News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 10, 2009

Special education needed for nearly a quarter of Vigo County students

By Sue Loughlin

TERRE HAUTE — In 2008-09, 24.6 percent of Vigo County School Corp. students needed special education services.

That represents the highest percentage of special education students among the 10 largest school districts that make up the Indiana Urban Schools Association, which includes Indianapolis Public Schools, Fort Wayne and South Bend.

The state average was 17.5 percent, and for Indianapolis Public Schools, 20.5 percent.

In 2000-01, 18.5 percent of Vigo County school students received special education services, so the percentage has increased over the past eight years.

Why is Vigo County so high?

The county’s declining population, coupled with its high poverty rates, could be one explanation, said Jeff Blake, executive director of Covered Bridge Special Education District.

The poor economy and loss of jobs here have forced many people to leave the community, he said.

More of the “general education” population may be moving out, which could account for the proportion of special education students increasing, he theorized, emphasizing that his theory is not backed by research or data.

Children living in poverty have greater risk factors, he said. Also, many of those children have not had the early learning experiences they need that would prepare them for kindergarten or preschool, he said.

Parents are struggling to help their children and don’t always know how to help, he said.

Blake also pointed out that the numbers and percentages of special education students can be somewhat misleading. Many of the students have language or speech impairments, which would not necessarily impact their success in school or ISTEP performance.

These students might have language delays or articulation disorders, and “a lot of kids grow out of that … as they get older, they won’t require services anymore,” he said.

As of Feb. 25, the school district had 4,528 students receiving special education services.

Of that number, 964 of those students had only language or speech impairments (LSI) and no other disabilities (ages 3-21).

Blake said there are various initiatives that could bring the numbers of special education students down in future years. One is called “Response to Intervention (RTI),” which is designed to identify a student’s learning problems and address them before special education services are needed, he said.

Using part of its federal stimulus money, Covered Bridge has hired three people who will help roll out RTI over the next two years. With RTI, “There is a tiered set of interventions that you do with all students who are struggling,” Blake said.

When students enter school, they are screened “and you start seeing where they are deficient and start teaching to those deficiencies right away before that gap gets too big,” he said. “In child development, you have a window of opportunity where you can make the biggest difference.”

RTI is aimed at “getting in there early and seeing what you can do to get that child on track,” Blake said.

While RTI will begin at the elementary level, it will eventually work its way up to all levels, he said.

The interventions are in addition to regular instruction. They can be within or in addition to the regular school day, either small group or individualized, he said.

If that level of intervention doesn’t work, the child moves up to another level of intervention.

The three people hired are being trained and will then work with schools “and help schools develop these programs in their buildings,” Blake said. It could mean using existing school staff differently, he said.

Vigo County’s special education population fares well on ISTEP and pass rates are competitive with state averages, said Rex Ireland, Vigo County School Corp. assessment coordinator.

In Vigo County, the overall pass rate for special education students in English/language arts (grades 3-8) is 34 percent, the same as the state average. In math, 43 percent of Vigo County special education students in grades 3-8 pass ISTEP, the same as the state, according to information provided by the Vigo County School Corp.

The pass rates are highest in third grade, and gradually decline through eighth grade. For example, 47 percent of Vigo County special education third-graders passed ISTEP in English/language arts, while only 17 percent of eighth-graders passed.

“We’re doing a good job with programming,” Blake said. “We’re doing more and more inclusion” and not pulling the kids out and subjecting them to a different curriculum.

“We’re using the same curriculum as everybody else,” he said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.