While district elementary schools saw a rise in the number of English Language Learners with the closing of Washington Elementary, the same can not be said of the numbers for another population of students — those with disabilities.

The percentage of students with disabilities has dropped from approximately 18 percent in 2012 to just more than 14 percent in 2016.

“It’s my understanding that Washington had a much higher percentage of ELL’s than the other elementary schools,” said John Thissen, Hays USD 489 superintendent.

Thissen said the same was not true of the number of special education students at Washington; therefore, those students didn’t contribute to a significant increase in special education departments at the remaining elementary schools.

Dr. Raj Sharma, director of special education for the Hays West Central Kansas Cooperative, explained the decline in special education students in the district.

“(Special education) population is mainly controlled by the total population,” Sharma said.

So the SPED population will fluctuate with the district’s enrollment numbers from year to year, while other factors in ELL — larger numbers of migrant families moving into the district — affect that population of students differently.

“In our district, around 20 percent of the students are SPED, but that also includes gifted,” Sharma said.

According to Sharma, included in the district’s 20 percent SPED population are not only students with disabilities but 100-plus students who are in the gifted program.

The district receives funding for both of those populations within SPED.

Previous to the block grant, which froze state funding at 2014-15 levels without additional funding based on increases in populations or diversity of students, ELL funding was tied to each ELL student in the district. However, special education funding is tied to the teachers.

“We don’t get funding based on per student,” Sharma said. “We get $27,500 for every SPED teacher. Every para that we have, we get $11,400.”

Those figures fluctuate each year.

However, Thissen said $27,000 is not enough to actually hire a teacher.

There are 66 full-time SPED employees listed on the USD 489 district website, including teachers and school psychologists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, etc. That list does not include part-time staff.

Sharma estimates there are approximately 70-plus SPED staff employed by the district. Some of the teachers serve the surrounding communities of Ellis, La Crosse and Victoria, but are employed by the Hays West Central Kansas Special Education Cooperative and USD 489. Some staff members such as speech-language pathologists and others service the whole cooperative, not just Hays.

SPED students serviced by the cooperative factor into their individual district’s demographics, even if some students are bused to Hays to attend Westside Alternative School.

Currently, Westside Alternative School has approximately 37 students. The students are counted as a child who attends Roosevelt, for example, even though they receive SPED services at Westside.

Some functional students, those with more severe disabilities, are bused to Hays as their districts don’t have the staff or facilities to support them.

How SPED students are identified and serviced throughout the cooperative, state and the nation are part of a system of interventions and observations.

And while contact hours for ELL students with an ELL teacher are not as legally binding, the same can’t be said of the laws governing how special education students are identified and serviced.

IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation. IDEA dictates how states and agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services.

Under IDEA, the Individualized Education Program is the legal document special education teachers write and follow when providing services for students with disabilities. Another individualized plan is a 504. Some students who do not qualify for services under IDEA, do qualify for services through 504, but there are significant differences in how students qualify and different funding applies to each.

“The biggest difference is on the 504, there are only accommodations,” Sharma said. “On IDEA, you have the IEP which has goals, accommodations and a broader plan.”

The first step is the identification process.

“You have to go through the general education intervention,” Sharma said.

The process usually begins with the classroom teacher recognizing a problem, whether that be learning, behaviors, etc.

In Kansas, MTSS stands for multi-tier system of supports and is used to ensure rapid response to academic and behavior challenges as they arise. Using three tiers to identify the amount of support the student needs, interventions are put in place first before referring a child to special education services.

The interventions could include a quiet setting, working with a smaller list of spelling words, etc.

“We can do all of these interventions without having to identify a child,” Sharma said.

According to Sharma, following 18 weeks of interventions with documentation, if no progress is made, the school SITE team (site-based decision making) decides if the child needs to be referred to SPED.

After permission is received from the parents, the child then is evaluated using a variety of methods. A speech-language pathologist will evaluate the child if there is a concern regarding speech, a school psychologist might be brought in to address any behavioral/emotional concerns, etc.

Different tests such as an intellectual assessment and the STAR achievement test which compare students to others in the nation can be used to provide more data.

Based on the results of the evaluations, decisions will be made regarding if the child needs special education services.

