THE LOW DOWN: Everyone learns at a different pace and this holds particularly true for special education students. Ability levels and social skills can differ and a more personalized approach is critical to a student’s success. At Norris Public Schools, special need student’s individual learning needs are supported by a team of educators who recognize that inclusion coupled with access to resources can help make any student successful.
THE CHALLENGE: How do you ensure that special education students are getting the support they need without being isolated from the rest of the student body? At Norris Public Schools, an emphasis on peer support and inclusion has helped blast away the stigma associated with being a special needs student.
THE CHAMPIONS: Mary Schlieder – behavior specialist and teacher, Norris Public Schools; Brenda Tracy – special education director, Norris Public Schools.
THE SOLUTION: School can be a challenging time for many students. For some, learning and focusing in the classroom can be difficult. For others, making friends and enjoying the social aspect of schools is the hard part. When a student has special needs, school can be an even greater challenge.
In the state of Nebraska children are eligible for special education resources starting from birth through age 21. At Norris schools, students from pre-school through 12th grade can count on an array of opportunities that can help them succeed in and out of school. For those students who need additional support making the transition from high school to the “real world” the school administers Project SEARCH, a life skills training program managed in partnership with St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Lincoln. Students have the opportunity to work in various hospital departments, from food service to hospital maintenance.
Norris takes a fully integrated approach to special education. Special need students attend the same classes as their general education peers and are only separated if they need additional support, such as speech, physical or occupational therapies. For these therapies the students have access to one-on-one or small group support. Integrated classrooms allow special needs students to build relationships with their peers without feeling isolated.
The primary reason these integrated classrooms succeed is Co-Teaching, a program in which learning specialists partner with teachers of core classes. For example, at the elementary level a speech pathology specialist might co-teach a reading class. In high school, a learning specialist might help teach algebra. All students benefit from the arrangement as two students mean two different perspectives and added support in the classroom.
Because social relationships are such an important part of school life, Norris advocates “Circle of Friends’, a nationally-recognized initiative that encourages general education students to reach out to their special education peers. When a student needs help making friends and learning social cues, teachers identify a student who can act as social guides, inviting them to sit together at lunch or hang out between classes. In a Circle of Friends students form real friendships, learning about each others’ differences and, more often than not, similarities.
The majority of special education students at Norris have high incident (or learning) disabilities, but for those students with more severe disabilities the school offers a Life Skills program that helps teach them how to live more independently. From learning job skills through a work-study program (Project SEARCH), to learning how to cook and do laundry, the program helps prepare students for life after high school.
THE RESULTS: At the end of the day it’s not just special education students who benefit from the more inclusive environment at Norris. The entire school is set up to provide tailored support to any student who needs it. For any student struggling in class, teachers can recommend them to the Study Skills program where they can get tutoring from teachers and classmates. The Co-Teaching program gives all students double the resources in their core classes. And the Circle of Friends initiative teaches general education students about tolerance and inclusion, while giving special education students the chance to develop social skills and make friends.
Students at Norris recognize that their school is different from others. A focus on building relationships and supporting peers greatly reduces the incidence of bullying, and both teachers and parents talk about the bonds of friendship developed between students of all learning abilities.
The successful teaching philosophy at Norris can be summed up with one phrase:“What would work for you?” Instead of forcing students to fit one mold, the educators at Norris recognize that each child is different, and that with the right support from teachers and friends, any child can be successful.