Special Education Thriving in Baldwin County

The day begins promptly at 8 a.m. for Heather Cox, a special education teacher at Oak Hill Middle School.

Cox’s students begin each day with breakfast before starting instruction.

When the students finish their meals, they file back into the classroom and take a quick bathroom break before Cox starts the first lesson of the day.

Despite nearly all the students talking and moving around the room, Cox and the two para-professionals who assist her remain calm as Christmas music flows from the speakers in the room.

By the time the last student has returned from the restroom, the room is almost completely silent, as the liveliness that the students first had now has turned to focus and eagerness to learn.

Cox moves to the left of her classroom in front of her bulletin board, and she gauges the state of her classroom, asking how the students are doing before beginning the first lesson of the morning.

At 9:20 a.m., Cox begins going over the calendar in the most interactive way possible, calling on specific students to answer each question she poses.

After going over the calendar, Cox moves on to weekly vocabulary with an interactive PowerPoint on her smartboard.

Once the PowerPoint has been completed, the clock reads 9:38 a.m., and Cox rewards her class’ good work with Justin Bieber’s version of “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.” As the students dance around the room, Cox moves behind her desk, quickly printing off a worksheet to prepare for the next lesson of the day.

Though she has seemingly already put in a full day’s work, the day has barely begun for Cox. Each day, she works with the same group of nine special needs children, often working with them on life skills, as well as instructing them academically.

What’s the big IDEA?

Each year, classes like this one taught by Cox at Baldwin County are celebrated on National Special Education Day, which falls on Dec. 2.

The holiday has been celebrated annually since 2005, which marked the 30th anniversary of President Gerald Ford’s signing of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. The goal of the holiday is to not only celebrate the IDEA, but to also push for future improvements in special education.

A timeline of special education history in the United States and Baldwin County

The Act requires that special education services be made available to all eligible children to ensure that students with disabilities have the same opportunity to a free, appropriate public education that other children have.

Before the act’s passage, students like the ones Cox teaches on a daily basis often did not have access to education services.

According to the US Department of Education, in 1970, only one out of every five students with a disability was accommodated in US public schools, and some schools even had policies in place that excluded students with disabilities from enrolling altogether.

However, after the Act’s passage, students all over the United States gained access to accommodations and services to help them be successful in the classroom. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2013–2014 academic year, more than 6.5 million children with disabilities received free educational and related services under the IDEA annually.

The Public School Model

Though special education has come a long way since the passage of the IDEA, Rob Sumowski, a special education professor at Georgia College, said that the field is still improving today.

“In my 20 years of teaching special education, I’ve seen the field evolve and change a great deal,” said Sumowski. “Special education is a lot better because we know more about different disabilities, and that allows us to serve the students who have them more effectively.”

Currently, Baldwin County, like most public schools in the nation, uses an inclusion model to help educate their special needs students.

Under that model, students with disabilities like ADD, ADHD, and Dyslexia do not get isolated in separate classes of only students with special needs. Instead, these students are simply mixed in a normal classroom environment with other students, and receive benefit of having two teachers in the room.

Though one teacher is a special education teacher and the other is a regular education teacher, Sumowski said that the model works at its best when both teachers take responsibility for educating all the students in the class.

Despite using several new teaching methods, Sumowski said that the success of Baldwin County’s special education students should be credited to the educators that work in the system.

“For special education to be successful, there have to be educators who care beyond the final bell at 3:30,” said Sumowski. “In Baldwin County, this starts at the top with the superintendent, Noris Price, and her vision to see all kids succeed really extends to the rest of the faculty and staff.”

Baldwin County’s Special Education Director Traci White also said that she believes that the teachers of Baldwin County are doing a good job of meeting their students’ needs.

“Baldwin County does a great job for its special needs students,” said Heather Cox, “because the teachers here truly want what’s best for the students.”

The Private School Model

Despite all the positive things that are being done in Baldwin County’s public schools to ensure that their special needs students are receiving a top-quality education, some individuals are not proponents of the way special education works in public schools today.

Cheryl Eady, a retired special education teacher who taught for 30 years in public school, now teaches Instructional Support at John Milledge Academy. Eady said that she feels that the way that students are served at JMA is more effective than the public school model, because extensive testing and massive amounts of paperwork are not required to get students the help that they need.

“At times, it felt like I was stuck at my desk doing paperwork more than I was teaching my students,” said Eady. “I seemed to be staying later and later every day to get that done, and I just didn’t feel that I got the support from the administration and parents that I needed to educate my students in the most effective manner.”

However, at JMA, Eady’s time is no longer filled with mundane paperwork and often-unfruitful meetings that state law requires of public schools. Instead, because JMA is a private school and is not governed by federal laws like the IDEA, she is able to work with the students who need her all day in the school’s Instructional Support Program.

Instructional support offers students a quiet, uninterrupted class period for students with conditions like ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Dyscalculia to come in and get extra help with assignments.

In Eady’s classroom, small groups of students trickle in after every bell. As students take seats on beanbags around the navy walls or at the grey, rectangular tables in the middle of the room, Eady asks if the students prefer the lights on or off.

As the students collectively exclaim that they prefer to work with the lights off that day, Eady moves around the room, turning on the big floor lamps in her classroom to help remove the shadows. And by the time class starts, Eady’s classroom barely resembles a traditional classroom at all.

Despite being the teacher, Eady does not instruct her pupils in a traditional manner. Instead of standing in front of the class and giving a lesson about math, reading, or science, Eady allows her students to work independently on assignments from other classes while she circulates around the room, checking in on each of the students multiple times in the class period to ensure they are understanding their work.

The room is silent aside from an occasional question, and the only other sound comes from the scratching of students’ pencils on paper.

Then, just as it seems that the students are beginning to settle in, the school bell rings to usher this group out and another group in.

“Instructional Support really gives us the flexibility and ability to intervene and meet students’ needs as soon as we see a problem,” said Interim-Headmistress Jessica Jones. “The program is really all about leveling the playing field for these children with certain disabilities to help them become as successful as possible.”

Benefits of the Private School Model

Though JMA’s model for serving children with special needs looks very different than the one in Baldwin County’s public schools, JMA officials insist that the program is working and helping students to succeed.

“A lot of our older kids really enjoy their instructional support time,” said Jones, “because it gives them some much-needed down-time to focus on their work and get the help that they may need in their hectic daily schedules.”

Hannah Cowart, a kindergarten teacher at JMA who also teaches Instructional Support for kindergarten through fifth graders in the lower school, also said that she thinks that the program has been very effective for many of the children at JMA.

“We’ve really only been doing Instructional Support with the younger kids for about a month, but I’ve seen a lot of improvement with kids in the program already.” said Cowart. “The students we have coming to the program are already seem to have more confidence because they don’t feel so behind or overwhelmed with their schoolwork.”

A look at special education by the numbers

Despite using very different approaches to educate their students with special needs, both Baldwin County Public Schools and JMA are doing very good jobs of helping to level the playing field to give students with disabilities an opportunity to get a top-notch education.

In the public schools, emphasis is put on data, said Baldwin County Special Education Director Traci White, to ensure that students are not improperly diagnosed and to also track and make sure that students are benefitting from the plan that is in place for them.

However, at JMA, more responsibility is put on teachers, as their noticing of the day-to-day needs of students in class helps to dictate what students need and how they should be helped.

No matter which model is examined, it does appear that both systems are achieving the goal that Sumowski believes that all special education teachers should strive for.

Sumowski said, “The goal in special education should be to help students function at their highest possible academic level, and to bridge the gap to make students successful.”

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