Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Stimulus money may help special education students in Texas

From The Tribune in Humble, Texas:

Federal funds may help raise TAKS scores.

When the federal stimulus plan was announced last year, some skeptics doubted if those funds would reach local levels. Humble ISD’s educational support department is currently putting that money to good use, however, to the tune of $6.2 million. Referencing the special needs students benefiting from the program, director Sally LaRue commented, “There’s not one of them that doesn’t deserve it.”

In total, Texas is receiving $945 million in funding for school-age children served under the Individuals with Disabilities Act. LaRue and other district administrators spent three months planning how to spend their stimulus budget. General goals include training, staff development, and improvements to the curriculum and intervention. LaRue said that the district is attempting to create a universal design for learning, which will provide access to learning for all students.

One of the specific goals that the district plans for is to improve the transition from special education to general education, and to secondary education. LaRue said that the district also targeted some specific areas for improvement, such as autism training. Diagnoses of the condition have become more common, with some sources citing occurrences in up to 1 in 150 children. Currently, LaRue and her staff are looking across all environments to determine what kind of students are enrolled in the district, and what kind of training would be of the most benefit.

Other programs benefiting from the federal funds are Why Try, and 18 Plus. Why Try helps youth overcome their challenges and improve outcomes in the areas of truancy, behavior, and academics. 18 Plus provides educational assistance to students up to age 22, who “didn’t quite make it to graduation.”

“We want to make things better for kids with disabilities,” said LaRue. “We’ve seen some great collaborative efforts.” She added, “we are very appreciative of the money.”

Ken Schrader, director of Humble ISD special programs funding and accountability, said that the allocation for Title I programs amounted to $1,750,000. Schrader said that of that amount, 90 percent of the funds are going towards instructor salary and benefits.

“The majority of funding is going right into the classroom,” said Schrader. “The goals that the federal government had included keeping teachers employed.”

The Title I program requires a large supplemental staff due to its intrinsically high concentration of economically disadvantaged students. Schrader explained that there’s a correlation between economic disadvantages and achievement. Regarding Title I, Schrader said, “the basic intent is to level the playing field.”

Humble ISD currently has five schools that are classified as Title I. Schools qualify for the designation when 40 percent or more of the students receive free or reduced meals.

Parent involvement is particularly important, and required under the parental involvement section of Title I. Programs include Family Literacy Night, Family Math/Science Night, Bilingual Parent Night, and Adult ESL classes. Schrader said that the programs help parents understand what is going on in the classroom.

Application of district funds for Title I schools may assist in raising TAKS scores. An example is at North Belt Elementary, where students recently exhibited difficulty with TAKS testing. Schrader explained that the federal stimulus money can translate into resources that can increase reading skills.

Without the stimulus money, Schrader said that the Title I program would have “limped along.” He added, “it’s a huge challenge to come up to achievement levels we are looking for.”