Question and answer with Gina MacFalls, district director of special education
*Dr. MacFalls has recently resigned from Bellefonte Area School District in May 2020 to accept a position at Central Intermediate Unit 10. She participated in the Q&A while she was the district’s special ed director. Jennifer Butterworth was approved in June 2020 as the new director.
Question: What is special education?
Answer: Special education is not a place; it is a compilation of services designed to meet needs of student who have disabilities. There are 13 disability categories that students can have – and they can have a combination of those – and they receive service around their disability area to accommodate that while they’re in public school.
*The 13 disability categories are autism; deaf and blindness; deafness; emotional disturbance; hearing impairment; intellectual disability; multiple disabilities; orthopedic impairment; other health impairment; specific learning disability; speech or language impairment; traumatic brain injury; and visual impairment, including blindness.
Q: How are students identified for special needs?
A: What we have are things that are called ‘high instance disabilities,’ so some of those students who would have learning disabilities or speech and language impairment are the ones we have our greatest concentration in, with autism being the third.
What happens is they have to meet two criteria. They have to be eligible, which means they have to meet one of the federal definitions of those disability categories, and the other one is they have to be in need of specially-designed instruction, which is like all of those things we think of when we think of special ed, such as extra time on tests, giving a modified version of the test, putting a kid on a positive behavior support plan (and more). They must have both of those conditions met. You might have a student who’s struggling with reading, so we do an assessment and perhaps find out they don’t have a learning disability, they just need that specially-designed instruction. It’s a safeguard, so that we’re not just putting kids in special education without thoughtfully considering what those qualifications are in the first place.
It can happen at any age. We do have students who come through early intervention who already receive services, but at any time from kindergarten through grade 12, a teacher or a parent can make a referral to have a student tested. If the parent puts in writing that they want to have their child evaluated for special education, we need to honor that and do the evaluation. Many times what happens is they don’t know what they’re asking for, so the psychologist or building principal might call and find out what they need. If they are indeed struggling and if we’re looking at the same kinds of things, we would then need to get their permission, called a ‘permission to evaluate’ and then we have 60 calendar days to complete that evaluation. That evaluation will tell us if they’re eligible and in need of services, and will answer that two-prong question. From there, we will write an Individualized Education Plan, which outlines for a year the services and accommodations and modifications the student would be entitled to based on their (disability) category.
Q: From what I understand, special education isn’t necessarily just for those with disabilities, but also who are considered ‘gifted.’ What is that?
A: It’s special to Pennsylvania. It’s not a federal mandate. In the (commonwealth) of Pennsylvania, we recognize students who have an IQ of 125 or greater, and we also look at multiple criteria areas, so it’s not just based on IQ score. We have a screening system and a system that we use for students to look at that multiple criteria, so it can be how they’re performing in class, what their parents say, what the teachers say, if they have a special area of interest (and more). We also look at standardized test scores, so it’s all those things together.
Q: Who can be contacted about getting more information about special education?
A: There are a lot of avenues for that. Generally, when they’re in the public schools, the principal and the classroom teacher would be their first source or introduction into it if they have question. They may also call the special ed office. Sometimes an agency might work with a parent and encourage the parent to call. Sometimes the physician’s office might encourage the parent to call. When they are evaluated, we also give them a packet with information called a ‘procedural safeguard,’ so they have the information they need such as what the first step is, what the second step is – and each one of our buildings on the bulletin boards we have a pamphlet that parents can access or request copies of.
Q: How does the department help with other support?
A: We have a number of students with autism and emotion disturbance who may or may not have learning disabilities or an intellectual disability. For those students, their special education program might look very different than a student who’s getting academic modifications, so the discipline could look different. They might be on a positive behavior support plan where we talk to the teacher about how to approach the student. They might be on some sort of point system to manage their behaviors. We also have what are called ‘related services,’ so we bring in outside agencies like counselors and psychologists who we can write into the IEP, and we would pay for those services.
