What's the Deal, Del? A Q&A on Special Education

Sumner County Schools Pupil Services and Instruction Departments prepared the following answers to the questions submitted by Strong Schools.

First let’s start with who is eligible for special education services. A student may be eligible for services through an Individual Education Plan under the IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and meeting TN Regulations for each disability category.   IDEA is a special education program.  A student may be eligible for modifications and accommodations through a 504 Plan under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  Section 504 is a general education program.    Under both programs, the individual needs of a student with a disability drive the educational decisions at the school level.  The answers provided are general information about students with disabilities.

What kinds of changes are being made to the Sumner County Schools Special Education programs going into the new school year?

The biggest changes for next year are the location of classes.  In our county, space has traditionally been an issue.  Classes have been located in schools that had space available to use.  The completion of Dr. William Burrus Elementary in Hendersonville will provide an opportunity to move classes to the KDDC/WBE campus.  The needs of all special education students were reviewed to strategically move classes so students could attend or be closer to their school of zone.  This will allow many students to attend school with their neighbors and reduce the travel time of those students to their school. In total, six classes will be relocating next year.

Is there a push for more 504 plans as opposed to IEPs in Sumner County at this time?

Congress signed an amendment to the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2008 which was effective January 1, 2009.  When regulations went into effect, it expanded the definition of disabilities.  With the expanded definition, there is an increase of students that might qualify for accommodations and/or modifications through a 504 Plan.

What is the federal and state financial allocation per 504 student and per IEP student?

There are no additional funds given to a school system for students on a 504 plan.  The federal funds awarded to each county for IDEA eligible students is reflected in the Sumner County Schools Federal Projects Budget posted on the SCS website which can be found here.  Federal funds are restricted for use on IDEA eligible students. 

What are the current statistics, county wide, on the number of students in each program?
IDEA Category Counts Dec. 2014: 

Age 3-21
Intellectual Disability   134
Hearing Impaired or Deaf     35
Speech or Language Impaired     1266
Vision Impaired or Blind     20
Emotionally Disturbed     99
Orthopedically Impaired     5
Other Health Impaired     694
Specific Learning Disability     1203
Deaf-Blind     1
Muti-Disabled     37
Autism     365
Traumatic Brain Injury     13
Developmental Delay     208

Additional TN Category Count in June 2014:

Intellectually Gifted     1066
Functionally Delayed     13

Total Special Ed Students     5159

Total number of students currently eligible for a 504 plan is:  611

What is RTI²?
The Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI2) process has three tiers that build upon one another. Each tier provides more intensive levels of support.  Tier I includes high quality instruction for students in the general education classroom.  The school provides all students with access to high quality standards-based instruction in the general education classroom.  Tier II includes additional targeted instruction/interventions. The school provides interventions to small groups of students who need more support with reading and math skills. Tier III includes intensive interventions. The school provides intensive interventions to meet the individual needs of students with significant skill deficits in reading and math.  A student’s progress is monitored and results are used to make decisions about additional instruction and intervention.

The implementation of RTI2 may appear differently at each level and at each school due to the problem solving approach of RTI2. 

Why is RTI² not mandated at all schools?
The Sumner County School system is implementing RTI2 in Kindergarten through 8th grade.  RTI2 at the high school level will be piloted at select schools in the 2015-2016 school year.   Full implementation of RTI2 at the high school level will begin in the 2016-2017 school year.  This implementation phase-in is per the Tennessee Department of Education guidelines.  

Please address the Extended Resource program.  Why was it taken away? What is being offered as an alternative?
The decision to phase out the extended resource classes as a delivery for special education services was driven by two major changes in the educational landscape in Tennessee.  The first occurred in 2009 when the Tennessee Diploma Project and the Tennessee Legislature changed the requirements for graduation beginning with the graduating class of 2013.  In addition to adding the number of math and science credits needed for graduation, it changed how a special education student could graduate with a regular education diploma.  Prior to 2013, special education students could earn a regular education diploma by passing Gateway exams in English, algebra and biology along with mastering goals in their IEP.  Students must now earn a minimum of 22 credits.  This significant change forced us to change the delivery of services to help students meet that challenge. 

Gateway exams are no longer the “gateway” to graduation, and in actuality, they are no longer given.  Students must now earn a minimum of 22 credits in order to graduate. To obtain the needed 22 credits required to graduate, students must pass specific courses.  Although there are no longer Gateway exams, there are End-of-Course exams given in English I, English II, English III, Algebra I, Algebra II, Biology I, Chemistry, and US History – all required high school courses.  Per state law, Students would not be required to pass any one (1) examination, but instead would need to achieve a passing score for the course average in accordance with the State Board of Education’s uniform grading policy. The weight of the end-of-course examination on the student’s second semester average is twenty-five percent (25%).

