Houston County special ed students get extra help

alopez@macon.comJune 17, 2014 

In one of the 29 classes filled with special education students at Matt Arthur Elementary School, seven children between kindergarten and second grade took turns contributing to the same drawing.

Special education students have skills such as reading and multiplication as goals, and some, like one student in Kimberly Walmer’s extended school year class, have set goals to work on social skills such as learning to take turns.

While focusing her students on this skill during the drawing exercise this week, Walmer also reinforced their understanding of colors by asking them to choose and identify crayons. Once the Houston County children finished their group drawing, they took turns arranging dominoes to build a castle and later worked on drawings in pairs.

“I love it,” Walmer told her students. “Y’all are being good friends.”

About 10 percent of all students enrolled in the Houston County school system have been diagnosed with at least one disability. Of those more than 2,800 students, about 10 percent are found eligible for the county’s extended school year program, which serves 162 elementary school students and 150 middle and high school students.

“These are the students that need us the most,” said Jenny McClintic, special education program specialist. “They obviously have a very specified, very severe disability or a very specified weakness that needs this additional service.”

The three-day-a-week program that’s now in the second of its three-week run is hosted at Matt Arthur for elementary school students and at Thomson Middle School for middle and high school students. Students with severe disabilities, those determined to be at a critical point of instruction at the end of the regular school year, or those found to have the hardest time recouping from academic regression after extended breaks from school are eligible for the extended school year.

”A whole summer without any kind of service can be really detrimental to several of the students,” Walmer said.

On Monday, one student in Walmer’s class struggled to sit still and participate in class activities. Luckily, a paraprofessional was there to work one-on-one with him and provide backup to the primary teacher.

“That’s why paraprofessionals are so important,” McClintic said.

And while the student struggled in a group setting, when it was time for a computer lab, he became focused on his material. Demonstrating his mastery of colors by completing the task of building a virtual gingerbread man, the student also highlighted words with his cursor as he read along with sentences generated by the computer program.

Technology is one way special education has changed in the last several years. At least one of the computer programs the district uses allows teachers to track a student’s progress, providing valuable feedback, McClintic said.

One of 11 special education program specialists in Houston County, McClintic has been working in special education in the district more than 20 years.

“We’ve done a lot better job with having highly qualified teachers that are dual certified for special education and general education. It wasn’t like that 21 years ago,” she said. “Another significant change is how we’ve increased the variety of services ... co-teaching, also collaboration and supportive instruction, which is really helping the kids by keeping them in the least restrictive environment possible to receive their education.”

Patience and routine

After the end of instruction Monday, Jazmin Yellock, a Northside High School 2014 graduate, joined other staff members with a group of children waiting for parents to pick up their kids.

Yellock is considering a career in education and was chosen by the Houston school district to help out as an apprentice with the extended school year. Embedded with a fourth-grade class, she said she spent one-on-one time helping one student with his creative writing assignment.

“Special needs students need patience,” Yellock said. “They can still do things just like a regular person can do. They just need a little more time.”

Several parents and grandparents of autistic children arrived in succession. All of them expressed gratitude for the extended school year program, and several emphasized the importance of maintaining a routine for their children.

“My son is autistic, and so for him summertime is hard because he is really off his schedule,” said Stephanie Reeves of Warner Robins.

Reeves said her 7-year-old son is so routine-orientated that he often will wait at the door wherever he anticipates his regular Thursday therapy session.

Not only is the extended school year positive for her son because it keeps him on a routine, Reeves said, but the program also provides him instructional time focused on the goals in his individualized education program.

“If he didn’t have (the extended school year) to go to, I would pull my hair out,” she said.

To contact writer Andres David Lopez, call 256-9751.

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