St. Paul schools are mainstreaming students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, closing most classrooms at special centers for high-needs children. It works for some students, reports the Pioneer Press. But others are struggling. And some teachers aren’t getting special ed support.
Lenairion Cole went to school in a room for “bad kids” last year, and he rarely ventured out.
At St. Paul’s Bruce Vento Elementary this year, he is in a regular fifth-grade classroom. On his locker are his goals: “Do better at math.” “Do better at my behavior.”
Last year, the school’s learning center served about 45 students identified with problems ranging from severe depression and anxiety to bipolar disorder. The center had a teacher and two aides for every eight to 10 students. Math and reading proficiency scores were very low, well below scores for mentally retarded students.
The majority hardly ever left the center’s confines, said Catherine Butcher, the school’s special education coordinator.
“We felt that the students had to be perfect before we would let them go,” she said.
This fall, all former learning center students started in mainstream classrooms. Some, like Lenairion, are doing well. “I can learn better with a lot of kids instead of a bunch of bad kids that distracted me in class,” Lenairion said. “I work harder now.”
Others have acted out in class. Twenty percent of former learning center students are spend nearly the whole day in mainstream classes, said Elizabeth Keenan, who directs special education for the district. Another 20 percent are primarily in resource rooms. The rest are in between.
With special ed teachers in mainstream classrooms, “students have the same supports they had in the learning center,” Superintendent Valeria Silva told the school board. Some classes have two aides.
That’s not always true, reports the Pioneer Press.
At Bruce Vento, four classrooms that serve former learning center students don’t do any such co-teaching because they are not enough special education teachers. And entire grades share one aide among three or four classrooms.
On a recent walkthrough, Masini stepped in to calm an upset fourth-grader tossing books in the back of a classroom. The teacher is one of the school’s most talented educators, Masini said. But without a special education colleague to help, she’s had a stressful start of the year.
Last year at Frost Lake Elementary, “about 35 students with emotional and behavioral disabilities were referred out of the classroom for behavioral issues 739 times in the first two months of the year; this year, the same number of students had 438 referrals.” (Those numbers seem very high to me.)
“It’s messy. We’re not there yet,” said Principal Stacey Kadrmas. “We have varying degrees of teacher angst and students angst probably as well.”
More than 80 percent of EBD learning center students were black, although African-American children make up less than a third of the district’s enrollment, reports the Pioneer Press.
Reversing a trend of segregating students with special needs is a “moral imperative,” said Keenan. There’s also federal pressure.