Monday, February 3, 2014

Outside the Averages: Some Very Special Students

A good friend of mine has two lovely daughters that are about the same age as my sons.  When one of the girls was very young, a tumor began to grow and wrap itself around her spinal cord and the base of her brain.  This caused developmental delays and physical issues that continue to manifest themselves as she has matured into her 20's.  I had the honor of bestowing a diploma on her for her good works in high school. She is quick with a smile, loves computer games and hates it when the Royals lose.  She works at a job during the day and with her parents support is happy and as healthy as can be expected. She has been successful because she has a loving family and she got a free and appropriate public education.
I have been thinking about my friend as I hear politicians talk about the $250,000 classroom.  In a throwaway line in the state of the state speech, the governor did a quick math problem and said an average classroom in Kansas gets $250,000 a year. Some have claimed this number is inaccurate, others say it is a sign of inefficiencies.  But is it? (For more on this see The Quarter Million Dollar Classroom http://www.kasb.org/wcm/Advocacy_Research/Key_Issues/Classroom_Costs/wcm/_Advocacy_Research/Key_Issues/Classroom_Costs.aspx )
Averages are tricky and by definition don't tell the whole story.  We have all heard the story of the man with his head in the oven and feet in the freezer who, on average, is very comfortable.  So too it is with per pupil, or classroom funding.

Although I have been in all kinds of classrooms in my career, I popped in for a visit at a nearby school for a reminder of some of the challenging students like my friends daughter schools are called upon to educate.  

Let me stop and challenge every board member, patron, or policy-maker who has not done so recently to visit one of these classrooms in your local area.  

When you visit you will be struck first by the joy that exists in these classrooms.  It is a reminder that we provide educational services to all children not because it is the law, but because it is the right thing to do.  You may not recognize the educational goals, but you will recognize the joys and frustration of teaching and learning. I visited after lunch and saw one child who was working on a developmental goal of sitting upright in her wheelchair for 30 minutes. (A requirement because of her feeding and breathing tubes.) The teacher was patient and the girl worked hard while growing tired and frustrated.  

You will also notice the adult to student ratio is very high.  In the classroom I visited for grades 1-5, only one student had complete bathroom control.  All others were learning.  Two students were in wheelchairs and had feeding tubes.  One student required being aspirated by her full-time nurse.  All of the students had a wide range of needs that were being met.  I asked the teacher how many adults were involved in providing services to these students.  Her response:

Adaptive PE teacher

Speech and Language teacher
Occupational Therapist
Physical Therapist
Vision and Hearing impaired teacher
Nurse
Special Education Teacher
Social worker
School Psychologist
Counselor
Administrator
Four full-time paras
There were five students in the classroom, and while the first words out of the teacher's mouth were "I love my job," I challenge anyone to keep up with the level of activity that I witnessed in that room. Not so obvious is the specialized training that each staff member has to have, based upon the individual student's needs.  From CPR and first aide to emergency feeding and medical services, to instructional tech, these educators are all highly skilled and trained.

A visitor will also notice that the physical accouterments of this classroom are very different from the typical elementary room.  There is a large bathroom with a changing table and area.  There is a shower room that doubles as a sensory room for students who need a break from bright lights.  The teachers use iPads and computer programs as instructional tools, and there are various apparatus for enhancing student mobility such as wheelchairs, carts, machines that help with standing, and others that help with crawling.  Large notebooks line shelves and each contains a daily record of medical issues experienced.


When asked about the requirements of educating special education students, the KASB legal staff often cite a case in which the judge said schools are expected to provide a Chevy, not a Cadillac education.  The room I visited was not a Coupe Deville, nor was it Cobalt, more like a nice Chevy Impala.  So how much does that classroom cost?


It's hard to say.  One full-time teacher and four aides would be about $140,000. Services provided by the other adults are based upon the individual education plan for each student.  An educated guess would put the other adults at about $60,000.  Add to that the other costs provided in the KASB study (http://www.kasb.org/wcm/Advocacy_Research/Key_Issues/Classroom_Costs/wcm/_Advocacy_Research/Key_Issues/Classroom_Costs.aspx ) and you have $375,000; include extra expenses for special transportation requirements and room and equipment needs, and my best estimate is closer to $400,000.  For these five students, at about $12,000 per student, the district receives $72,000 in total state funding. The remaining $328,000 must be made up from the district budget.

The mid-sized district I visited has three of these classrooms. There are thousands of high needs students being served in Kansas schools. Students that up until ten years ago were served in state hospitals were returned home to be educated in their public schools.  Public schools proudly serve all students: your children, your grandchildren, your neighbor’s children, and my friend’s child.  And in my opinion, it is worth every penny. Go visit and see for yourself.

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