Cumberland Times-News

February 17, 2011

Mineral residents, staff give tearful plea for special education

Emily Newman
Cumberland Times-News

— KEYSER, W.Va. — Tuesday night’s standing-room-only Mineral County Board of Education meeting was emotionally charged as several people took the floor to defend the special education positions that could potentially be on the chopping block. Both Tom Denne, director of psychological services, student assessment and student services, and Karen Wegener, assistant principal at Keyser Primary Middle School, entreated that the board remember the words of Margaret Meade.

“Societies can be judged at how they take of those who cannot take care of themselves,” said Denne.

Wegener also quoted the concept, saying that she “hopes that in Mineral County, we can judge ourselves in a better way.” She prefaced the quote by saying that teachers are the most important factor for a child’s success and removing any of them, or the aides, would be an injustice.

“If we’re going to remove these teachers, we’re going to do a disservice to our students,” said Wegener.

Susan Grady, director of personnel, explained at the previous board meeting that the system they use to determine which positions are cut is based on both seniority across the county and the endorsements, or certifications, that people have. As it stands, there are two special education aide positions that could potentially be eliminated for next school year.

“It was stressed that these actions are recommendations only,” said Grady, adding that on Feb. 22, the board will get the chance to vote on any transfers and contract action.

Grady further explained the factors involved in deciding when and if positions need to be cut.

“All areas were evaluated for possible personnel actions ... recommendations brought to the board take into consideration county-wide positions. It’s a review process ... it’s an ongoing process and it changes every day almost,” said Grady.

Susan Vance, director of special education, said that while she was informed the caseload numbers are down, that is not true for the actual students.

“I don’t see those declining numbers in special education at the middle school and high school levels,” said Vance, who added that one of the reasons for declining numbers at the elementary level is the Response to Intervention numbers.

Wegener describes RTI as as a universal screening process that examines individual students and their needs. From kindergarten to third grade, students are given a Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills test. In fourth grade and up, they are evaluated through the state-mandated WesTest.

Vance said that there are 25 different groups that special education students can be identified in. Wegener said that in the second tier, each student is given 30-minute blocks to learn the DIBELS and WesTest skills and to be evaluated. Each student needs to complete 100 30-minute blocks in order to move onto the next tier. Wegener said that while students are technically special education, it could a take a while to evaluate them as such.

“The process could take several years, and it wasn’t until last year that the state decided that anything that we had done previously to last year would not count,” said Wegener. “Our special education teachers are vital in this process. ... These students aren’t on their official caseload, but they provide all the documentation for these students, they provide services for these students and these students would not be getting the help they need if these special education teachers were not there to help.”

Denne’s portion of the presentation was impassioned, and he questioned board members if they remembered when the county’s special education program was a “beacon of hope.” He named outgoing superintendent Skip Hackworth’s first year at Mineral County as the best year for special education and said he was still angry that the Clary Street special education facility closed.

“It isn’t about what we give them, it’s about what they give us. ... It’s just this beautiful thing,” said Denne.

Denne’s dedication and passion for the students was evident to board member Craig Rotruck.

“The compassion that I’ve seen here tonight, I hope somewhere along the line you all touch my children,” said Rotruck.

Board member Mary Aronhalt, who mentioned that she has a granddaughter who will one day be in the special education program, also supported the presentation.

“I will do everything in my power to see what I can do,” said Aronhalt.

The last person to comment was Lori Burns, whose son Ian is a first-grader at Keyser Primary Middle School. A tearful Burns said that Ian, who was napping intermittently in the arms of one of his teachers in the audience, had a traumatic brain injury in infancy and has cerebral palsy, a vision disorder and a seizure disorder.

“He can’t talk, he can’t walk. He is totally dependent on others for his safety, nutrition, socialization, hygiene, as well as education,” said Burns.

Because Ian has no way of outward communication, Burns said, it’s important that the relationships around him stay constant. Ian has a personal care, one-on-one aide who takes care of all aspects of Ian’s life. Burns said that when the aide develops a relationship with a child, the aide learns all of the subtleties about that child and better understands him.

“This relationship is not something that’s quickly developed,” said Burns, challenging the board to imagine the difficulties in learning to trust a new aide and asking the board only “to make informed decisions.”

Burn’s speech drew tears from many in the packed audience.

“Please note that the decisions you make are more than about just the decision, they’re about the future of children, children like Ian,” said Burns.

Emily Newman can be contacted at enewman@times-news.com.