Coachella Valley school districts say improving student behavior and mental health will no longer be just a job for special education teachers.
Over the past few years, the three Coachella Valley school districts have implemented “tiered support systems” to address negative student behavior before automatically directing students to special education programs that can be done. expensive and restrictive for learning.
“It is not because they have a behavior problem that they are in special education. They just need to learn to manage their behaviors, ”said Ester Almazan, a special education teacher at Sea View Elementary School in Salton City, who has tried such a system for the Coachella Valley Unified School District, which serves the eastern end of the valley.
Almazan said that in the first year of implementing the support systems, the school of 577 students saw fewer disciplinary referrals and overall positive changes in campus culture. She hopes the framework will work in the other 20 schools in the district.
Coachella Valley Unified administrators and teachers have pushed the tiered approach as a remedy to reduce unnecessary referrals to special education.
These efforts were revived after a third-party audit report released in July found that the district was providing special education services to students who did not need them.
School districts across the state are grappling with a growing population of students participating in special education services, amid declining overall enrollment, which determines funding for students with disabilities.
This year, the Desert Sands Unified School District will launch a five-year plan to fully standardize the tiered approach by the 2023-2024 school year.
For the district’s New Year, which began Thursday, administrators added three mental health professionals to the payroll to support the efforts.
Coachella Valley Unified educators are also hoping for a full implementation.
The Palm Springs Unified School District, which serves western valley communities, has never officially implemented the tiered approach, but its schools have used almost identical methods for several years.
“We teach all students social skills in the classroom,” said Anne Kalisek, executive director of student support services in the district. “If a student starts having difficulty, our school counselors re-teach those social skills. “
The district, which for the first time has counselors in all of its elementary schools, also offers small group counseling and individual counseling based on the needs of the student.
In their support for the new approach, educators and experts said it was not just a program or program to buy, but a framework for using existing resources to help. students to be successful in their studies, to manage their behavior and to maintain their social and emotional health.
“Just as we would actively and explicitly do, teach kids what letters and numbers are, actively teach kids what behaviors we want to see,” said Austin Johnson, registered psychologist and assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside Graduate School. psychology program.
The system has three levels.
- The first “level” encourages positive behavior and minimizes classroom punishment. Almazan said rewarding positive behavior is a more effective approach that improves expression and communication between students and teachers. “You have to focus on the behaviors you want to see, not what you don’t want to see,” she said. “It’s about being very positive.”
- The second and third levels of support require more individualized attention. The second level of support may include one-on-one meetings with teachers for students who regularly experience seizures or who have difficulty adjusting to the classroom setting.
- A third level intervention may involve visits to a mental health professional.
It’s not just jargon
While such a system might sound like jargon for providing struggling students with one-on-one attention – a practice already intuitive for many teachers – Johnson said applying it to a school or an entire district can help students better. to learn empathy while improving their grades.
“Teachers could do their own thing with student assessment,” he said. “But if everyone’s system of understanding children is fractured, then we have no way of thinking about level two supports.”
Teachers and counselors may realize that a student, while receiving these three levels of support, is eligible for special education services.
“It can reduce over-identification for special education and it is proven that in other districts,” said Ashley Sincosky, a special assignment teacher at Coachella Valley Unified who consults with special education teachers through the district and oversees the reorganization of the department after July. Audit.
At Coachella Valley Unified, teachers hope the tiered approach will prevent inflating the student population receiving individual services and reduce pressure on the district budget, which operates with a multimillion-dollar deficit that has resulted in massive layoffs in recent years. .
In 2018-19, the district spent nearly $ 35 million on special education. Only about $ 12.9 million will be covered by state and federal funding. The district will pay the remainder through its general fund.
According to state data, the number of students receiving special education services has grown like clockwork every year. This steady increase, coupled with annual declines in overall enrollments, has disrupted the finances of the district as federal and state funding for special education is largely determined by the total number of students in a district.
The system helps to comply with the law
But Sincosky says the new system isn’t about keeping services away from students who need them. Rather, it is about keeping students in the least restrictive environment possible under federal law.
On the one hand, districts are required to provide the necessary services to students with disabilities. In addition, school districts are prohibited from factoring in costs when deciding what services a student needs.
However, the district must also keep students in the least restrictive environment, a setting that most closely resembles a regular general education classroom.
According to valley educators, the tiered approach helps districts comply with both sides of federal special education laws.
“We do not put [it] in place to reduce overidentification in special education, but to ensure that students receive the right services. But that will most likely reduce references to special education, ”said Laura Fisher, assistant superintendent of education services for the Desert Sands Unified School District, which serves mid-valley communities and has begun to implement such practices. three years ago.
“The more support we give them outside of special education, the more independent they will be in the long run,” Sincosky said, citing research showing that students placed in more restrictive classroom environments have long-term difficulty both in their studies and in behavior management. .
“Children who are taught only in a special education environment are the ones who are most likely to end up in prison,” she said. “These things have an impact on society as a whole.”
At Coachella Valley Unified Sea View Elementary School in Salton City, which is entering its second year of using the approach, staff will focus on collecting data to better understand when and why students behave badly.
Ester Almazan, who will continue to oversee the implementation of the system, said it was crucial for teachers to model positive behavior.
“Modeling is the best way for students to adapt their behavior,” she said.
“I’m nicer than five years ago. If you are a role model, the students will learn.”
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Joe Hong covers education for The Desert Sun. Contact him at 760-778-4655 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ jjshong5.