Special Education in Oklahoma: Serving a Growing Number of Students with Special Needs
With a special needs population approaching 15 percent of the 666,120 students enrolled in the Oklahoma public school system, the state is facing a greater challenge than most. Compare this to the national average, which shows just 13 percent of students requiring Individual Education Programs (IEP; a standard measure of special needs populations).
Moreover, the increase in Oklahoma has come rapidly. With the sudden rise of diagnoses for Asperger’s and other autism spectrum disorders (ASD), special education needs in the state increased by almost 50 percent between 1992 and 2015. According to the Oklahoma Autism Network (OAN), 1 in every 68 Oklahomans receives an autism diagnosis.
But at the same time the demand for specialized education was rising, Oklahoma schools were already taking steps to improve their services. By using the “least restrictive environment principle,” which attempts to place students in general education classrooms with their peers as often as possible, the state has succeeded in bringing almost 90 percent of students into mainstream statewide assessment. In fact, students taking the ACT rose from 75% to 80% in just one year between 2014 and 2015.
The state received a “Meets Requirements” rating for its special education programs from the US Department of Education in 2015, matching a string of similarly stellar assessments going back as far as 2004.
Master’s-Prepared Teachers are Key to the State’s Success
Making such important strides in Oklahoma hasn’t been easy. The special education teacher to student ratio in the state is 23:1, well above the 6:1 ratio recommended for special education classrooms. The state also has among the lowest per-student funding rates in the country, only $7,672 per pupil, putting it in 48th place among all fifty states.
Such numbers demand teachers with exceptional training and abilities, particularly those who have gone through master’s degree programs in special education.
Thoughtful and useful approaches to common problems are a hallmark of Oklahoma’s approach. An innovative online tool called “IEP At A Glance” helps keep parents connected with teachers and the child’s unique education plan. The Oklahoma Department of Education maintains dedicated resources for parents and families of special needs children.
The department also supports the Oklahoma Family Network, another non-profit resource site, and SoonerSuccess, a non-profit dedicated to working with both public and private sectors to promote a comprehensive, coordinated system for Oklahoma children with special healthcare needs.
Norman High School Master’s-Educated Teacher Recognized for Special Education Contributions
The importance of individual educators to Oklahoma’s special education programs has not gone unnoticed. In 2016, the state recognized Norman special education teacher Shawn Sheehan as Oklahoma teacher of the year.
Sheehan, who has a master’s degree in Special Education, wears multiple hats at Norman High School, teaching Algebra I to 9th graders in addition to his special education duties. After only four years at the school, though, Sheehan’s motivation and talent brought him to the attention of the state Department of Education.
A 2013 campaign Sheehan launched called “Teach Like Me” reached out well beyond his own classroom and Norman High School, motivating fellow educators and improving public perceptions of special education, which is sometimes misunderstood. Encouraging others to earn master’s degrees and get into teaching motivates Sheehan. With more teachers like him in the Oklahoma special education system, special education students are sure to continue to excel there.