Special education director reviews programs with school board

By Kevin Smith

Special needs improvements were discussed in a presentation at a May 2019 Vermilion Board of Education meeting which included Little Anchors Preschool, school counseling services, highlights in pupil services, and future goals for the district.

Karen Blackburn, the special education director for Vermilion Local Schools, broke down the statistics at the meeting. As a result of an ongoing audit, the meeting was open to the public in order for them to see how the office spends its money. The Ohio Auditor of State’s office will be reviewing the financial plans.

From K-12, there are 359 students with disabilities, according to a presentation given at the meeting. This number includes students with specific learning disabilities, speech-language impairments, autism, emotional disturbances, intellectual disabilities, developmental delays, multiple disabilities, and other health impairments. 25 of these students are open enrolled in Vermilion schools, and 24 are open enrolled out. Additionally, there are 88 students with 504 plans.

“We have a lot going on, coming and going. Regardless of where the students are placed, we have to meet with schools and agencies and help with the IEP.”
Blackburn still must ensure that the IEP is correct for those enrolled out and attend all meetings for them as well.

Blackburn also drew attention to the breakdown of students with each disability, which influenced her spending decisions and improvements for the schools.
“What stood out to me is we have 42 students that are labeled with Autism in our district. That’s a pretty high number for me. Primarily, we are dealing with a specific learning disability or health impairments, but that number is pretty high up in the list of categories.”

Autism, specific learning disabilities, speech-language impairments, and other health impairments are the four most prevalent categories of disabilities in the Vermilion Local School district.

“What we have tried to do is build a comprehensive program that if you start in a program in kindergarten, there’s something similar when you move to Vermilion High School. We tried very hard to look at the needs of kids to determine if we need that program at that building level.”

“Next year we are a little low in our community-based classroom at VHS, but if we look at what’s coming, we have high numbers coming up through the next two grade levels. So, we are looking for ways to creatively use that teacher until they come the year after next.”

Under the current plans, The district will have 2 Intervention Specialists, 2 APE teachers, 2 OT/COTA, 2 PT/PTA, 2 SLPs and 1 Transition Coordinator. Vermilion Elementary School will receive 7 intervention specialists, VHS will receive 8 intervention specialists, and Sailorway Middle School will receive 7 intervention specialists, with one Speech-Language Pathologist who will split their time between schools.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time teaching our general education teachers to be trauma-informed and trauma responsive and to build and embed social/emotional skills in their curriculum,” Blackburn said. “Our intervention specialists are working on specific behavior skills, executive functioning. They are building life skills. One of our community-based rooms now has a partnership with the hotel… We have some that are going to the APL.”

Blackburn credited nurses for their research into the effects of trauma on students, and also credited counselors and maintenance staff for being the “front line.”
Other social and emotional supports that she named included general education teachers, community navigators, support services, intervention specialists, SBHC, and college and career readiness preparation.

In order to improve these supports, VES would receive community-based services, behavior support room and services, inclusion services, executive function coach for ADHD, emotional regulation, and autism, adapted physical education services. SMS would receive community-based services, behavior support room and services, an executive function coach (ADHD, autism), inclusion services, and adapted physical education services. VHS would receive community-based services, behavior support room and services (internalizing and externalizing), executive function course, workforce development, transition coordinator, academic prep, double-dip classes (math, English), inclusion classes, and adapted physical education services.

Little Anchors Preschool is looking to increase to 80 spots from its current 56. 9 other students are in other area preschools and home settings, but are served. A total of 28-32 students with disabilities are served within the program, according to Blackburn.

Additionally, Little Anchors Preschool showed full compliance with licensure during a site review and earned a 5 star Step up Quality rating, according to Blackburn.
“We did focus on early literacy skills and bought Preschool Fundations. Our kids are getting Fundations at the very smallest level and going through that curriculum as they go through the elementary school.”

However, Blackburn would like to continue to improve the school. In the future, she said that Little Anchors will include more focused instruction at the developmental levels, expand community partnerships, strengthen support for children too young to attend, increase home visits and supports, increase differentiation within the classroom setting, and continue to work with VES teachers to better prepare the students academically and behaviorally for kindergarten.

Furthermore, she would like to increase the number of community partners, which will allow for more programs and activities for the students.
“Community partners are ones that come in do presentations and allow us to see their sites, and they sign an agreement with our preschool,” Blackburn said.
Some of the community partners of Little Anchors include Firelands Symphony Orchestra, Vermilion Police Department, Vermilion Township Fire Department, Giant Eagle, Schoepfle Gardens, and Burnham Orchards.

Blackburn would also like to start educating students at a younger age once a week with the help of new community partners.
“One of the things we’re considering doing is changing our model a bit. We’re a five day a week preschool and other preschools around us are four days a week.” Blackburn said. “We’re looking to do a partnership with Help Me Grow and the library to do a birth-to-3 program at the library that Friday so that we can get kids immersed in literacy from an early age.”

Monthly parent involvement events are planned to strengthen the bonds between families and the school, according to Blackburn. Family literacy night and graduation are two of the bigger family engagement events of the year.

The presentation also highlighted Pupil Services, which saw the introduction of new open enrollment procedures, the introduction of the multi-tiered systems of supports model, and completion of the application for a 3-year cohort for implementation, expansion of at-risk programming to include executive functioning skills and behavioral programming, and a proposal for a school-based health center to include, physical health, dental health, mental and behavioral health.

The schools also entered into a collaborative agreement to provide asthma support and training to students and families, instituted a social-emotional screener for grades pre-k through 7th grade, and preparing to expand to grades 8-12, and reapplied for the School Medicaid Program which brings additional funds to the district, according to Blackburn.
In the future, Blackburn said the school would develop a comprehensive college and career readiness plan for Pre-K to 12th grade, create family support meetings for students new to special education, coordinate care meetings for a multi-agency/service approach, continue collaboration and development of social/emotional support services, assist in the development of tier 2 and tier 3 supports for the district-wide multi-tiered systems of supports, review Title 1 programs for quality and efficiency (reading and add math), add a social-emotional screener for grades 8th-12th, and add a problem solving team process to VHS.

Vermilion Local Schools Superintendent Phil Pempin was impressed by the presentation and instructed the board members to review all the changes.
“That’s one thing interesting thing about a small district. We don’t have a lot of resources,” he said. “The bigger you are, in some ways, the easier it is. These things all have to be done by a limited number of people on staff by Karen.

“The important thing is we have a process and we have talented people working on this and we told you that we’d come back with some strategic plans, and this is the beginning of it.”

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