SHADY HILLS — One in eight students at Crews Lake Middle School has an individualized education plan for special learning needs.
Those 100 students are split over six teams, four core subject areas and three grade levels.
Despite such obligations, Crews Lake Middle this year lost three of its seven positions dedicated to special education services. The budget-related cuts, which weren't unique to Crews Lake, raised major red flags for school leaders.
"Had we continued with our traditional co-teach model that we had last year, I'm not sure that we would be successful this year," said Danielle Lawrence, the school's special education department co-chairman.
Rather than increase the student load for the school's few special education teachers, Crews Lake reinvented its special education model. It involves having more teachers with special ed training in regular classrooms teaching subjects to all students.
"So far, it seems to be the right move," principal Chris Christoff said.
Pasco County district officials hope so. They have a keen eye on what Crews Lake and a handful of other schools are trying to improve special education amid major budget cuts.
These changes come amid a national movement to refocus special education so that more students' specific academic needs are dealt with in the traditional classroom setting, before they become so severe as to require added support.
Pasco schools already had been heading in that direction.
Since 2005, the percentage of Pasco special education students spending the majority of their time in regular classes has risen from half to 80 percent. Those assigned to self-contained rooms decreased from 25 to 15 percent.
The percentage of Pasco's special education students earning a standard high school diploma also rose to 63 percent, above the state's overall performance.
But cuts over four years have threatened to take their toll.
This year, 75 of the district's 513 eliminated positions came from special education. That's about 7 percent of all ESE teachers.
Not all of the employees lost their jobs, as some found new spots in the schools. But the layoffs claimed jobs that those people had filled but are no longer assigned to do.
"Obviously we have less," said Monica Verra, district director of exceptional student education. "We are having deeper conversations about how to reach the same standards with less."
To cope with the changes, River Ridge High School adopted what it calls the collaborative intervention model, focusing on students who are mainstreamed into regular classrooms.
A key to the initiative is to have the special education teachers in classrooms four days a week, reserving Wednesdays for planning, paperwork and meetings. In the past, the teachers did much of this work on their own time.
Assistant principal Steve Williams already is seeing benefits.
Special education teachers have more time to collaborate with content-area teachers, so they can come up with strategies that work well for students with special needs and others, too.
"It's really taking people who have a strong, rich background in helping students learn and capitalizing on that," he said. "If I lose a day every 10 days of them in the classroom, but I bring back the ability to help 1,500 students, I think that's a good balance."
Crews Lake also has changed the role of its special education teachers.
Instead of having them travel from class to class, helping the content-area instructors, Crews Lake made those teachers content-area instructors themselves. To make sure students with extra requirements didn't all land in those four teachers' classrooms, the school also found 13 educators willing to obtain certification in special education.
The district paid the $200 certification test bill.
The end result: Smaller class sizes overall — the school added four classroom teachers to the mix — and fewer students with special needs in each classroom. That makes it easier to individualize instruction.
Special education teachers still get time daily for planning and consulting, as well.
"So far, it's fantastic," said Lawrence, who consults on 28 students and teaches four seventh-grade language arts courses.
The school also has opened an intervention lab staffed by teachers to deal with students' academic problems that require more attention than a classroom teacher can provide.
Verra, the department director, said such interventions make sense for students.
"We don't work in silos any more. We work together," she said.
The biggest concern, she continued, is funding. If students have ongoing needs yet do not get tagged for "special education" because schools can handle them in a regular classroom, the extra money for services will not follow, Verra said.
District officials have begun talking with lawmakers to see if there's a way to keep money coming to provide services for students who can survive in mainstream classrooms but need additional attention.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.