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Districts focus on special needs

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Greenwood school leaders want to do a better job ensuring that special education students understand everything they’re being taught in class, and they are adding a position specifically to oversee how those students are taught.

About 13 percent of about 23,000 students enrolled at Johnson County’s six public school districts were a part of special education programs during the 2012-13 school year, and that rate has held steady over the past five years, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

Local school districts have been looking for ways to improve special education students’ understanding of what’s being taught in their math, language arts and other core classes, which are assessed on the state’s ISTEP exam. Center Grove plans to hire an administrator who will train teachers and ensure the nearly 1,000 students enrolled in the district’s special education program are being taught in a way that helps them best understand each lesson.

Greenwood had 473 students in its special education program last year, meaning the students were formally evaluated and determined to have some kind of physical or mental disability.

The students have individualized education plans targeted toward helping them learn, and some learn through specific ways. For example, they might need to have instructions written for them a certain way or have a teacher demonstrate what they’re being asked to do, director of secondary education Rick Ahlgrim said.

But special education students also spend part of their school day in traditional classrooms, and teachers don’t always know the best ways to work with them when they don’t understand what’s being taught, Ahlgrim said.

Greenwood’s new director of special education, who will start Jan. 1, will help change that.

The new director’s job will be to ensure Greenwood complies with all of Indiana’s special education laws and that all special education students are being taught the best way possible, Ahlgrim said.

“Bringing this person on board is going to help us bring more complete and rigorous attention on the instruction side, getting all students, when they struggle, successful,” Ahlgrim said.

Decades ago, students in special education programs spent most of their time at school in separate classrooms. But Indiana’s laws have changed, and special education students spend as much time in traditional classes as possible.

Greenwood’s new director will review how well special education students understand what they’re being taught and see if their teachers need to make any adjustments. Ahlgrim said the director then will work with teachers on ways to quickly create new lessons or presentations for special education students when they get stuck.

He said those lessons also will benefit students who aren’t a part of the special education program, because their teachers will have new ways to instruct them as well.

“There’s going to be benefit for bringing this person on beyond just the special education department,” Ahlgrim said.

“The more we learn about students who struggle, the more we understand that everybody struggles. And we really are coming to understand that we educate best when we understand that there aren’t special education students and general education students, and that they’re students.”

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