Intervention aids students and savings Program gets jump on trouble, skirts special education

'It's a group approach'

At 16 schools, a 25% decline in more costly referrals

June 09, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

At a time of fiscal belt-tightening, Howard County school board members are putting more money into a little-known program that helps students with academic or behavioral problems before they require expensive special education services.

Dubbed the "instructional consultation model," the program sets up teams of teachers, administrators and psychologists in schools to work with children, some of whom otherwise might be funneled into more costly programs for those with physical or psychological disabilities.

At the 16 schools where the 4-year-old program is in effect, officials report a 25 percent drop in the number of students referred to more expensive special education programs.

The program serves a wide variety of students, including many performing below their academic abilities who likely would not be referred to special education.

But school officials are particularly intrigued by the decline in the number of students referred to special education at schools where the program is in place.

Special education makes up about 11 percent of the system's $240 million budget. With that in mind, school board members have decided to put an additional $220,000 into the cost-saving program, expanding it to six more schools in September.

They say the program -- one of the few areas in the budget singled out by the board for expansion next year -- is the only thing they've seen that offers hope of limiting the costs without reducing special education services to those students who need it.

"Special education has the potential of requiring an incredible amount of resources," said Stephen Bounds, the board member who was most vocal in pushing for the program to be expanded. "It's scary, and we need to do something about it."

A similar program in Pennsylvania has seen special education referral rates drop by as much as 50 percent, Bounds said.

But supporters also warn that while the initial results are encouraging, more time and evaluation will be needed to see if they hold up over time.

"It's possible that these kids may pop up later in the process," said Sandra Marx, the school system's director of special education. Still, board members and many school staff say the money to hire three more psychologists is well-spent if it can stem the spiraling growth in special education costs, which over the past five years have increased 50 percent faster than the school system's budget.

To receive special education services, students must have a documented physical, emotional or learning difficulty. The school system's special education population is 4,100 students, out of a total enrollment of about 37,000.

But in many schools, special education had become the only place to send students whose problems may have gone unnoticed for years and who simply needed extra, individualized attention.

"With the traditional model, a teacher had to try to solve everything on her own, and if it wasn't working, the teacher decided that maybe the student had to be tested for special education," said Eleonore Krebs, the school system's supervisor psychological services. "No matter how benign they are, labels do create stereotypes."

The instructional consultation program has decreased the need for teachers to turn to special education for students with whom they are having problems.

"We no longer have teachers deciding that they don't know how to handle a student and figuring they'll just refer the student to special education," said Margie McMahon, a special education teacher at Mount View Middle School. "With this program, now they have another option to try to diagnose the problem and solve it."

Under the team approach, each school sets up a team of teachers, administrators and a psychologist who become experts on "problem-solving."

Teachers who have problems handling a particular student -- ranging from spelling troubles that can't be solved to a pupil's refusal to complete assignments to simple misbehavior -- can ask the team for advice.

"The philosophy is to intervene early rather than wait for students to fail," said Todd Gravois, the system psychologist who most closely oversees the program.

The program, now in 13 elementary and three middle schools, appears to be working. A study of the cases handled in the schools found that 75 percent of the students demonstrated academic improvement.

And students with a wide-range of academic abilities have been helped by the program, as teachers are encouraged to seek assistance whenever any students are performing below expectations.

At Mount View Middle recently, sixth-grade teachers struggled with how to improve the work habits of a student who had "shut down" with the onset of spring.

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