As one can easily see, not only the requirements, but the stakes, have greatly increased for students.  Therefore, it is imperative that they be educated with their peers while receiving additional support from special education teachers.

The second change occurred on July 1, 2014 with the State required implementation of RTI² in general education.   Tier I includes high quality standards based instruction for all students in the general education classroom.   Previously, special education teachers in Sumner County’s ERC classes were trying to cover the standards for multiple grades while also providing the most intensive level of skills based intervention.  With RTI2 in place, special education teachers can focus solely on intensive skills-based intervention that will help a student succeed during the Tier I instruction they receive from their classroom teacher.  Students can also receive support during Tier 1 instruction though accommodations, modifications or inclusion support to help students access the general curriculum.

Since the law changed in July 2014 regarding dyslexia, what steps has Sumner County taken to ensure that teachers of children with dyslexia are properly trained, as will the county train personnel in early identification of the varied types of dyslexia?

In 2014, Tennessee law was amended to include a working definition of dyslexia.  This amendment also recognized the need for training of K-12 teachers in the area of effective reading instruction for students with dyslexia or similar reading disorders.

The Special Education Department within SCS has a collaborative relationship with the Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia at MTSU.  This collaboration has allowed the department to stay abreast of current research in the field of dyslexia, including multisensory instructional methodology.  All special education teachers in Sumner County have access to research-based interventions appropriate for students with dyslexia (this includes Orton-Gillingham-based programs).  In addition, special education teachers receive training and in-classroom support from the Consulting Reading Teacher and Lead Educator assigned to the Special Education department.

Additional steps have been taken to provide regular education teachers with foundational reading training that specifically highlights phonological awareness and phonics instruction.  These components of reading instruction are critical for students with dyslexia and similar reading difficulties.  To date, approximately 150 teachers and lead educators have received training through state-provided foundational reading and intervention courses, with plans to extend this training to additional teachers in the 2015-16 school year. 

What programs are available at RT Fisher?  Is it strictly an alternative school or is there a separate special education program within its halls?

Two separate programs exist at RT Fisher:  1) a K-12 alternative school for Sumner County Schools and 2) a day treatment center for special education students with significant behavioral challenges.

The alternative school has general education teachers who are certified to teach core academic courses for students K-12 and special education teachers who are available to provide intensive interventions.  Related service providers are also able to provide the services in a student’s IEP such as Speech Language Therapy, Occupational or Physical Therapy.  Most students are assigned to the alternative school through a disciplinary hearing.  Some may be assigned upon enrollment if they are enrolling from another alternative school program or residential facility.

The special education day treatment program includes classes that are an extension of the BLAST Class (Behavior Learning and Social Skills Training) in elementary grades, Why We Try Programs in middle and high grades and Comprehensive Development Classes for students.  The controlled environment at RT Fisher allows for intensive interventions and focus on behaviors which may be unattainable on a large, traditional campus. These programs are supported by a school social worker for therapy and case management whose only assignment is RT Fisher.  All related services are provided as needed in the student’s IEP.

Staff working in the alternative school and the day treatment program has been trained in Therapeutic Crisis Intervention and are assisting students to gain the skills needed to be productive and contributing students at their school of zone.  The classes have a low pupil teacher ratio and space available to focus on unique needs of the student.  The staff members from RT Fisher coordinate a transition back to the students’ previous program to maximize success.

Will the county be changing the service days for children receiving services under an IEP for gifted in 2015-2016?
Suggested service time for gifted education in the elementary schools will be three times per week for 45 minute sessions each.  The middle school times are twice a week for 45 minute sessions, as well as a strong focus on consultation by the gifted education teachers with the regular education teachers to promote depth and complexity within the content areas.

Are there state mandates for special education that all schools must meet, and the schools themselves try to meet those mandates the best ways they can?  In other words, why is it so different from school to school?  I’ve heard of such varied SEARCH programs that are so different in time and scope than what my daughter is experiencing.

Tennessee’s State Department of Education relays suggested guidelines for gifted education with specific mandates only regarding the identification of intellectual giftedness.  School systems determine the method of delivering services for gifted needs.  Sumner County has suggested times for services; however, with the variety of needs across the county, the teachers have discretion within their classes while following our program goals.  Sumner County’s goals for gifted education include:

  • To develop critical, conceptual, and abstract thinking within content areas;
  • To develop creative problem-solving within content areas; and
  • To promote positive affective development.