“The state goes with a two-pronged system,” Sharma said. “No. 1, the student needs to have a disability. No. 2, there needs to be an impact on education.”

It is possible for a student to have a disability and yet that disability does not affect his or her ability to learn. There must be an impact on education to qualify for SPED.

Once a student qualifies for SPED, the special education teacher writes the IEP which, depending on the needs of the student, could be up to 20 pages in length.

Goals for each student are devised and evaluated by the teacher every nine weeks, and by law an IEP meeting occurs at least once a year. This meeting will consist of a team comprised of parents, regular education teachers, special education teachers, administrators who act as the Local Education Agency representative and any other special services involved in the student’s educational program.

An IEP includes a student’s present label, goals for the year, a list of accommodations and how many times a week and minutes the student needs SPED services.

Some SPED students need minimal inclusive support in the classroom while others have intense needs that require all day SPED.

As long as a student is meeting his or her goals, that is progress. And if they continuously meet their goals, there might be a decision to transition the student out of SPED.

“Our goal is to transition everybody out,” Sharma said. “As a team, you meet and decide if that is the best thing.”

Heather Musil has been a special education teacher in the district for 17 years. She teaches in a resource setting at Hays Middle School, where her largest class size is approximately 14 students.

There are five resource teachers at HMS, and two functional teachers who work with students with more severe disabilities.

Some evaluations and SPED referrals are done in middle school, but the majority of Musil’s students come to her with an IEP already in place.

The students she works with have milder disabilities, attention or behavior problems, etc., who are on average two to three grade levels below their peers in one or multiple subjects.

“I work with seventh-graders who may be reading on a second-, third- or fourth-grade level,” Musil said.

And while she is a middle school teacher, her daily preps resemble those of an elementary teacher as she teaches multiple subjects including math, reading and language arts.

“I don’t have as many kids, so I don’t have as many things to grade,” Musil said. “But I do have to update IEP’s every nine weeks.”

Most of her students have two to three goals on their IEP’s which have to be updated every nine weeks.

The IEP’s also contain the minutes each SPED student is to receive support. Instead of a set number of minutes, many teachers use a range depending on a student’s disabilities. For instance, a seventh-grade student might only be reading on a fourth-grade level, but that student can go into a social studies classroom and process a lecture with no trouble. However, if the teacher asks the students to read the chapter on their own, that’s not going to happen without the help of a para or SPED teacher.

So if a child has to read or take a test, they will require more minutes of support that day as opposed to another day where they are doing a hands-on experiment or just listening to a lecture.

That is where the range of minutes comes into play.

While Musil believes her caseloads have gone up since she began teaching, the number of students doesn’t necessarily continue to rise each year.

“My caseload this year is less than last year,” she said.

Sharma said when they see a lot of kids on one teacher’s plate, adjustments can be made. Next year, they might have to add another teacher.

While cuts were made in the district four years ago, including in the SPED department, the district website often advertises for SPED teachers and paras.

In fact, Thissen said cuts rarely occur in the SPED department as they have found it is difficult to run that department without the appropriate amount of support. What he thinks happens more often statewide is a regular education teacher is cut in order to hire a SPED position. That results in regular education teachers having bigger class sizes.

“Where we see the biggest problem is having enough paras to help us,” Musil said. “They are our right hand; they have to work with the kids and unfortunately, we can’t pay them what they’re worth.”

While Musil teaches a class in the resource room, her paras will offer support for inclusion in the regular education classrooms.

“But instead of there being four kids they need to help, there are now eight,” she said. “We are stretched.”

Thissen also echoed the concern of special education staff.

“Special education can be the hardest area now to find teachers,” he said.

One way the district finds special education teachers is to take advantage of programs through the state that allow a teacher who has a teaching certificate in another area to work in special education while getting their SPED endorsement.

The teacher has three years to get the endorsement while they work in special education.”

“That’s one way to kind of grow your own SPED teachers,” Sharma said. “In Kansas, you are going to see a lot of social studies and (physical education) teachers working in special education.”

And while funding and staffing is an ongoing issue in SPED, many of the teachers do amazing work every day considering some of the challenges they and their students face.

“I think our program is one of the best programs in the state,” Sharma said. “We have very dedicated professionals, and the only thing they want is to make progress in kids’ lives. Everyone is involved, and they have their hearts in the right place.”