Sunday, February 25, 2018
Education

Pasco schools plan to merge services for students with behavioral needs

NEW PORT RICHEY — The seven seventh-grade boys mostly paid attention as teacher Rafael Rodriguez led them through a lesson on bones and muscles.

One boy bounced nonstop, his eyes darting here and there, until asked to answer a question about cartilage. Another made frequent remarks just loud enough to be heard, at one point announcing, "Okay, I did it. I'm not doing anything else."

A teacher's aide kept up a constant refrain of "Did you get it?" and "Did you write it down?" to focus the students, tucked away in a quiet portable outside the Bayonet Point Middle School gym. This was a good day, principal Mike Asbell said, observing that the school's emotional-behavioral disability, or EBD, classrooms could blow into chaos at any given moment.

The EBD program is always a volatile one, aimed at helping about 600 Pasco County students find academic and social success. Often the students are taught in special EBD classrooms, separate from the rest of the kids at school.

Its mission has become more difficult with changing demands on both the students, who take the standard curriculum, and their teachers. To cope with the pressures, the Pasco school district has decided to refashion its delivery model at the secondary level for the coming year.

Bayonet Point Middle's program will move to River Ridge Middle, while those at Stewart and Weightman middle schools will shift to Centennial Middle. The relocation completes a consolidation that began a year ago with other schools.

By grouping more EBD students together at fewer campuses, there will be enough students in each grade to have their own class. As it is now, EBD students from several grades are lumped into one classroom, requiring their teachers to spend more time keeping up with the standards for multiple grades.

At the high school level, the district aims to integrate more students into the mainstream. Many of the behavior specialists and aides will be replaced with EBD co-teachers who would assist the instructors in mainstream classrooms. More students in the program also would be steered toward online courses, which they would take at school with an instructor available to help.

Only Ridgewood, Gulf, Land O'Lakes and Pasco high schools will retain the program, which at one time was in all high schools.

"It's a continual problem solving," said Melissa Musselwhite, director of student support services and programs. "These students are very bright. We want to keep them in class and moving toward a diploma."

Bayonet Point Middle behavior specialist Darlene Keller, an EBD teacher for six years before taking her current role, applauded the district's direction, even though it means some movement for both students and teachers.

Teachers "have to almost be a magician" to teach multiple subjects for multiple grade levels, Keller said.

With the new model, the teachers will not have to do as much juggling to prepare for their students. Being consolidated at fewer schools, Musselwhite added, they also will have the opportunity to work jointly on teaching methods, behavior interventions and other aspects of their jobs.

"It's very hard in exceptional student education," she said. "If you have a lone person on the campus, you don't have anyone on the campus to collaborate with."

And with some of the programs very small — serving as few as four students on some campuses — that isolation often occurs. Then when a teacher leaves, Musselwhite explained, the replacement usually faces new certification rules.

The general education certification that once covered all academic areas no longer exists, meaning new teachers must have academic area licensure for each subject taught, in addition to training for special education and reading instruction.

"It's very difficult to find someone," she said. "We are struggling for ways to find rigorous instruction and have the teachers properly certified."

Bayonet Point needed a new teacher this year, and Asbell said he was lucky enough to find someone to step in with the right credentials. The change proved tough at first for the students, who gave the teacher grief — partly because they didn't know how long they would get to keep him.

Once everyone settled into a routine, Asbell said, the students began performing better than ever, making strides toward the ultimate goal of mainstreaming into the regular school environment.

He strongly supported changing the system.

"I've always been an advocate for this," Asbell said. "It's better for the teachers and it's better for the kids."

Keller agreed, and praised the district for paying attention to her students.

"Our EBD children are our most at-risk children, and they have the most potential to turn around and be successful," she said. "A program that is focused on them is going to make a positive difference for them."

The district is sending home letters to families explaining the changes, and might schedule information sessions depending on interest.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Rafael Rodriguez is the Bayonet Point Middle School teacher who led a class of emotional-behavior disability seventh grade students. The original version of this story mistakenly gave the name of the students' previous teacher, who left the school earlier in the year.

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