This paper will reflect upon the school-wide dilemma of students, families and schools involved in the referral and placement process of students with special needs such as specific learning disabilities and beyond. This is a genuine problem in our Florida school system as each year is seems to take longer for a student who has been referred by an educator to be placed into a situation which best meets their academic and/or emotional needs.
This paper will concentrate on stories derived from primary stakeholders dealing with this situation. The stakeholders for this particular story are; Diana, a 3rd grade student in need, and her family, her teacher, the school psychologist, and the school exceptional student education teacher. Each stakeholder will present their version of the problem as a personal situation.
Exceptional Education-Referral to Placement Time: A School-Wide Dilemma
My story begins by telling you that I am a 3rd grade teacher and have taught elementary school for close to four years. In that time, I have been able to teach many youngsters and also see that there are some learners whose needs exceed what I have been able to give them in a regular classroom setting.
When I used to teach fifth grade, most students with academic concerns had already been identified and place, part time, in an SLD (Specific Learning Disability) setting as needed. However, some students had still managed to travel through six years of public school barely scraping by.
Now teaching third grade, I have two students in particular I am highly concerned about. One of which has been on the refer for testing list since second grade and has still not been able to be placed in an educational setting which will focus on her needs. The second little girl is mostly likely a result of her mother taking drugs while she was in the womb. This child’s development seems to be slowing as the rest of the students around her progress. For this paper, I am going to focus on the plight of the first child for my example. From my observations as the teacher of the little girl I will refer to as Diana, it is extremely evident a regular classroom setting is not meeting the needs of this child.
There are many people in this little girl’s life who hold a stake in her successes. I, as her teacher, am certainly one, as well as herself, her parents and family, our school varied exceptionalities teacher, the county/school psychologist and the school principal. This list could also continue to her future teachers and beyond, but I will be discussing the stories of the main stakeholders I have previously listed.
Diana, at nine years old, has already been detained once in her schooling career. This child is able to identify letters, but digraphs such as Sh, or Ch are not comprehensible to her. Now in third grade, it is clear me that Diana is not learning at the same rate as her fellow classmates. I felt from within the first week that she was in my class that this child was well below grade level. I see her frequently off task, dawdling if you will by shuffling papers, organizing her desk and book bag, practically anything to avoid showing her classmates that she does not understand the work that is going on in the classroom. As Diana’s teacher, I am troubled that in my regular classroom, I cannot give her the full attention and services that would meet her individual needs.
I did the by the book way that a teacher is supposed to do to find out the history of this child. This meant checking the cumulative folder of past school history and I also spoke with her previous teachers and inquired with the guidance counselor as to whether or not she was on a testing list. I was informed that Diana had been referred by her second grade teacher, but it would be helpful if I continued with documentation of school work and followed up. I have done this and I have also discussed Diana’s situation at quarterly profile meetings about students where the principal, teacher and curriculum resource teacher are all present. Unfortunately, because Diana is on the referral list, my only recourse at this time is to modify-modify-modify in the classroom. Retention was briefly discussed, but denied because of the referral list.
Diana’s skill level is so low, that off the record the guidance counselor informed me that she is most likely EMH, this means that she is educable mentally handicapped and will probably be moved to another classroom or school all together. I can completely see where this would be beneficial to her in order for her to learn life skills that will be of more value to her in the long run than working in a regular classroom setting.
If it were up to me to decide what the main problem is, I would have to agree with much of what will be said in the rest of this paper. There isn’t enough money to hire the qualified personnel needed to test, place and teach children with needs.
School Psychologist View
I spoke with our school psychologist to get her views on the dilemma of the time it takes to move a student through the placement process. Her definitive answer was numbers-not only money, but also percentages. She shared with me that at one time, there were guidance/psychologist clerks whose sole job was to process the paperwork for students to receive their placement. However, when the county needed to tighten their budget, those clerks were the ones to go and thus guidance counselors and psychologists were now in charge of the testing and the paperwork process. Also, our school has one guidance secretary who is able to assist with some paperwork and scheduling, however her job is there based on a grant that as of next year will be dissolved.
