusetts and New Hampshire to move into the district for the services.

He also said the staff rates and services that are offered are getting more in line with state averages, but as long as high numbers of students need the support, the schools are going to have to hire the staff to meet the challenge.

Windham Northeast had the second highest average in 2007, though its average dropped a little from 20.83 percent in 2006 to 20.49 percent.

WNESU Assistant Superintendent Chris Kibbe also said the state has spent time in the district, but Kibbe said he expects the numbers in WNESU to drop in the next few years.

WNESU has been working to identify students with reading disabilities early in the hope that they will not need as many services later in the higher grades.

Kibbe said there is a bubble of high needs students moving through the system, but he said the lower grades are showing improvements and he expected the average to drop in the future.

"There is no doubt in my mind that we are going to see a drop in the next three to four years," said Kibbe. "We are becoming better at serving kids overall so fewer need services."

But Kibbe agreed that is a continuing challenge to meet the needs of special education students.

While the district is doing better at identifying children early and getting them the help they need, at the same time there are more children on the autism spectrum as well as more with emotional disorders.

"We know a lot more today than we did 10 years ago about what to do for kids with reading problems and we are a lot better at it," said Kibbe. "But we still have plenty of kids with severe needs. Those numbers are on the rise and we've got to give those kids services,"

The average in Windham Southwest increased from 19.14 percent in 2006 to 20.23 percent.

In the schools in Windham Central, the rate dropped from 14.06 percent in 2006 to 13.38 percent in 2007.

Across the state, boys received special education services at a rate of about two-to-one over the average girls received.

The full report is available of education department Web site: www.education.vermont.gov. Click on "What's new?"

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reform-er.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.

 



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