DV Special Education: Offering a fair chance

Equal assistance does not necessarily equate to equal opportunity. Giving a step stool of the same height to three people of different heights does not give each person the same view. Similarly, giving the same education to three people of different learning abilities does not give each person the same quality of education. To make education equal, regardless of learning ability, Special Education programs are put into place. However, these special Education programs aren’t perfect, as exemplified by the problems they face.

Resource Specialist Cyndi Oji-Marchese explains, “Special education enables students to access accommodations, modifications or additional supports to help them access the general education curriculum.”

Special education programs across the nation have been designed and implemented to serve the needs of children with developmental delays (mental, physical, emotional and social), processing deficits and other qualifying criteria.

The DV Special Education department provides a variety of services, ranging from resource classes, which assist students with mild disabilities, to Special Day Classes (SDC), which are divided into mild, moderate and intensive categories, aiming to aid students with mild to severe learning challenges.

Although DV is doing relatively well with its comprehensive Special Education program, it still has its own set of problems, the most prominent being understaffing. While in SDC classes there is a required 6:1 student to teacher ratio, the lack of qualified personnel available means that the ratio is sometimes out of balance. There are often administrative tasks that also have to be dealt with, as well as numerous meetings with concerned parents, which should ideally be handled by a separate staff member; a lack of funding does not make hiring this separate staff member fiscally possible. Because the Special Education staff has to do these administrative tasks along with teaching the Special Education students, it can be, and often is, nearly impossible to fit all of them within one day.

Resource teacher Helen Boentje said, “When I first came, I felt like I became a college student again, pulling all nighters.”

In addition to daily administrative tasks, each Individualized Education Program (IEP) mandates an annual 15 to 25 page report on each student along with quarterly reports, a draining workload.

This shortage of staff members stems from a lack of adequate funding from the district for Special Education, and other schools in the district are affected by the same issue.

One parent, Rebecca Thomson, thinks the most important thing is understanding that everyone has some type of challenge and providing the proper resources to supplement and suit the learner while given chances to further themselves like neurotypical learners in a general classroom setting. “We are all working on ‘something’. Individuals with an identified learning challenge are no different than others; both aim to be successful.”

According to an anonymous parent source, the district often fails to recognize this need. “A lot of parents have to really advocate for their children, including hiring outside advocates.”

Despite this challenge, and others, the Special Education teachers persevere in their efforts to attend the needs of their students.

“Our goal is always to provide the most, always assessing what is needed and working with other departments; being cooperative and facilitating the conversation.” Tanihara states.

In order to fully provide for these students, extra-curricular programs are also available, helping them thrive in more compatible social environments specifically suited to their needs. Although many students with milder needs may not need assistance integrating into the larger DV community, for students with greater needs, structured after-school programs offer students the chance to participate in after school meetings, social gatherings and similar events, to better serve them.

SDC instructor Katie Chinn  also mentioned how some paraprofessionals take their personal time to hold outings with students to movie theaters and restaurants for extra social interaction opportunities for students who stay at home after school.

Although the job is challenging, Chinn explains how rewarding it is to be a teacher. “I see students totally dependent to us in their first two years but in their junior or senior year, they find their way around school without help.”

Despite the multitude of challenges, the Special Education department remains optimistic. Tanihara asserted, “Give [students] an opportunity. Give them some time. It may take longer, but they are capable”.