The other numbers referred to were percentages. According to the county, only 10% of a school is considered to need exceptional education. If a school’s number of referrals exceed this, then the blame is placed on the teachers that they need to modify and learn how to teach those kids in their classroom regardless of a child’s needs. The county psychologists, who have on average 4-7 schools a piece, have been told they must reduce the number of students tested county-wide by 10%, rather than allowing for the possibility that some schools may have a larger exceptional needs population of students.
Exceptional Education Teacher
Another important stakeholder in this cycle of referrals to placement is the ESE (exceptional student education) teacher. The ESE teacher at Diana’s school has held this position for ten years in three different states and is also a parent herself of a child diagnosed with a learning disability. After speaking with Mrs.V, I learned much valuable information.
According to Mrs. V, both of the other states she worked in the maximum time allowed for a child to pass from referral to placement is 60 days. Here, she states, the average time frame is more than 6 months long. Last year when her son was placed on the list it took the entire school year to determine eligibility, and she was on campus pushing for it.
Her opinion of the problem is multi-fold. First and foremost is the lack of funding for psychologists, which was stated above. Our school psychologist is at the school one-day per week and is used to test all children, conduct behavioral observations as a classroom intervention, and hold meetings with parents to interpret results.
In addition to the lack of school psychologists, Mrs. V also feels there is a lack of qualified ESE teachers per school. In her previous states, her caseload was mandated by the state at no more than 15 students per teacher, her current caseload at Diana’s school is 52 students in grades 1-5. For each student, she is to teach all subjects in which they meet eligibility (reading, writing, math) as well as test all students after the school psychologist has, write SLD (Specific Learning Disability) reports to determine if students meet eligibility criteria, hold meetings with parents, write IEP’s (Individual Education Plans) for students, maintain documentation of progress, conduct end of the year testing and annual reviews, and at this time she is also completing the duties of the school staffing coordinator who left mid-year and has not yet been replaced.
Another problem, according to Mrs. V, is the lack of emphasis placed on a timely process in Florida. It was known in the other states that a child must be referred, tested and if necessary placed within 60 days time. Here in Florida, she feels that due to the fact that everyone is overworked and understaffed, excuses are made while referrals are dragged out for 6 months and beyond.
Ultimately the problem lies, according to Mrs. V, in the State Department and funding. She feels that if they were monitoring and enforcing better timelines, schools would be forced to hire the staff to complete the process in a timely manor.
Diana and Family
Diana and her parents are extremely concerned about her academic progress. Diana’s perspective is that she knows that other students in her class are reading and progressing much further than she is. When asked how this makes her feel, she states that she is sad. Her non-verbal expressions and gestures lead me to think that she is more than just sad. Diana thinks that she cannot read and that she is different. At this point, her reason behind this to her is that she is not smart.
As a result of Diana’s lack of educational skills, her self-esteem is suffering and a wall is being built against learning. She shows extreme avoidance when it comes to school work, rising to sharpen pencils and stare blankly at her paper.
Diana’s parents are concerned about their daughter’s work and have come to parent/teacher conferences that have been set up by both myself and the school. The family is of Haitian decent and have at times expressed that if she does not improve, there is a possibility of her returning to Haiti to live with her grandparents. It is understood that in Haiti, education is not a priority.
When asking them about Diana’s situation, they are aware that their daughter is behind others in school. They are very gracious and thankful to the teachers she has had for their efforts with their daughter. However, they are also concerned that Diana is not receiving services to increase her potential. They have been called into meetings with teachers, and at times administrators, about her for three years now and have known that she has been on a list at least since the beginning of this school year. Their frustration level is at an extreme.
When asked why they think that it is taking so long for Diana to be placed, their answers come from what they have been told by the school. Basically that there is an extremely long waiting list for students to receive placement and not enough time or people to do this testing. As for someone to blame, their frustration lies with the school system and district rather than with the individual members of Diana’s school, but they feel unable to do anything about this.
In conclusion, this paper is stating the viewpoints of four stakeholders involved with a child facing the dilemma of the referral for academic services. Conclusions and perspectives were uniquely individual for each person or subsystem within this dilemma. However, I feel that a continuing theme throughout this paper is one of a lack of funding for individuals who assist in this referral process. Perhaps if more state money were put towards hiring qualified persons to test and process the referral students, the wait time a student entertains would be drastically reduced. If this were to happen, then perhaps students would be adequately placed and their academic and/or emotional needs would be sufficiently met.
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