How Alaska’s Master’s Prepared Educators are Identifying Children with Special Needs
According to the US Department of Education, Alaska is home to a higher proportion of students with learning disabilities than the national average (6.2% versus 5.2% nationally) and a larger overall proportion of students with disabilities that require some form of accommodation in the classroom (13.4% versus 12.9% nationally). US DOE statistics show how this broke down:
- 7,401 students with a specific learning disability diagnosis
- 2,451 students with a speech or language impairment
- 833 students with autism
- 666 students with emotional disturbances
- 619 students with an intellectual disability
- 143 students with hearing impairment
- 48 students with a traumatic brain injury
- 36 students with a visual impairment
As awareness has grown around previously misunderstood phenomena like autism and ADHD, the state’s education budget allocation for special education has increased accordingly. The 2008-2009 school year marked the first time Alaska spent more than $2 billion on education, and five years later that number was at $2.4 billion, largely due to funds allocated for special education programs and classroom accommodations. At around 120,000 students in total, that means Alaska spends more per student than any other state in the nation.
With more money being spent on education, one can expect Alaska’s Department of Education & Early Development to have a vigorous program in place for identifying special needs students – and it does. The “Child Find” Program was developed and written into the state’s administrative code as a way to actively identify children who would qualify for special education services. The success of the program depends on the master’s educated program directors, evaluators and teachers that work to find, identify and assist the state’s special needs students.
By law, Alaska’s special education directors are required to go well beyond the public school system in an effort to identify all children with special needs residing within their district. This would include:
- Children in private and public schools
- Juveniles who are incarcerated
- Children who are migrants or homeless
- Home-schooled children
- Children who have been expelled or suspended
Designing Programs to Accommodate the Unique Needs of Different Students
When youngsters believed to have special educational needs are identified, they are given referrals for an evaluation that looks at basic skills, general development, health, and other relevant criteria so the child can then take advantage of the appropriate programs and resources made available through agencies like the Anchorage Early Childhood and Special Education Department.
The overriding philosophy is that students are entitled to receiving special accommodations in the least restrictive environment possible. This means students that require relatively few accommodations might work with a master’s prepared special education teacher or teacher’s aid while remaining in the classroom with the general population of students.
Other options that the Anchorage School District makes available to students also rely on teachers that hold master’s degrees in special education:
Separate school at Mount Iliamna – A program designed or children who need significant behavior support. Aiming to develop social and behavioral skills, teachers work in an environment that allows for individually-tailored plans and attention.
Life skills classrooms – This program strives to develop social, functional academic, and independent living skills in students, who have continuous individual care throughout the day.
Extended resource classrooms – This program is for students who are having a notable delay in their academic progress. Supplemental curriculum material is introduced to support the general curriculum and students are individually monitored to track their success.
School-based behavioral support program – This program is designed to develop problem-solving and social skills for students with significant behavioral challenges. Students in this program may be at or near their normal academic level but exhibit behaviors that significantly disturb the learning of others.
Structured learning class – Students in this program are taught according to their grade level, with an emphasis being placed on classroom structure. The goal of this program is to develop students’ communications, living, and social skills.
How One Special Education Teacher is Making a Difference in Alaska While Earning Her Master’s Degree
Le’Esia O’Sullivan is an example of a special education teacher who is making an important difference in the lives of her students. Balancing a caseload of 18 elementary school students while at the same time working on her master’s in special education, O’Sullivan earned the distinction of being named Alaska’s Special Education “Teacher of the Year” this February.
Hailing from Manokotak Nunaniq School in the Southwest Region School District, O’Sullivan is known for building strong relationships with her students – getting to know them on a personal level – with the goal of figuring out exactly what special attention they need and making it happen.
O’Sullivan is also credited with participating in many community events outside of school where she inevitably meets students and their families, giving her a fuller understanding of her students’ home life and challenges they may be facing outside of school.