No more waiting for special ed |

No more waiting for special ed

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” The school district has revamped the way it identifies special needs children ” replacing unreliable intelligence tests with an intervention program designed to get students help as soon as they start struggling.

The special education department helps kids with a wide range of needs ” students with learning disorders, emotional problems or developmental and physical disabilities, such as mental retardation or cerebral palsy.

Some disabilities are obvious at birth, while others, like dyslexia, a can be tricky to identify. Under old rules, students had to fall significantly behind other students before they could be tested to receive special education services, said Jen Erickson, a teacher at Red Hill Elementary.

“We had to wait until they fell behind, test them, and try to catch them back up,” Erickson said.

The tests themselves were also misleading. Students took an IQ test and a skills test, and they had to score within a specific range to “qualify” for special education services. The results end up being very black and white, and many students who obviously needed extra help were denied because they didn’t score in the needed range, said Bonnie Pottorff, director of special education for the school district.

“It was very frustrating ” we’d have to tell parents, ‘The good news is your student isn’t a special ed student, so the bad news is we can’t offer him any services,'” Pottorff said.

The new approach, called the “Response to Intervention Model” is based on close observation and monitoring of how kids are actually performing in the classroom.

Teachers give lessons, work in small groups with the students, give tests, and closely keep track of who’s learning, and who’s not.

Students who aren’t learning on pace with the other students are quickly flagged and receive immediate help, Erickson said. They’ll receive more focused teaching based on what they’re struggling with to get them over the hump, work one on one with specialists and will be given frequent, quick tests to see if new teaching methods are working.

The special education department will begin working with teachers at this point to make suggestions, help form specialized lessons and observe.

“As soon as we see a student who’s not making growth at the rate of their peers, we can start some interventions,” Erickson said.

At this point, many students will begin improving. For others though, it will become clear that they may have a learning disability and need long-term services from the special education department.

“If they’re improving after these early interventions, that’s great, and if they need more help, we’ll be there for them,” Pottorff said. “We missed a lot of kids the old way ” a lot fell behind. I think we’ll catch some kids we haven’t caught before now.”

Educators say using this approach will not only change the special education department, but will improve the effectiveness of the entire school district. The “Response to Intervention” program requires teachers to focus on every single student in the classroom and determine what works best for them, said Louayne Gates, a special education teacher at Eagle Valley High School.

The new system will be equally useful in identifying new ways of reaching gifted and talented students, kids who are learning English as a second language, even identifying students who are having trouble at home.

“It forces teachers to ask, ‘What do you do when they’re not learning?,'” Gates said. “It’s going to tighten up the general ed classroom and hold us a lot more accountable.”

Gates says at the high school level, most students in the special education department have already been identified. By requiring teachers to closely monitor every student, beginning as soon as they enter school, high school teachers will be better prepared

“They’re going to come in with a lot of data behind them, and it’s going to allow us to do a better job,” Gates said.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or

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