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Special Education on an Upward Trend in Rhode Island
Like most states, Rhode Island’s classrooms and teachers have been inundated over the past decade by a generation of children afflicted with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Ranging from relatively functional students with Asperger’s all the way to students with full-blown Rett Syndrome or childhood disintegrative disorder.
The Rhode Island Department of Education, or RIDE, is the state agency responsible for managing the budgeting and administration of special education programs and accommodations for the state’s 318 public and 18 charter schools. Like other state education agencies, RIDE is largely governed by the federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) legislation passed in 2004.
Rhode Island was one of the few states to receive the highest “Meets Requirements” level that first year. But for each of the following five years, the rating dipped and RIDE struggled to meet educational objectives for their special needs population.
Happily, as of 2015 Rhode Island is once again back among the states that meet federal requirements. Master’s-educated special education teachers have been critical in helping the state recover.
Putting Special Needs Students in Regular Classrooms is Key to Rhode Island’s Success
To regain their federal “Meets Requirements” status and keep it, RIDE instituted a State Systemic Improvement Plan (SSIP) to outline the steps necessary to improve education outcomes for special needs students. More than 17 percent of Rhode Island students are in an Individual Education Plan (IEP, a standard designation for special needs students), far more than the 13 percent national average.
One category of the SSIP involves moving special needs students into the same classrooms as their general education peers as often as possible—a technique known as least restrictive environment, or LRE. Often placed in classrooms that are co-taught by a general education teacher and a master’s-educated special education teacher, the special needs students are involved as much as is practical with regular educational processes.
In Rhode Island, that includes taking state-standardized progress tests along with the general education population. The Partnership for Assessment Readiness of Colleges and Careers (PARCC) standardized test is the one used by the state, and in 2014, better than 98 percent of IEP students were able to take it along with their general education peers.
Talented Teachers Are Needed to Manage Co-Taught Classrooms
Preparing special needs students to handle standardized testing takes a special kind of talent. Rhode Island recognized just such a teacher as their 2017 Teacher of the Year.
A teacher at Beacon Charter High School, Nick Giannopoulos co-teaches classes in algebra, chemistry, and filmmaking. His talent at working together with his co-teacher and managing the combined classroom has helped to ensure more and more of his IEP students achieve the same level of academic success as their general population classmates.
Giannopoulos also handles the creation of transition plans and evaluations for all the IEP students at the high school, keeping him intimately involved with the progress of all special needs children at the school. His greatest award, he says, is not the teacher of the year recognition from the state, but the knowledge that he has been able to help his students over the years.
Giannopoulos’ name will be on the list as a potential national teacher of the year in April 2017. Whether he wins or not, he and other Rhode Island special education teachers are already at the top of the list in the eyes of their own students.