FAIRMONT - Fairmont Area Schools is changing the way it educates kindergartners with special needs.
Beginning next school year, 5- and 6-year-olds with Individualized Education Plans will be integrated with their peers. IEPs are plans describing specific needs in students with disabilities, how their disability affects their learning, and how teachers can best help them attain educational goals. A student's disability can be either physical or mental.
Previously, young special ed students were taught in their own classroom by a special ed teacher, providing a transition year between Early Childhood Special Education and first grade.
According to Southern Plains Cooperative director Sarah Mittelstadt, students in special education kindergarten would get the same curriculum as other students - the goal was to put them in the mainstream classroom in first grade - but they were given a heavier focus on math and reading.
"They get initial intensive interventions in the classroom, then hopefully they would be out of special ed service by the time the students move to first grade," Mittelstadt said.
Not long ago, almost all special education students were kept separate from other students, but that is no longer the case.
Mittelstadt said 26 kindergarteners at Fairmont have IEPs, but only 12 were in the special class. The co-op handles the special education needs of most surrounding schools, and Fairmont was the only one still teaching kindergartners separately.
"We are finding the needs of students have really changed," said Mittelstadt, indicating research shows special education students benefit from being around typical children.
"If you have 11 students who are just with special ed kids, is that the best thing for them?" asks Fairmont Area Superintendent Joe Brown. "There is evidence [that 'mainstreaming'] is the best way to go."
The current special ed kindergarten teacher, Erin Meyers, will continue her employment with the district by consulting with classroom teachers and helping them teach students with IEPs.
Mittelstadt said that may mean pulling them out of the classroom for individual help in certain subjects, or giving them extra time to study certain topics.
"At one time, special ed kids were really isolated," Brown said. "Our goal is to get all students K-12 in the least restricted environment."