Pioneer System For Special Ed. Watched in Vt.

By Lynn Schnaiberg — November 01, 1995 11 min read

Winooski, Vt.

Only one of the 22 students in Tracy Pornelos’ 1st-grade class has been formally identified as needing special education. So far.

And Ms. Pornelos and the Winooski school district aim to keep it that way.

But surrounded by the kaleidoscope of paper cutouts and posters that decorate her classroom, Ms. Pornelos acknowledges that Vermont’s commitment to special-education reform is not always easy to sustain.

Ms. Pornelos points to a purple and orange scribble inside a roughly cut oval--one of many paper figures of the nursery-rhyme character Humpty Dumpty that her students have left for her.

“Look at this,” she says, gently fingering the ragged paper. “This work is more like someone just starting kindergarten.”

She is concerned that the student may have some developmental delays. And a form already filled out on her desk--destined for a team of teachers, counselors, and other experts--could help both her and her student.

The Winooski schools, like others here in Vermont, are engaged in a battle. They want to serve all children in regular classrooms and get students the help they need without having to go through the required bureaucratic wranglings to label them as needing special-education services.

Part of that battle is waged through what is called an instructional-support team. By law, all Vermont schools must have an IST as a first stop for teachers who previously might have turned directly to special education for help.

Spurred largely by soaring costs, state lawmakers in 1990 passed a law that radically changed how the special-education system is set up and paid for. Act 230 revamped the special-education finance formula, instituted the IST pre-referral process, promoted collaboration between schools and other agencies, and set aside money to train regular classroom teachers to deal with a range of student abilities.

Vermont lawmakers will soon have to revisit the issues themselves. Some observers fear that tight funding may erode the reforms’ progress and lead to more children being funneled into special education. Many of Act 230’s provisions expire next June.

The law grew out of a number of earlier finance and program reforms that policymakers hoped would stem costs and build capacity in the regular classroom. Special education, they said, was bloated with children sent there because there was nowhere else to go for help. After the legislators passed Act 230, they also tightened the criteria used to determine eligibility for special education. (See Education Week, May 30, 1990.)

At a time when more than half the states are trying to change their special-education finance systems, many national observers point to Vermont’s reforms as an overall model that has paid off.

Special-education referrals in many of the state’s schools have plummeted. Between 1989 and 1993, the number of students in special education statewide fell 18.4 percent. Yet for each student deemed eligible for special education, roughly two who were not labeled as such received help from staff members paid for under the law.

Special and general education have largely merged to become one system under which special education is not a place, but a menu of services brought to the regular classroom, educators here say. But not without a price.

‘Trying To Hold the Line’

A former mill town, Winooski covers 1.2 square miles and is among the poorer towns in Chittenden County, the state’s wealthiest. The district consists of one labyrinthine building, with preschoolers at one end moving to high schoolers on the other. The Winooski River separates the town from Burlington, the state’s largest city with nearly 40,000 residents.

Winooski’s 6,500 residents are largely working class, and ITS students’ needs, Superintendent George C. Cross said, are high.

Roughly 14 percent of the district’s 850 students are in special education--higher than the statewide average of 9 percent but lower than the 18 percent the district posted a few years ago.

Like many districts across Vermont, Winooski is feeling the double whammy of shrinking state aid in regular and special education, which has forced local taxpayers to pick up an increasing share of education costs.

Under Act 230, the state committed to pay 50 percent of special-education costs--a pledge it has not kept as costs continue to climb statewide. In Winooski, the amount spent on special education leaped 109 percent from fiscal 1991 to fiscal 1995; during that time, expenses for regular education rose 8.6 percent.

The state’s special-education finance system has helped support more students in regular classrooms by removing many of the fiscal incentives for placing students outside neighborhood schools and the regular classroom.

But Vermont has not had to make any quantum leaps to get where it is now. When Act 230 passed, the state already led the nation with 83 percent of ITS special-education students educated in the regular classroom.

Under one part of the finance formula, districts receive state aid based on their overall enrollment, not the number of students in special education. It also allows districts to spend that money on compensatory or remedial programs for all students who need them.

But to make inclusion work, educators here say, you need extra bodies in the classroom to help teachers. And that means dollars. In the past four years, Winooski has seen the number of special-education aides increase from 13 to 25. Statewide, since 1990 the number of aides working with students one on one has increased from 470 to 1,005.

Before Act 230 passed, Winooski, like many districts, was moving toward many of the law’s reforms, such as greater inclusion and caution in using the special-education label for students.

But inclusion has ITS limits--even here, where teachers support the philosophy and the district has invested considerable resources to train ITS staff. Some learning-impaired students--mostly high school students who can’t read or write--are pulled out of the regular classroom for part of the day to receive intensive help. And about five students with emotional and behavioral problems are educated in a subsidized-housing complex in a last-ditch effort to keep them from dropping out.

For Michele Steady, who teaches 2nd and 3rd grades, not having an extra body in the classroom last year became a recipe for frustration.

“We were in crisis,” she said. “I just felt like I was in here all alone.”

In Ms. Steady’s class last year, two students had attention-deficit disorder, two had behavior problems, and one was later identified with Tourette’s syndrome--a disorder marked by involuntary muscular movements and vocal obscenities. As the boy’s symptoms worsened, Ms. Steady spent more time with him.

For Bob Pequignot, the principal of Winooski’s John F. Kennedy Elementary School, the issue became one of safety. By last January, after urging from the boy’s parents, Ms. Steady got a full-time classroom aide.

