Off-campus adventures curtailed for those in exceptional children classes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Sarah Nagem
Eighteen-year-old Hannah Rowland isn’t on her school’s cheerleading squad, and she won’t be trying out for the girls’ basketball team this year.
But Hannah, who has Down syndrome, looks forward to the Special Olympics every spring. Last school year, she went with her class at Jesse Carson High School to a local YMCA once a week to practice swimming for the Olympics.
She was anticipating her swimming days again this year, says her mother, Denise Rowland.
Rowland says the school sent a note home with her daughter earlier this month with the news that Hannah and her peers in an exceptional children’s class would start going to the Y the following Monday.
Hannah got her swimming gear ready and went to school that morning. But the EC class didn’t go to the Y for swimming that day, and they might not be going as often from now on.
The Rowan-Salisbury School System is looking at how much time EC classes are spending off campus for activities. At least for now, field trips like the Y aren’t happening.
Hannah was disappointed when she found out she couldn’t swim that day.
Her mother was mad.
“My immediate thought was, ‘How can they transport football players on Fridays and not transport my daughter to swimming to train for the Olympics?’ ” Rowland asked.
The answer, at least in part, doesn’t ease Rowland’s frustration.
EC students’ test scores are counted in federal No Child Left Behind and state accountability standards.
For a school to meet its Adequate Yearly Progress, part of No Child Left Behind, no subgroups can test below standards. EC students make up a subgroup.
In some cases, more focus ó and time ó needs to be placed on classroom instruction for EC students, says Dr. Crystal Vail, director of exceptional children in the Rowan-Salisbury system.
When students do leave school for activities, Vail says, the trips should reinforce what they are learning in the classroom.
Learning experiences
An EC instructor might teach a lesson on how to make a budget for groceries, for example. The teacher would help students plan ahead and then take them to the grocery store for some real-world experience in grocery shopping.
Some community-based activities are laid out in students’ individualized education programs, or IEPs.
Hannah’s IEP says she must spend time at a library, her mother says. Last year, Hannah’s teacher took her to the public library once a week.
Carson, which is the county’s newest high school, is still trying to build its in-house book collection for EC students, Vail says.
Hannah, who reads on a second- to third-grade level, says she enjoyed going to the library last year to read books about Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Until Hannah entered high school, she was in regular classes. Rowland says some school staff members encouraged her to place Hannah in high school EC classes because her daughter would go off-campus for learning experiences.
Debbie File’s 19-year-old son, Travis, is also an EC student at Carson. Like Hannah, he has Down syndrome.
File says Travis’ off-campus trips in the past have been beneficial. He learns how to run errands, talk to new people, communicate with store clerks and practice paying for items, she says.
“That way, they get used to being out in public, and the public gets used to seeing them around places,” File says of people with disabilities.
“I know the teachers are doing the best they can do. But there’s only so much they can do in the classroom,” she says.
Vail says the school system has fielded some questions from parents of EC students about the recent change in field trips.
The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education is scheduled to hear from Vail at its meeting Monday. Vail is expected to talk about field trips for EC classes.
Any changes in EC field- trip procedures would not require a school board vote, though.
The school system has been taking a closer look at field trips for all classes, not just those for EC students, says Dr. Rebecca Smith, assistant superintendent for curriculum.
Gas prices are high, and it gets expensive to bus students on field trips.
The school board has already approved some field- trip requests from schools this year, though. The board is scheduled to consider more requests at its meeting on Monday, including a Corriher-Lipe Middle School eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C.
A money factor?
The Rowan-Salisbury School System has 2,645 EC students, whose special needs range from autism to speech impediments.
Many of those students take regular classes. The school system has 36 self-contained EC classes in its 34 elementary, middle and high schools, Vail says.
Each year, the EC department gets money from the school system’s local budget, along with state and federal funds.
The state doled out a little more money for EC classes this year ó about $9.5 million, compared to about $9.3 million during the 2007-2008 school year, according to figures from the school system.
The local allotment also rose slightly from last year to about $1.3 million.
But federal funds went down for the EC department. This school year, the department will get about $4.3 million in federal money. That compares to a little more than $4.6 million the prior year.
Rowland questions how much the change in EC field trips might have to do with money. When students go off campus, they travel on diesel-thirsty buses.
But it’s not that simple, Vail says.
“This is not just a gas issue,” she says. “This is an instructional-time issue.”
The school system wants to lay out EC field-trip standards, Smith says. Those standards would make it clear what kinds of trips students should participate in, and how often they should go.
Last school year, Smith says, some EC students left campus as many as 40 times. That amounts to a nine-week period of school.
Smith says the new standards might be for EC students to take two or three field trips per nine weeks.
Students will still swim at theY, she says. They just might not go as often.
Students in life skills programs might take trips to places like grocery stores more regularly, she says.
“But I don’t think we need to go every week,” Smith says.
Schools will also be more consistent in the number of trips their EC classes take. Some schools’ EC classes hardly ever left campus last school year, Vail says.
Doing more at school
Dr. Jim Emerson, chairman of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, says parents shouldn’t be bothered by field-trip changes.
“My thoughts on that is they ought to be upset that (students) are out of the classroom so much,” he says.
In some cases, students can gain the same skills on campus that they have gained on trips in the past, Vail says.
At Carson, principal Henry Kluttz wants to build a playground and recreational area for EC students.
He says the school would need about $200,000 for the project.
High schools often put so much focus on sports. But some EC students can’t participate.
“This is just as important,” Kluttz says.
Rowland plans to request an IEP meeting for Hannah.
“I think it’s just unfair to these kids,” she says.