For students who are of work age, we are affiliated with agencies that do evaluations for job coaching for a student with more severe disabilities. For example, they might go out to Skills or the ARC and they get a job coach or they shadow different programs to see if they’re going to be affective in the work place. We also use the CareeLink, so the transition coordinator at the high school might hook up kids to them for a job application, and we have guest speakers to come in and help with those students.
Q: What is the percentage of students in the district who are in special education?
A: 17.6 percent. The Bureau of Special Education (through the state Department of Education) updates that every Dec. 1, and it breaks it down by state average and school district average. What it does, is takes all of our students by disability category. Speech and language is our greatest percentage at 22 percent of our overall special ed population. We have about 10 to 11 percent of our population who has autisms. If we have fewer than five students in a disability category like multiple disabilities, the state won’t record that because of confidentiality reasons. But that’s all public information and anyone can get onto the PennData website to get a snapshot.
*Learn more, here: Special ed report
Q: What’s the goal of the department?
A: To meet the needs of students with disabilities and giftedness. It is a very expensive program to run, so we try to be fiscally responsible, but also know that we are not going to quibble about a $30 evaluation if a kid needs it. We try to base all our decision on data and what makes the most sense, so that if we do require things that may be out of the ordinary, we have the background to support that decision.
Q: How many staff members are part of the special ed team?
A: Including psychologists, speech therapists, special education administrators, support staff and teachers, we’re at about the mid-30s – our greatest numbers of teachers being at the high school.
Q: Talk a little bit about the staff.
A: They make my job so much easier. I think the people we get in acclimate well to the district – they’re well trained, they seek advice, they take advantage of professional learning opportunities and collaborate well with one another, and I think that make my job easier when I don’t have to chase after people. They have a lot on their plate just from the type of students they’re working with, but also have all of the paperwork and deadline requirements they have to adhere to. They’re great!
Q: As the director, what are your responsibilities?
A: I oversee everything, so I have the financial part of it; oversee students who go to private schools; I oversee the overall supervision of school psychologists and school nurses, speech and language therapists – I observe and evaluate them, as well; and then I also troubleshoot issues in individual (schools) on high-need cases, so I will attend those IEP meetings that could be particularly contentious and might need something out of the ordinary. I help to coordinate transportation, I will help do observations and help put behavior management programs together for students, and basically assist the principals and other curriculum directors for anything they need from the department in terms of overall curriculum. Most of our students are included in general ed and involved in the general curriculum, so I’m not buying (for instance) English books for the high school, but I may buy something like a high interest, low vocabulary book like ‘Romeo and Juliette’ that may not necessarily be the building principal’s responsibility.
Q: What else should people know about special education at Bellefonte Area School District?
A: We also run Extended School Year, and that’s in the month of July. We actually start now (in January) sending information to teachers about data collection. I’ll be meeting with teachers to go over that and then everything works on a cycle through March. We will work on Extended School Year and coordinate transportation for the summertime. Also, for a small population of students who have significant disabilities, they don’t take the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) or Keystone exams; they take the PASA testing, so we work with that. We have some of our own very specific things for specific part of our population. We also have students who have significant communication needs. We work with the University of Pittsburgh, and they come in on a monthly basis to work with teachers, students and parents to not just put an iPad in front of a student, but figure out what device they need and program it with functional activities designed for that student to use for more than a play thing.
*Extended School Year is a summer school-type program for students who qualify for it and to help maintain skills students have already learned throughout the school year. Students must have a goal in their Individualized Education Plan that takes into consideration what their disability area is. As many people do, students in special education regress during naturally-occurring breaks, but regress more than others and often take a longer time to recoup those skills, according to MacFalls. Teachers collect data after those breaks, such as during the summer and longer holiday breaks like Thanksgiving and Christmas. During Extended School Year, special education and general education teachers from the Bellefonte Area School District facilitate those classes in the summer for about three hours a day, and work with students to provide individual attention.
*PASA is the Pennsylvania Alternative System Assessment that allows life skills teachers to videotape students during the performance-based assessment as they perform tasks.