“We’re trying to hold the line for taxpayers, but that child could have possibly hurt someone else or himself,” Mr. Pequignot said.

Veteran teacher Maida F. Townsend said she believes in inclusion. But, the high school teacher said, it can be stressful. Recently a student with emotional and behavior problems, who had been improving, exploded in the classroom, she said, pointing out a broken desk pushed against the wooden cabinets.

“A piece of me may say, ‘It could be easier if so-and-so were out of here.’ But I consider that a weakness,” she said. “I don’t blame inclusion.”

Labels Cut Both Ways

Many of Winooski’s teachers say the instructional-support-team approach is an asset, but one that requires patience. When the system was first set up, some teachers viewed it primarily as an extra hoop to jump through before referring a child to special education, said Jim Cashen, a special educator who works in the elementary school.

His role has changed, too. Special educators here do not have their own classrooms; they share a narrow office tucked behind the staff lounge. But they are rarely there. Karen C. Day’s caseload is 18 students. On a typical day she works in seven classrooms.

But Ms. Day serves more than just the children assigned to her by teaching or working in small groups in a classroom corner. She and Mr. Cashen said that without the more flexible system now in place, those children not on the special-education rosters probably would not have gotten much additional help. But, they said, some still slip through the cracks.

“People are pretty stressed out. Sometimes there’s just not enough to go around,” Mr. Cashen said. “And the challenges of the typical John and Jane are much more intense” than when he joined the district seven years ago.

At a recent early-morning meeting, the eight members of the IST panel--including a guidance counselor, a speech teacher, a nurse, and the principal--were discussing a 3rd-grade student.

Ms. Steady, his teacher, said the boy is bright, but often lashes out at others. He often refuses to follow directions and rarely makes eye contact. And, according to Ms. Steady, the boy has some difficulties at home.

The suggestions started to fly: Set up a behavior chart so he gets immediate feedback. Reward good behavior with time in the computer lab. Keep up the home-school journal with the family. Have the child meet with a counselor to talk about his home life. Check on the family’s file with the state social-services agency. Suggest that the parents take a parenting-skills class at the school.

For now, there was no mention of special education.

But having the special-education “label” cuts both ways. For some parents, it offers formal, legal protections that other alternatives do not. For others, it is a stigma to be avoided.

The Lacharite family wanted the label because they knew that special education was a way for their son, Brian, to have an aide and intensive services to help manage his Tourette’s syndrome. The family went through the IST process but was not satisfied with the suggestions. They formally requested that Brian be evaluated for special education--their right under federal special-education law.

“I know it’s very expensive, so they don’t like to do it. But we knew our rights. And Brian clearly needed the support,” said his mother, Judy A. Lacharite. “The school knew we weren’t going to go away.”

Fear of Labeling

Roger Bourassa, the principal of the Winooski Middle/High School, said he has heard parents say they want their children in special education “because they say they get catered to.”

But Sharon J. LaValley fears that such a label would follow her 16-year-old son, Bill Novak, forever. The two moved here last year from Troy, N.Y., as part of Ms. LaValley’s effort to stay off drugs. Mr. Novak, who said he has problems concentrating in school, was suspended several times last year. At a recent IST meeting, school officials suggested family counseling and the option that Mr. Novak is trying now--spending part of the day at a nearby vocational program.

Both the young man and his mother said they hope the change will mean they can avoid a referral to special education.

“I don’t want that label used against him,” Ms. LaValley said.

Act 230 is generally supported by Vermont’s teachers, administrators, school board members, and advocates for children with disabilities. State data suggest that students taken off special-education rosters and those being served through the IST process are achieving success in school.

Though there have been spotty complaints that some parents have been railroaded by school officials into not requesting special-education evaluations, those instances have fallen off over time, said Connie Curtin, the executive director of the Vermont Parent Information Center, a statewide parent-advocacy group.

While Vermont officials support other states that want to duplicate their reforms, they also strike a cautionary note. They emphasize that Act 230 is just the latest in a long list of reforms the state started in the late 1960s and that Vermont, with roughly 570,000 residents, is a small and relatively homogeneous state.

“This didn’t come out of nowhere,” said Dennis M. Kane, who coordinates special education for the state education department. “I get calls from folks every week saying, ‘How can we do this?’ You can’t just do this tomorrow.”

Even with the advantages Vermont enjoys, state observers say, the law has been implemented unevenly across districts. There is widespread frustration with the state’s funding of the initiative and about what to do with the growing population of students with emotional and behavioral problems, who often don’t seem to fit in the regular classroom.

Costs Continue To Climb

Special-education costs--to the chagrin of Gov. Howard Dean and many lawmakers who drafted the law--have not come down, though many argue that they likely would have risen even faster had the reforms not been enacted.

And emerging state data suggest that for the first time since the law’s passage, the number of special-education students is starting to rise. Some observers speculate that may be because as money gets tighter, schools fear that only children formally labeled as requiring special education will have their needs met. Others say it may reflect that schools have reached the limit of whittling down their special-education rolls.

Marc E. Hull, the superintendent of the 1,000-student Caledonia school system in the state’s rural northeast corner, pointed out, however, that in the one-room schools found in places in his region, inclusion is a given.

Mr. Hull, a former state special-education director, said that under Act 230, he has seen students shed their labels.

“I see rural pride in small towns where everybody knows everybody else,” Mr. Hull said. “There are families and children who simply want to be a part of things without being singled out in any way.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1995 edition of Education Week as Pioneer System For Special Ed. Watched in Vt.