Katie Mulryan-Miller stands at a whiteboard in the special education classroom. Stars, balloons and globes are projected onto the board.
The task: “Make a Match,” it says.
Miller gently encourages her student to focus. She slowly guides the student’s hand to help her make the correct selection.
Miller’s special education classroom at Brown County High School includes students with mild to severe disabilities, from learning disabilities to autism.
Six paraprofessionals work with her.
“Every day is different, and we’ll have a day where all of the kids are doing well, and we’ll have a day where we’ll have some issues that will come up. It depends on the students,” Miller said.
The percentage of special education students in Brown County Schools increased by 5.1 percent over the past three years. That’s an increase of about 118 students.
A child could be determined to have a disability if he or she is diagnosed with autism, speech or language delays, is deaf and blind, has developmental delays, an emotional disability, hearing impairments, a learning disability, a mental disability, multiple disabilities, an orthopedic impairment such as a missing limb, other health impairments, a traumatic brain injury or visual impairment.
Some are able to be placed in general classrooms throughout the district. Others are in special education classrooms like Miller’s.
If a student is determined to need special education, a committee creates an individualized education program, or IEP.
It describes the accommodations or modifications the student needs and special education and services that will be provided.
Director of student services Al Kosinski said the increase in special education numbers in the past three years is from more students being identified with autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit disorder.
The curriculum in Miller’s room is wide-ranging.
Miller uses American Sign Language to help her nonverbal students communicate.
Lessons incorporate occupational therapy — learning skills for daily life — and physical therapy.
The classroom was remodeled last summer with a dishwasher, dryer, washing machine and stove to teach household tasks.
Sometimes, the class takes a walk in the gymnasium or in Nashville.
“It gives them the social skills. Some will ask other strangers, ‘How are you?’ That’s very important for the kids and they can learn their social skills and what boundaries there are,” Miller said.
This is Miller’s first year as the lead special education teacher at the high school but not her first time in special education.
Miller was born with hearing loss.
As a student in Brown and Bartholomew County schools, she wore a transmitter that connected to her hearing aid and her teachers would wear a microphone.
By the numbers
For the 2014-15 school year, the percentage of students in special education was 25.9, according to the Brown County Schools performance report from the Indiana Department of Education. That equals 541 students.
The percentage of students in special education is well above the state average of 14.9 percent.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” Kosinski said. “I’ve said to the principals all along that I’d rather identify a student, err on the side of caution, then not identify them and them not have the help they need.”
The school corporation conducts a count of its special education students on Dec. 1 each year.
On Dec. 1, 2014, 37 students with an autism spectrum disorder were counted in Brown County Schools — about 2 percent of students.
Kosinski said parents and health professionals have become more aware of autism and ADD, and more parents are coming forward asking that their child be tested, Kosinski said.
The school corporation works with its psychologist, Jim Nelson, as well as the Career Resource Center’s Shannon Brunton and interns from Indiana University to evaluate students for suspected disabilities such as autism.
Evaluations can include IQ tests, achievement tests, looking at how the student functions in the world and how the student communicates.
“These evaluations are massively comprehensive and expensive,” Kosinski said.
A student with ADD can be educationally identified as having a health impairment, an emotional disability or a learning disability, depending on how the disorder affects the child and whether a doctor has diagnosed it.
Among all special education students, Brown County Schools has more speech/language impaired students and learning disabled students than any other category, Kosinski said.
In December 2014, 126 speech students were counted.
Students with specific learning disabilities, like dyslexia, dyscalculia or dysgraphia, numbered 228.
Dyscalculia is a severe difficulty in making math calculations due to a brain disorder. Dysgraphia is similar but relates to writing.
“Speech and language is certainly one where kids come in and go out and come in and go out. Some students stay in speech and language for their entire school career — it’s a smaller percentage,” Kosinski said.
In December 2015, 166 students had language/speech impairment as a secondary disability.
“It’s quite common to have two (disabilities) where speech is the other one, like learning disability with some speech,” he said.
How it works
A case conference is set up to decide whether a student is eligible for special education.
At the table are a parent/guardian, at least one special education teacher and a school administrator who can put services in place, like Kosinski or a school principal.
If a child is eligible, the first question asked is: Can they be in the general class?
Adaptions can be made in the classroom. A student may be allowed to go a resource room to work on their speech and language or to get help on specific subjects, or have a paraprofessional in the classroom. The corporation employs about 30 paraprofessionals, Kosinski said.
Parents have a right to refuse special education services or remove their child from special education at any time.
It may be to their advantage for parents to enroll and keep their child in special education, especially students identified to have emotional-behavioral disorders.
If a student is facing a suspension or expulsion, the committee determines if the student’s misconduct is related to his or her disability.
If it is, the student can’t be expelled, Kosinski said.
“It’s almost a selling point to parents, particularly in that emotional-behavioral, that, ‘Look, your child needs these services. They have extra protections. If they have a misconduct that is related to their disability, we’re going to figure out a way to keep them going in their curriculum,” he said.
Special education students also can be eligible for adaptions on standardized testing, like ISTEP.
“Not everyone student identified with a handicap has adaptations for the ISTEP test, but my guess would be it’s probably somewhere around 90 percent,” Kosinski said.
Those could include being allowed more time to finish the test, to receive the test in a small-group setting, to use a calculator, to have someone read through questions with them or to help them write down answers — but not give the answers.
Kosinski believes ISTEP adaptions also have led to more students being identified with learning disabilities.
“Why would a principal not want to have a student who is struggling and having a difficulty in school to be evaluated and maybe identified as a learning disability student, then have these advantages of being able to do better on the ISTEP test?” he said.
A student needs to be identified as having a disability, as listed in Indiana’s Article 7 special education rule, before they can begin to receive special education and related services.
Disabilities include speech or language, autism, hearing or vision impairments, developmental delays, emotional or mental disabilities, traumatic brain injury, a physical impairment or other health problems.
A case conference committee meets to decide whether a student is eligible for special education.
If a student is determined to need special education, an individualized education program is created, spelling out the accommodations or modifications and special education services to be provided. It is to be updated by the committee every year.
A parent can decide to not enroll their child in a special education program and can remove the child from the program at any time.
On Tuesday, April 26, a representative from Erskine Green Training Institute will give a vocational training presentation for people with disabilities. It will take place at 5 p.m. in Room 411 at Brown County High School.
The Erskine Green Training Institute was developed by the Arc of Indiana Foundation, a statewide advocacy organization for people with disabilities. Its goal is to train participants in the hospitality, food service and health care industries and help them find jobs.
The program is open to students with any disability. Students have to be at least 18 and have exited high school; no diploma is required.
For more information, contact Barb Kelp at 812-988-5411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.