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Flagstaff Unified School District is putting the management of learning plans for students with disabilities in the hands of general classroom teachers who also have special education credentials, rather than using specialized teachers.

The new model, affecting children who are already in mainstream classes all or most of the day at the elementary schools, will put at least one teacher at each grade level at each school in charge of all of the identified special needs students at that grade. The current model has each elementary school with one or more special education "resource" teachers who spend all day floating around classrooms.

This shift only applies to children who are not in self-contained special education classrooms, such as the classrooms just for students with autism, significant behavioral challenges or multiple, severe and at-times medical diagnoses. Generally, this will mean a student with a specific learning disability such as dyslexia but who is integrated into a regular classroom with visits from the resource teacher.

Diana Shaum, FUSD's director of student support services, said the continued loss in enrollment in the district has also been felt in special education. So with fewer identified students with special needs, the current model became inefficient.

Currently, a resource teacher handles up to 24 students at a time. This teacher drops in on classrooms to give the students extra attention and gives additional small-group instruction.

The teacher also is a "case manager" of individualized education plans, the specific learning guidelines drawn up for each child with special needs.

In the past, the elementary schools had up to about 50 students with disabilities, justifying more than one resource teacher. With enrollment loss, teacher positions were whittled down. Now, there's an in-between sized population -- too many students for one teacher per school, but not enough for two. The remaining students still have needs, though.

TEACHERS ALREADY QUALIFIED

The "dual certified" model became obvious when officials looked into it -- perhaps by coincidence, FUSD has a lot of elementary teachers, more than 50, certified in both general and special education, so enough of the right people were already here. Many are graduates of Northern Arizona University, which offers an elementary and social education degree that results in both certifications.

"We're in a good position. Not every district can say that," Shaum said. "Because (of) NAU of course the students that graduate, they really like to stay here."

Similarly, while a general education elementary teacher will not necessarily also be certified to teach special education, by federal regulation a special education resource teacher must also be certified as a regular education elementary teacher. And, the dual-certified model is already in place at the middle and high schools.

The new model will spread out the responsibility. Each grade level will have at least one dual-certified teacher who will handle a regular class all day and up to eight students' IEPs. If a grade has more than eight students in special education, another dual-certified teacher at that grade will pick up the rest, or a resource teacher, as now, will take them. If that resource specialist only has enough students to be parttime at a school, the teacher could be assigned a two-school circuit to stay fulltime.

The students will also be spread out. No classroom will have more than three students with special needs.

UP TO $760,000 IN SAVINGS

Shaum said the students' needs are most important and that NAU and the state department of education are both supportive of the idea. She said teachers have also been generally supportive as well, if not unanimously so.

This also allows teachers who have an added focus to participate in more regular professional collaboration. More aides will be added, and the teachers who do take on IEP management will get stipends.

That said, the streamlining does ultimately save positions, and thus, money -- up to about $760,000. But Shaum said teachers aren't being cut directly -- as positions in regular classrooms open, the resource teachers will slide into them. She said it's not so much about saving money, but that costs are to be considered when a program makes changes.

Teachers who are qualified to teach both styles, but who are most experienced on the other, and who will be blending the two, will receive refresher training.

"There are thousands of research articles ad studies that have been done on the inclusive practices and this is how kids learn best," Shaum said.

A PARENT DISSENTS

But one parent still isn't completely at ease.

The mother, who did not give her name to protect her child's identity, said she doesn't want people to be mad at the district. She does want grassroots action though, either donations or a grant to preserve the resource specialist model schools have now.

"It's the classroom teachers (that) are gonna suffer, the kids are gonna suffer," she said. "If the special ed kids that just need a little extra help are not getting the little extra help that they need they're going to be disrupting the classroom or they're just going to be completely missed -- if they're not the kind of child that disrupts the classroom they're just going to sit there and be missed if they are the kind of child that disrupts the classroom then it's going to affect the typical child's education."

The mother heaps praise on her teachers and she asked there is no "fluff" in the current model -- both teachers are needed.

"How is one human going to squeeze this much up in one day?" she said. "Because I already can see my child's teacher is on top of things. She works a long day already and now we're adding the coordinator's job to her job."

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