Eagle River sees surge in special needs enrollment

Well-regarded program adds staff to handle more students
Wednesday, January 6, 2016 - 09:31
  • Eagle River High School Special Education Department chair Kelly Heppner, left, and Jeannie Frey, right, show off the jam-packed file cabinet containing the Individual Education Plans paperwork for students at Eagle River High School. The file cabinet flips around and its back side is just as full. Photo by Amy Armstrong for the Star

Word seems to be getting around the Anchorage School District that Eagle River High School has a rather proficient special education department.

The number of IEPs, or Individual Education Plans, in place at the school rose sharply this fall from an average of 85 in years past to 130 for the fall semester. That was nearly a 53 percent increase that represents 15 percent of the school’s total student population of nearly 900.

It was unusual.

Principal Marty Lang made a call to his David Legg, his counterpart at Chugiak High School, to ask if the area’s other high school was experiencing an increase in students with special education needs.

Nope, Legg told him.

So Lang called the district offices inquiring first if other schools also had increases.

No, not really, was the answer.

Secondly, he proactively asked for additional support services.

He isn’t sure what to attribute the entire increase to, but he does know ERHS has received and approved numerous out-of-attendance-boundary requests for students from across the school district to transfer to ERHS. The school typically receives an average of 35 transfer requests per year.

For the 2015 fall semester, ERHS had 70 plus transfer requests by incoming freshman, Lang said. He didn’t have the exact numbers detailing how many of those requests were by students with special education needs. But he suspects a significant percentage of them were students with IEPs.

This coupled with a spike within the school’s attendance boundary set Lang into motion early last fall semester requesting an additional teacher and teacher aides to accommodate the influx.

When asked what caused the increase, Lang said, “That is a difficult question to answer. I track pretty closely any shifts in our student population and the needs they represent. I most certainly wanted to have the appropriate amount of staff to handle a shift of this magnitude. The best I can determine is that aside from the transfer requests, ERHS had an upswing in IEPs from the military family students attending from Fort Richardson.”

Whatever the reason, the additional 45 IEPs represent more than just another student needing specialized services to achieve academically.

Each IEP represents a great deal of paperwork and planning time for teachers, aides and clerical staff.

Lang estimates a minimum of five hours to upwards of 30-plus additional hours of teacher and staff time are required to assess, implement and plan the nuances of IEPs that are targeted to specifically address the learning challenges of each qualifying student.

Kelly Heppner, ERHS Special Education Department chair, was spending her Saturdays at school trying to play catch up during the first part of the fall semester. After Lang secured additional help, she was able to ease up on her schedule, but admits her days are fairly tightly compressed between following up on student progress, communicating with parents and reviewing IEPs.

She notes the school’s autism support program is well-known across the district for having caring teachers whose goal is to support students with learning challenges. But she cannot definitely say that is the reason for the increase.

What Heppner does know is that the increase in IEPs came at a time when the school’s autism program took on new leadership. Melodie Radcliffe, who had taught the program since ERHS opened 10 years ago, retired last May. Lang hired Ron Snively from Oregon – a young teacher with plenty of enthusiasm for special needs students but not nearly the depth of experience of his predecessor.

Snively admits he was a bit overwhelmed at the start of the semester. It was one thing to learn a new school and a new set of special needs students each with their own set of cognitive quirks. It was something entirely different to begin with a massive increase in the number of students, he said.

He is enjoying the challenge, especially since the school’s leadership, “recognized the need for additional staff to support the increase to develop an even stronger team,” he said.

Lang has high hopes already being realized to some degree for Snively as the lead teacher in the school’s autism support program housed within the Structured Learning Classroom in which Life Skills is taught to students with other diagnosis such as Down’s Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and other cognitive challenges that are expressed in learning delays and disabilities.

“Replacing Melodie Radcliffe with her 30 years of experience is difficult. Any new teacher is going to take a few years to accumulate that similar bank of experience,” Lang said. “Yet we were really fortunate being able to hire Ron and bring him up here from Oregon. He has served as a Life Skills teacher’s aide in Oregon for several years and did his student teaching in a Life Skills classroom before earning his teaching certification. He already has several years of experience.”

ERHS also hired Richard Katt – a longtime ASD special education teacher recently retired from CHS.

The combo of Katt and Snively plus a well-developed team of three special education aides that had worked with Radcliffe for several years gave Heppner the confidence she, as the department chair, could focus on the technical paperwork required by IEPs and not the classroom instruction.

She and Jeannie Frey, ERHS special education clerical aide, have a full plate of ensuring the “sped” — or special education departments as referred to in academic circles — at ERHS remains compliant with the various state and federal laws governing the education of students with learning disabilities.

That includes documenting weekly check-ins with special education and regular education teachers working with students with IEPs. It includes detailed notes of any issues — social or academic, which regularly overlap for students with IEPs — along with information on what interventions and solutions were sought plus the results of such being implemented.

Add in another 45 students to track bringing the total number of students not only needing, but legal requiring the intensive tracking an IEP requires and even a veteran clerical professional such as Frey feels a bit of pressure.

Frey has 13 years of experience as the attendance and discipline secretary at CHS before transferring to the ERHS special education department. She said she wanted a challenge and that is exactly what she received in taking on the new position.

“I love my job,” Frey said. “You definitely have to be organized in this position, there are so many steps in processing the documents for each student, you need a good tracking system.   I have received a lot of advice from other ASD IEP clericals, they are a good group of secretaries that are always willing to help.”

Lang is already thinking of the 2016-17 school year and wondering what IEP numbers at ERHS will be. What he does know is that he still receives inquiries from outside the ERHS attendance boundary.  He knows more are coming, but he also knows his staff is ready to help them succeed. A large number of students with IEPs earn high academic honors at ERHS.

“I like to think of that as a testament to the excellent job being done by the special education support staff here at Eagle River High School,” he said.

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