Six pre-kindergarten students sit in a circle discussing the frogs they learned about last week. Their teacher looks down at them and smiles; this is a sign of progress.
Heather LeMay does not teach a typical class at Southside Elementary in Johnson City, Tennessee. She teaches children with disabilities.
“In pre-k, it’s mostly how to acquire knowledge,” LeMay said. “My goal is to make them kindergarten-ready by making sure that they can function.”
Since 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees a “free, appropriate, public education” to any disabled child from age 3 to 21. However, the program determining a child’s eligibility for such services is becoming more rigorous.
“Before, you could just make a referral, and that was it,” LeMay said. “There was a huge over identification of students who just didn’t need [special education services].”
Before starting at Southside, LeMay spent three years at West High School in Morristown, Tennessee, as a Comprehensive Development Classroom teacher. A CDC classroom is reserved for students with severe disabilities. Through both experiences, she saw where there was a problem.
“If you’re in CDC, you’ve pretty much been there your whole life, and that really didn’t sit well with me,” LeMay said. “The only reason those students were in my [high school] class was because someone didn’t make a better choice for them when they were younger.”
LeMay transitioned to pre-k special education with that knowledge in mind. Every afternoon she attends a school and meets with parents who think their 2-year-olds are delayed. LeMay then conducts evaluations on the children so she can tell if they qualify for her program.
“If [the children] get early intervention services, the school is required by the state to have a plan for them ready to go when they turn 3,” LeMay said. “There can’t be any lapse in services.”
Children who do not qualify for services are referred to the Head Start Program. It is possible that these children may still have health impairments, but they are not low-functioning enough to receive extra care outside a normal school environment.
“It’s not that they can’t function in a classroom,” LeMay said. “They just need a little extra help.”
For these students, a 504 Plan is made. This accommodates a child with impairments, such as an Attention Deficit Disorder and Cerebral Palsy. Students may be given extended time on state exams or preferential seating in the classroom.
If a child does qualify, LeMay immediately begins to make an Individualized Education Plan for success.
“An IEP is for students with a disability that impedes their learning in a regular classroom setting,” LeMay said. “You have to make goals for every deficit area.”
LeMay’s classroom is not focused around worksheets or bookwork. She uses multi-step activities that require more thinking.
“I try to do a multi-sensory every day,” LeMay said. “And I try to hit every type of learner. Even if you’re not that type of learner, you’re still getting that content over and over again.”
LeMay’s caseload is broken up by age groups. Three-year-olds attend school on Monday and Tuesday mornings, where they work on basic tasks like cleaning workspaces, walking in the hallway, and hanging up coats.
“I think people think I’m a little Hitler,” LeMay said. “I won’t do anything for my kids. I don’t need to be teaching colors if you’re rolling around on the floor. You’re just not ready.”
Her 4-year-olds attend on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Five-year-olds go to school everyday. By age 6, they are usually ready for the next step. This is a transition to either a regular kindergarten classroom or a CDC environment.
“My goal is that you don’t go to CDC just because you’re hard to deal with or you aren’t progressing as quickly as other students,” LeMay said. “CDC needs to be reserved for the severely disabled, not the severely lazy or the severely defiant.”
When the students make it to kindergarten, they are still able to receive extra help in the classroom.
“They don’t have to be the best,” LeMay said. “They just have to be their best.”
Every student in the U.S. is given a universal screener, which determines if there is a deficiency in student progress. This begins the Response to Intervention process, which is in its fifth year of implementation.
There are three tiers associated with RTI. Students who score at or above the 26th percentile are considered Tier One, and need no intervention. Tier Two students fall between the 11th and 25th percentile, and receive some sort of intervention. Students ranked 10th percentile and below are Tier Three.
“From there, their progress is monitored,” said Allecia Frizzell, supervisor of special education in Washington County. “And we conduct data meetings every four weeks to determine the student’s progress and what kind of intervention to implement.”
The purpose of RTI is to fill the learning gaps affecting a student’s progress in reading and math. As students improve, they are able to transition from tier to tier based on their needs.
“The majority of our students benefit from participating in the general education setting for the majority of their day,” Frizzell said. “Then they have time where they are provided intensive intervention.”
As supervisor, Frizzell is responsible for overseeing the program as a whole. She addresses parent concerns and complicated IEPS, coordinates all professional development for teachers and outlines the budget at the beginning of each year.
The majority of the special education budget goes towards 147 staff salaries. Frizzell is on the hiring committee for new instructional assistants and teachers.
“I want somebody who is on fire for working with students with disabilities,” Frizzell said. “We put a lot of money, time and effort into every employee, so I want the best.”
Madeline McCool, an ETSU special education student, hopes to be in a primary CDC class one day.
“I am reminded of perseverance every day,” said McCool about her practicum at Liberty Bell Middle School. “There are constantly going to be obstacles in life, but each day we must choose to give our best effort to conquer them, or let them defeat us.“