New leader, liaison reinvigorate Elmbrook's special education efforts
Parent group asked to support mission
The Elmbrook School District is ushering in a new era in special education, including a new director and a renewed commitment to serve students and their families.
About 25 parents attended a kickoff presentation Monday at Brookfield Central High School for the district's Special Education Parent Engagement program. The new initiative is somewhat similar to past efforts, such as the district's advisory board, to get and keep special education parents engaged.
Renewal of commitment
"This is really an effort to renew our efforts to address their needs," said Tanya Fredrich, who this year moved from directing Fairview South, the special education co-op school, to become the district's director of special education.
Fredrich presented parents with an overview of the district's commitment, emphasizing that special education building representatives will continue to be in place. Aligning special education interests with the district's overall goals will be her main priority, she said, and maintaining a strong parent group, providing enhanced professional development for teachers who are not adept at dealing with special education students and involving a state-supported liaison will be key factors in that effort.
That liaison is Julie Holloway, a special education parent who was selected to the volunteer position over five other individuals. Holloway receives a small stipend for her role, mostly to support training.
The new structure is connected to the Wisconsin Statewide Parent-Educator Initiative. The goal is to help parents and districts find or create resources to help them build positive working relationships.
"Many districts are doing a great job but some need that extra assistance," said Cheri Sylla, a CESA I coordinator for the project who also is an Elmbrook special education parent.
"This family engagement team is not a whole lot different from what the district has had," Sylla said. "But with Tanya coming in this year and a new liaison, it's perfect timing to reinvent and revise the group."
The statewide connection also will require a more stringent data collection to help measure the district's efforts.
The challenge for the district, as well as other districts, is to provide the curriculum - including completing state-mandated individualized education programs - needed for each special education student.
"I know it has been very difficult within the new block schedule to make that happen," Sylla said, "but we are seeing signs that, going into the second year, the district is addressing all of that. More teachers are getting training in how to meet special education needs within the curriculum."
While Fredrich said the district's 12 percent special education population is somewhat higher than the average 10 percent for similar districts, Sylla pointed out that Elmbrook's student percentage is lower than most, indicating it does well in addressing learning issues in early grades.
"This is not easy, and it's not glamorous," Sylla said. "You don't market your school district on special education services. At the same time, Elmbrook has shown a commitment."
Increasing the commitment would be welcome, said Kim Workman, a parent who attended Monday's meeting. Somewhat critical of the district's uneven commitment to special education students at the two high schools, Workman called Fredrich "a go-getter" who is willing to listen and make necessary changes.
"I think they are trying to shake up the system a little bit, and that's good," said Workman, who has two special education sons, one who graduated in 2010 and one currently a senior at Central.
"I think there's more of a willingness to help kids in the lower grades, but as they get older it gets harder and it's more difficult for the kids to get into classes and activities that can build their self-esteem," she said. "I'm glad the district is getting more teachers trained to be more comfortable with special education."
First things first
For now, the Special Education Engagement Team will work on setting a vision and goals. Fredrich said she hopes the enthusiasm from the first night continues at ensuing monthly meetings.
Holloway said she came away from the first meeting "energized" at the prospect of being the district liaison. She was particularly interested in the fact that a Best Buddies program at Brookfield East High School - where a cognitively or intellectually challenged student is paired with a non-special-education student for social activities, could be duplicated at Central. Best Buddies requires a financial commitment for training and monitoring the start of a program, as well as annual dues.
"I really want to pursue that," she said. "There are a lot of things to do, but that would be a great first step."
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