The Block Island Times

Understanding the special education process

Advisory committee seeks to strengthen support for staff and parents
By Gloria S. Redlich | Jun 27, 2013

The Local Special Education Advisory Committee met on Tuesday, June 17, to discuss opportunities for professional development for staff, and also to develop plans that can help parents better understand the special education process. The group meets four times a year to advocate for appropriate educational services for all students and to assure that they “each achieve optimum success throughout their school years and into the world of adulthood.”

Joseph Walekjo of the Southern Rhode Island Collaborative (SORICO) recently came to the island school to address staff and parents on transition planning for students who are 16 years of age or older.

The transition program is focused on students who have an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) and who are at the point of making a transition to college or work and life after high school. Special Education Director Mark Hawk pointed out that Walekjo “brought a wealth of information for staff about programs.” Hawk said Walekjo would return to work with individual families whose children had special education needs at the high school level.

Hawk also mentioned the Rhode Island Parents Information Network (RIPIN), which “provides information, support and training to help all Rhode Islanders become their own best advocate in school, in healthcare and in all areas of life.”

Parent Kyra Ernst said it was important to develop a guide for parents new to the IEP process and unfamiliar with the process of parents meeting with the school team. She noted that these parents needed information about what to ask as well as a list of their rights. “We need to make it easier for the new person coming in” with a child who has special needs, Ernst said.

English as a second language teacher Joanne Warfel said this was particularly relevant for parents [and their children] for whom English is the second language. She said it was important to make certain a translator was available for meetings.

In a discussion about arranging for more speakers, committee members concurred that the school should offer classes for which parents might sign up. They thought a good time for such a program would be late fall.

Mental Health Support

Second on the group’s agenda was to examine its role in advocating for mental health support at the school. Chair Annie Hall said she has always felt strongly about the school providing support for mental health issues.

Parent Barbara MacMullan said she thought it important that all staff become aware of how to deal with students with behavioral IEPs. General subject teachers should also become acquainted with the IEPs, to help increase awareness of the issues of special needs students, said Hall. The group felt it important that substitute teachers become aware of the needs of these students as well. Warfel suggested having a binder available for substitutes in their classrooms to bring them up to date on special issues related to students.

“The staff and others need to understand what the child’s needs are,” said Hawk.

In terms of mental health support, Hawk explained that Social Worker Summer Riker was available four days a week and Betty Gomes for two, assuring appropriate coverage. ”Statistically, islands have a tradition of isolation and [those issues that go along with it] such as depression and substance abuse,” said health teacher Victoria Carson.

Hawk reiterated that the “school social worker is here for all kids.” Warfel also reminded the group about the school’s program of Response To Intervention (RTI), an ongoing process within the school to help students academically, behaviorally, socially and emotionally. If through that program a student is identified as troubled in any way, he or she will be referred to the social worker. In fact, committee members were pleased to learn that many students advocate for themselves and make their own requests to speak with Riker.

There is another program related to behavior up and running within the student community. It is known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), through which positive behavior is recognized and rewarded.

Hawk said occupational therapist Kathleen Schlenz was due to offer a professional development session — training for all faculty on recognizing different disabilities and how to approach them. Warfel thought Schlenz “can help us understand what normal developmental behavior is and when there is something to be concerned about.”

The group also thought it would be good to invite a speaker on the subject of adults learning about “kids in unhealthy relationships.” The focus would be to make adults “more in tune with kids” and help them talk to kids “so as not to turn them off.”

The next meeting is set for September, with the date to be announced.

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