Special Education Alternative Program changes on the horizon | Education

Special Education Alternative Program changes on the horizon | Education

DECATUR — In a corner of Annie Brahler’s classroom at Harris Learning Academy is an overstuffed chair occupied by a giant teddy bear.

A soft foam brick wall surrounds it on two sides. Students having difficulty can go sit in that chair and pull that wall around to conceal the corner, to take a moment to compose themselves.

In the Social-Emotional Alternative Program, social/emotional coping skills are taught alongside academic subjects. The program uses a trauma-informed model and restorative practices, said Kathy Horath, executive director of Macon-Piatt Special Education District, and the students in that program have similar needs to the population served by the social-emotional development program. The two programs will merge in August. 

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Several parents spoke at the April 26 school board meeting to ask the board to intervene and prevent those changes to the social-emotional development program. More than one of those parents said they would not accept a staff shortage as a reason for the change because teaching assistants could fill the empty positions.

“This isn’t about parents, it’s about the 36 kids that are affected at my son’s school,” said Lloyd Davis, one of the parents who spoke to the board on April 26. He surpassed his three-minute time limit and was asked to leave the podium, and when he didn’t, was escorted out of the meeting. “It affects my child differently. They’re crying for help and their voice cannot be heard.”

Parents also attended the school board’s May 10 meeting to ask again for the programs to remain separate.

“Some of these teachers have had those kids for five years,” said Barbara McCall, the grandparent and guardian of a student in the SED program. “That trust and kinship and growth is not able to be replaced just because we don’t feel the program is needed anymore.” 

During board discussion later in the meeting, board member Alana Banks asked whether the Decatur school board could do anything about the decision, and legal counsel Brian Braun said those decisions are made by the Macon-Piatt Special Education District’s board. The Decatur board can express their concerns, he said, but so can the parents of special education students, and if those parents wish to attend the Macon-Piatt board meetings to speak to that board, they can. 

Staffing shortages made the change necessary, Horath said.

At the beginning of this school year, she said, there were four classrooms at Muffley School devoted to the social/emotional program, with three full-time teachers, six teaching assistants, and one teaching assistant assigned to work one-on-one with students. During the first semester, escalating issues included administrative changes, complexities in student needs and staffing, leading to the program being moved to Harris. One of the teachers moved to another position and one teaching assistant quit to become a substitute full time. Sixth-grade students were moved to Stephen Decatur Middle School with a long-term substitute and the kindergarten through fifth grade students moved to Harris. After the transfer to Harris, things seemed to be on an even keel for several weeks, and then another teacher accepted a new position for the coming school year. That left only one full-time certified teacher.

“There are five (social/emotional development) teaching positions posted,” Horath said. “Three have been posted all year. There have been zero applicants to date.”

The plan is for this year’s sixth-graders to stay at Stephen Decatur for the coming school year, in the seventh/eighth grade special education program there. The current K-5 students will stay at Harris campus, and will be aligned with the SEAP program and work will continue to get those students ready to return to their home school campus.

“We start our day with morning meeting,” Brahler said. “I love morning meeting. I love the social/emotional part which is extremely important for our children. The kids know the routine and expectation every morning. I’ve come up with a super-interactive routine where we talk about our feelings, we identify a coping skill for the day so when I do have a moment of frustration, am I going to use a fidget, am I going to take deep breaths.”

Between subjects, the class of second- to fifth-graders takes a “brain break,” where they get up and move around.

The ultimate goal of the SEAP program, said Principal Jessica Ellison, is to help the student achieve and get back to their own home building. While there are kids who stay at SEAP for long periods because that’s what they need, an Individualized Education Program for a special education student includes the provision that the youngster is assigned to the “least restrictive environment” possible.

Horath said she hopes the merger is temporary. 

“It’s unfortunate (that they have to be combined),” Horath said. “This is a short-term solution.”

The teacher shortage in Illinois is acute, with more than 6,200 positions unfilled in 2021, according to the Illinois Association of School Boards. Retirements have gone up by 50%, and fewer college students are choosing teaching as a career. And the problem is not limited to Illinois. The shortage is nationwide. Some states are using short-term solutions. Kentucky is hiring back retired teachers with no hit to their retirement benefits, and Wisconsin is loosening restrictions to allow teachers to teach subjects they lack certification in. Teachers who leave the profession cite low pay, lack of administrative support, inadequate preparation and mentoring options, a lack of respect and voice in school decision-making, and undue emphasis on standardized testing. 

Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter