For some disabled students, school’s in

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:57 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Early childhood special education teacher Terri Hovey spent her Friday afternoon cutting out paper mice and organizing paint supplies. She wanted everything to be ready for her special education students when they returned on Monday.

The Extended School Year program, which began June 12 as part of several summer schools in Columbia, offers services for children with disabilities to help them continue progressing and retain skills they acquired during the regular academic year.

District Assistant Superintendent Lynn Barnett said the federal Education For All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, later changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requires public schools to provide education for children with disabilities who struggle to maintain what they’ve learned, so they can continue to build on it. The district established the extended-year program soon after with that in mind.

“If the data shows that a child regresses in the summer and it takes six to eight weeks to catch up during the fall, it is required that we open up these services to them,” Barnett said.

This summer, 258 children are participating. Students in kindergarten through 12th grade attend the program at Rock Bridge High School, while younger children attend the Early Childhood Center on Waco Road.

The data that Barnett and other special education teachers look at to measure student progress is the IEP, or individualized education plan, created for each student in special education.

The teacher and parents decide what sort of education plan they want the child to follow. This plan is set up based on each child’s disability, its severity and how he or she performs after long breaks from school. The information that teachers document throughout the school year will determine whether the extended year program is necessary for that child.

“Teachers take data throughout the year, for example, right before winter break, as far as what skills a child has and does it again right after winter break,” Barnett said.

Barnett also said the teachers who work with special needs children focus on retaining a variety of skills — such as speech and language development, fine and large motor skills, and behavioral and cognitive development — and also help students with visual and hearing impairment.

Barnett said parents are actively involved in the IEP process during the regular school year and through the summer.

“Families with children who qualify for this are pleased with it in that it supports their child through the summer when they could lose a lot of skills,” Barnett said. “Parents are very intentional about it.”

Hovey, who has been involved with early childhood special education for the past 3½ years, said the teaching experience is challenging but rewarding. She and other teachers often deal with children with severe disabilities such as autism or head trauma. In such cases, successes can be found in the smallest of actions.

She recalled one child with autism who imitated her actions.

“That’s a big thing,” Hovey said. “It’s characteristic for children with autism to not recognize others in their world, and when they do that, we just have a party.”

In addition to imitating actions, Hovey has witnessed children sharing toys with each other. Such interactions are evidence of the kind of progress teachers like Hovey are looking for.

“Twelve weeks is a long time to go without any routine,” Hovey said. “But so far, I’ve seen some gains in my little guys.”

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