Wadena-Deer Creek and Perham-Dent school districts are each adding a special education teacher position due to a “higher need” for individualized student support, as Perham Superintendent Mitch Anderson said. The needs are a years-long pattern with more services available and larger class sizes.
“It’s great programming, it’s helping families and individual students with their specific needs to just create the best learning environment for them,” Anderson said.
Each spring, the districts and Freshwater Education prepare for the number of students who need special education support in the fall. Students receive academic and behavioral support as well as help when transferring districts. Teachers have differing amounts of students depending on their needs, such as 15 student cases with emotional and behavioral disorder (EBD) and 20 for students with a learning disability (LD).
The districts have a range of special education staff, including eight special education teachers and 16 paraprofessionals for preschool to fourth grade at WDC elementary; and eight teachers, a speech language pathology assistant and 19 paraprofessionals for fifth to 12th grade. At Perham's schools, there are 16 special education teachers, 37 paraprofessionals and three speech language pathologists.
In Perham, the additional position is for the middle and high school level and the WDC position, for special education and English Language Learners support, is for the elementary level. WDC elementary principal Louis Rutten said the new position will help with the "very high” caseloads. The elementary also hired Bobbi Wegscheid starting for the 2019-20 school year.
At the end of the 2020-21 school year, seventy-three students were receiving support, according to Rutten. Students have designated one-on-one times a few times throughout the week for about 20-30 minutes for academic and behavioral interventions.
“This has been a kind of a three-year bubble of students that so far we’ve seen more service time they’re eligible for,” Rutten said.
Perham High School will have about 20 additional students for the 2021-22 school year, which continues this school year’s pattern, as Perham and New York Mills special education program specialist Jamie Wothe said. The district had an unfilled teacher position two years ago when other teachers were able to take on more students but the increased caseloads have returned the need for a special education teacher.
While early childhood education staff identify students who would benefit from support services, the student caseloads at Heart of the Lakes elementary could increase as parents might not have been able to have assessments completed due to pandemic postponements last school year, according to Wothe.
“It’s starting to creep up a little bit but it’s manageable,” Wothe said about caseloads at Heart of the Lakes Elementary. The elementary caseloads are at about 15-18 students per teacher. Teachers at the kindergarten and first grade level usually average 14-15 student cases, according to Rutten.
The increasing caseloads at WDC are part of a natural progression with larger class sizes over the last three years with about 80-90 total kindergarten students.
Students also have paraprofessional support throughout their school career with more at the elementary level, as Wothe said. Students have intervention support before more assessments and the possibility of developing an Individualized Education Plan. After the interventions, Rutten said the need for referrals has grown in the kindergarten to first grade area. The process includes working with teachers, principals, case managers and parents on a continual basis.
“We’re trying to provide services as early as possible, so all the way down even to our preschool and early childhood programming, if we can get services there we see the benefit of that for the students all the way through for their elementary, middle and high school years,” Anderson said.
Although the districts hope to get students help as early as possible, they also recognize students need time to adjust to the school schedule, building stamina to work on different tasks and learning self-regulation skills, as Rutten said.
"We always give them some time to adjust and work through interventions and try to see how they do with some different approaches."
— Louis Rutten
Anderson said the types of services offered over the past 25-30 years have increased, such as for students with autism. One of the changes Rutten has seen is state standards, which bring topics to elementary grade levels that were previously middle school topics. At these younger ages, students might not grasp the concepts.
“Just developmentally it’s not always something that’s going to happen at that grade level, and we have to be understanding that it could happen at a different grade level. They’ll still get the standards met but it just may not be met at that particular grade level,” Rutten said.
While the pandemic distance and hybrid learning are not the cause for special education caseloads increasing, students will need support for academic loss and behavioral impacts. The “year-long trauma” and different learning styles have brought students who might not have needed support previously, as Rutten described, though the full impact on education remains unknown.
“I’m sure that COVID is going to play an important role in that piece (academic standards) because of the kids being in distance learning and then just starting next year are those kids going to be up to standards, or meeting that grade level?” Wothe questioned.
In a pandemic year or not, students have “time to adjust and work through interventions and try to see how they do with some different approaches but if they’re still lagging on some behavioral benchmarks or academic benchmarks then we have to proceed with some referrals and the special ed process,” Rutten said.
You can read more about special education services on the school websites.
"It’s great programming, it’s helping families and individual students with their specific needs to just create the best learning environment for them."