JEFFERSON — Supports provided to students with disabilities during their high school years are leading to success now that these students have graduated, a survey of recent Jefferson High School graduates shows.
The School District of Jefferson special education program’s stated aim is to improve outcomes for students with disabilities, using results-driven interventions.
As might be predictable, there still is a significant achievement gap between students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and those without.
In working with this population of high-needs students, the school district tries to provide the appropriate accommodations, modifications and supports so that all students receive access to high-quality core instruction in the general education classroom, while those who need it receive targeted, research- or evidence-based, progress-monitored literacy and math interventions.
The recent survey, as well as study and documentation of school district practices and outcomes for a full year, shows that the district is achieving its aim of improving student outcomes.
Kathy Volk, director of special education and pupil services for the district, said that Jefferson students who had an IEP participate in the Indicator 14 survey a year after they graduate from high school.
The survey assesses post-high-school outcomes in terms of further education and competitive employment as they transition from high school to adult life.
Volk commended Jefferson High School special education teacher Cori Bollinger for conducting the survey, which required up to five contacts with each family.
Thanks in part to Bollinger’s diligence, the district saw an 80 percent response rate among those surveyed, which is fairly unheard of.
Of 25 students with disabilities who exited the special education program after the 2017-18 school year, 20 responded to the survey.
The survey looked at how many of these exiters were enrolled in higher education, how many were employed at a competitive wage (not paid-by-the-piece employment as in a “sheltered workshop,” Volk clarified), and how many were involved in other post-secondary education or training.
Of these former students, the survey found five pursuing higher education opportunities and 12 competitively employed, which are very good numbers for a population which does face some barriers.
School board member Dick Lovett noted that there will be some students with significant health issues for whom higher education, competitive employment or training programs are just not a possibility, but the survey seeks to cover everyone’s outcomes.
The results of this survey brought in $19,476.90 in revenue for the School District of Jefferson all of which went straight back into the district’s efforts to improve its special education program.
Speaking to the special education program as a whole, Volk said that the Jefferson schools have a total of 350 students with IEPs.
“Our percentage is high compared to the state,” Volk noted. “We do have a history of being high.”
The Jefferson schools are using an expanding toolbox of research and evidence-based interventions at all levels, from Lexia at the elementary level to the English and Algebra academies at the high school, to the “Life Skills and Transition with Life Centered Education” program for 18- through 21-year-old Eagle Pathways students, and more.
Lexia, for example, is an online program which starts with a placement test and then adapts the difficulty of the material it provides based on the student’s entry level of performance.
If students do well on the material, they move on to the next section; if not, the program reteaches the concept being assessed. After four repeats, the teacher is notified to provide one-on-one assistance to help the student master the concept.
“Sometimes our kids need to do something two, three, four times for that skill to click,” Volk said during the School District of Jefferson Board of Education meeting Monday night.
The district is monitoring students’ progress closely to determine whether intervention is effective and if the student is making adequate growth.
At the secondary level, Volk said, co-teaching is heavily used, making sure students with IEPs get what they need to keep making progress.
The “Life Skills in Transition” web-based curriculum touches on independent living and job readiness skills and provides differentiation. The local Knights of Columbus actually provided a $1,000 grant which allowed the district to purchase this curriculum.
Explaining the high school English Academy and Algebra Academy, high school principal Steve Dinkel said in the past the district has offered two levels of English or math, a regular version and a watered-down version for basic students. Now, all students are taking regular English 9 and Algebra.
Those who struggle more with the subjects also are placed in a parallel English Academy or Algebra Academy, which provides tiered interventions to help them master the concepts. These are credited classes.
Asked if this intervention has been done during IE (Intervention/Enrichment) time, Dinkel noted that this has been tried, and school officials determined that the 30-minute IE period was just not sufficient to meet students’ needs.
The Jefferson special education program is also expanding its efforts to engage high-school and 18 to 21-year-old Pathways students in more work-based opportunities out in the community.
As a result of the work skills and experience students are getting during their school years, their outcomes a year after exiting the program look different, with more students in competitive work environments, more in training and more pursuing technical or college degrees, officials said.
The Jefferson special education program is fortunate to receive funding through a number of grants.
Volk said the district received a Transition Readiness Grant of $30,194.
The majority of that grant, $25,000 worth, is tabbed for a new van to transport special education Pathways students to job situations and other experiences.
The remainder of that grant went toward sending a team of Jefferson High School special education paraprofessionals (aides) and a few teachers to training on transition and job coaching in August, with additional follow-up sessions in November, January and March.
In addition, the district has received $1,000 in grant funds for teacher(s) to begin work toward Transition Certification, a 15-credit add-on certification.
Special education teacher Cori Bollinger is well on her way in that process, Volk said.
Finally, the district has received a Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation mental health grant totaling $150,000 over three years.
In addition, the Best Buddies programs at Jefferson High School and Jefferson Middle School, which pair students with intellectual disabilities with peer mentor “buddies” and which support a whole variety of inclusive activities, are improving the atmosphere for secondary students in special education.
Moving forward, Volk said that the district is working with Cooperative Educational Services Agency 2, which offers a Focused Technical Assistance program.
In cooperation with the district’s early childhood education team, CESA 2 is set to assist the Jefferson district in developing and implementing a program to deliver needed early childhood education services right within the community’s preschools, such as Learning Links and Small World.
“We’re working with an early childhood support person from CESA to get that going,” Volk said.
Terri Wenkman, a school board member, noted that CESA is making early intervention a real priority, as research has shown investing in interventions early in a child’s life (the first 5 years or so) pays the greatest dividends in terms of boosting that child’s success later in life.
Speaking to accountability, the district has recently finished up a Results-Driven Accountability Procedural Compliance Self-Assessment through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
This is an extensive process spanning 11 months, and has several different components, including the writing of College- and Career-Ready IEPs with a focus on student growth and closing achievement gaps.
The district is required to complete one of these audits every five years.
The process looked at the district’s compliance in numerous areas.
“I am happy to report that the district passed with flying colors,” Volk said.
“Some areas were even exceptional,” Volk said, noting that the state official who reviewed the audit called these areas “a model for the state.”
In other areas, there were aspects that the school district could focus more closely on to improve outcomes, and officials will be looking at those as part of the district’s plan for continuous improvement.