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February 20, 2008 > Special education in high school

Special education in high school

By Justine Yan

The estimated percentage of school-aged children with special needs has reached 10 percent in the past few years.

Still, especially at the high school level, this significant percentage isn't obvious. Special education in high school builds on skills necessary for independence and vocational success after graduation.

Lorraine Riggio-Schwartz teaches a "Special Day Class" at Irvington High School in Fremont. The goal is to help moderately to severely disabled students who are incapable of meeting the requirements for a diploma to gain a "certificate of completion" by the end of their high school years. Students learn basic reading skills, grocery store mathematics, social studies, social skills, and critical thinking.

Riggio-Schwartz has witnessed special education in high schools evolve from isolated classrooms as the "mainstreaming" of special needs students into general education courses and electives has become more common. With the increased cooperation of instructors, students are matched to classes based on interest and talent, such as art, mathematics, music, culinary arts, and stitching. Riggio-Schwartz works to help teachers deal with students' frustrations and emotional outbreaks.

"Especially for mildly disabled students, they know they're different, and they want to be the same," said Riggio-Schwartz. "To be a teenager is hard enough, but to add a disability on top adds to the frustration."

To ensure awareness and familiarity to the "world of work," students are also exposed to different types of jobs in the Workability Program, to assist in the transition out of high school. This program provides students with an opportunity to explore different careers, acquire job-related skills, and develop maturely. It also guides students through the process of finding and keeping a job, while encouraging independence and self-advocacy.

About 15 Para educators float between students at Irvington, accompanying disabled students to their classes. These "aides" assist the students in their learning by repeating instructions and giving hushed reminders during class time. One-on-one attention is sometimes necessary for severely disabled students. Students are usually enrolled in "mainstream" classes in groups of two or three, so an aid can be present to provide help and to absolve any problems.

"Though we want to be nice and sweet, and put our arms around them, sometimes you need to be firm... tell them exactly how to behave," said Riggio-Schwartz.

Riggio-Schwartz also helps general education students in the Resource class whose achievements are limited by day-to-day challenges in social intelligence.

Federal law states that special needs students ought to be placed in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), or the type of classroom equipped with just the right amount of special accommodations, flexible enough to fit each child's individual needs. This is to ensure that students are not unnecessarily isolated from their peers by being placed in overly protective environments, and is the reason that both Resource and Special Day Classes are offered in high schools. Specialists for auditory and visual impairments are made available at schools, though students may be temporary situated in other agencies or schools, such as the California School for the Blind, if the need for such attention arises.

During "free time" periods, Riggio-Schwartz likes to observe her socializing students. "When I see something they do that is right or wrong, I teach the 'right way' in class... when I tie in other things [to the curriculum], I try to make them relevant."

Meanwhile, the class sizes are getting larger every year. Riggio-Schwartz noted an increase of one to two students in class size each year. And the amount of help is only decreasing. Several years ago, the Para educators' work time went from six hours per day to five. The one hour deficit has not yet been restored.

"Whenever there are cuts in the state budget, special education cuts seem to come first," said Riggio-Schwartz.

Local teachers unions and the Special Education Local Planning Area (SELPA) press the state government to respect special education funds, and lobby on behalf of the special needs community. The Mission Valley SELPA is composed of the Fremont Unified School District, New Haven Unified School District, and Newark Unified School District. The Milpitas Unified School District belongs to the Santa Clara County SELPA, and the Mid-Alameda County SELPA serves the special needs students in Hayward and San Leandro, among other cities.

As described by the Mission Valley SELPA Director Jack Bannon, SELPA functions through the collaborative effort of several school districts. The annual service plan and budget outline the use of funding to run enough services to serve all students of the included school districts. SELPA ensures special education to children affected by developmental, mental, or physical disabilities from birth to age 22.

The Community Advisory Committee (CAC) is sponsored by the local SELPA, and is comprised of local residents. The CAC plays a role in reviewing the annual plan and promotes parent awareness by organizing instructional seminars. On Saturday, Feb. 23, the fifth annual Parent Workshop will address topics of interest for parents of special needs children.

Riggio-Schwartz said many of the special needs students do realize that they're different, but are working hard to keep up, and to be "normal."

"It's a long hard day for them," she added.

Annual Parent Workshop
Saturday, Feb 23
8:30 a.m. - 1 p.m.
California School for the Blind
500 Walnut Ave., Fremont

Mid-Alameda County SELPA:

Mission Valley SELPA:

Santa Clara County SELPA:

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