Minnesota schools set a strong example for special education programs

Tiana Meador, Print Photographer


Special education, appreciated
Information graphic by Tiana Meador

Education in the U.S. is something that is valued highly among anyone who wants to grow up to be successful. But not everyone used to get a shot at the jobs that could only come along with a high school diploma and college degree. Up until 1983, when the U.S. introduced the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children and adults with a disability were most often than not, denied an education by public schooling. In modern day, IDEA has expanded to nearly every school and offers these unique ranges of students access to a more flexible learning system.

Students and Equal Treatment

During school, each student is valued equally, but is not the same to his or her peer. ‘Same’ and ‘equal’ are not synonymous in their meaning to student learning. Therefore in a classroom setting, if disabled students do not get the assistance they need, they are not of equal value, the same principle going for higher functioning and average students. Each student is valued equally, leaving the current education systems to create adapted ways of tending to the needs of everyone, allowing for integration and extra assistance in the classroom to students who may need it.

Junior Michael Cveykus said, “I believe it [integration] is beneficial because disabled people [students] are still people, so if we include them in activities, they will be more comfortable and we will be more comfortable as well. Especially say, if someone had a [disabled] friend like my brother, once you begin to notice how you need to treat them, it will be normal. Say you meet someone new, you treat them a certain way, same principle, you know how to deal with it.”

Minnesota’s System

As of 2012, Minnesota topped the charts for the highest percentage (88.3 percent) of enrolled disabled students graduating, and continues to stay within the top five states. Statistics such as these show that the school workforce within Minnesota and Stillwater provide some of the greatest environments for these students.

Cathy Lombritto, a special education paraprofessional at Stillwater Area High School said “On a daily basis, a paraprofessional is there to support the student in what they are required to do or assist with their goals. Some of us work in regular classrooms to support and others work in transition to help with obtaining job skills.”

Lombritto added, “Paraprofessionals are a support piece that is individualized to each child, but we do work with many students. We help and then we pull back so the student can learn to repeat what they learned. The goal is to work to get a job, like any teen it is ‘what do you want to do’ and ‘what do you have to do’. So we are there to support in ways by teaching skills that will be able to added onto in the future.”

Education Is Important

Inclusive education is important to everyone, because everyone wants to secure a safe future. Each student, disabled or not, learns in an environment where being together is important. Disabled students should not be counted out solely because their ability does not match that of their average peers. The education offered to these students allows for development of academic skills that were not present prior, a vision of a typical life for their future, development of friendships and a positive understanding of the world, personal boundaries and what is acceptable.

When student integration is put into play, the students without disabilities learn new social cognition skills and gain a greater understanding of acceptance among diversity in student behavior, ability, knowledge and appearance. By experiencing inclusive education and interacting with integrated students, average students gain exposure in a way that would not have been available otherwise.

On a daily basis, a paraprofessional is there to support the student in what they are required to do or assist with their goals. Some of us work in regular classrooms to support and others work in transition to help with obtaining job skills.”

— Cathy Lambritto

Jennifer Manning, a physical education teacher at Stillwater Junior High School, who has also worked with adapted students said, “I think what really works well is the student assistants. Students can take an elective class to be an adapted physical education assistant, so they help me help students be successful in class activities. I always tell them before they start that they will end up learning more from the students than they will probably learn from me,  I have even had former students go on to be special education teachers as well. Other than that, I have seen students become more accepting of kids with disabilities, celebrating their successes.”
“Who am I to say that if someone is shooting a basketball, that they’re supposed to teach them to shoot overhand? Because a kid with special needs may shoot underhand, they’re successful, so who am I to say that that is wrong for them to do that? That is our goal. So I have seen a lot more kids helping, cheering and celebrating their successes,” Manning added.
On a daily basis, a paraprofessional is there to support the student in what they are required to do or assist with their goals. Some of us work in regular classrooms to support and others work in transition to help with obtaining job skills.
Being involved in the special education field is not easy by any means. Compared to other professions in the education field, special education holds the highest “burn-out” rate for teachers. By five years, at least 50 percent of the initial teachers in the field have left, and another 50 percent of the remaining teachers by 10 years; equating to a 75 percent turnover rate. In the classroom, it is expected that students will be at different ability levels, and all learn differently and understand different concepts at certain times. Individual teaching practices and specialized instruction then becomes challenging when there are students with bigger gaps in ability and are multi-aged.

Debra Gray, in collaboration with Jon McAllister, Nicole Schroepfer, and Amy Hoffman, all special education teachers at SAHS said, “[The difficulties faced are] Teaching appropriate behavior and meeting all the ability levels.  Also, because many of my students are very vulnerable, we need to teach them how to be safe, and active participants in the community.”

Integration Teaches New Skills

When students with disabilities are educated alongside their general peers, many abilities are learned that would have otherwise not been taught. Disabled students learn the age appropriate skills by imitation, something that cannot be instructed. Not only does integration provide challenge and exposure to the students without disabilities, but this new environment challenges disabled students to learn new ways around conflicts, similar to that of how the real world will be. With the assistance of paraprofessionals, these students learn developmentally advanced skills and become more individual. Accompanying this, the friendships formed in an integrated environment allows for the students to form new friendships and a better self image when their routine is changed and put into the general classroom.

Gray and her colleagues added, “Just remember, it is not a choice. Everyone is just trying their best to get through the day, and many of these kids have more on their plate. Remember the Golden Rule- ‘treat others like you want to be treated.'”

The special education program is something of high importance to a fair amount of families around the district. And as long as the importance of education stays a priority, so will the needs of every individual student, big or small, tall or short, able or disabled.
If there are learning disabilities, than the abilities of that individual are just different than most people. That does not mean it is a bad thing, their ability just varies from other people. It is like wearing eyeglasses; if are you not allowed to wear eyeglasses, how would you read a book? But if you are given eyeglasses, is that cheating? Is that giving you an advantage? Is that unfair to the others? No. It is helping people find the way they need to learn so they can be successful and apply it in life,” said Lombritto.