SEBRING Envision a classroom where the teacher and her assistants are continually encouraging, challenging and praising their students who work extra hard to make progress. In reality, classrooms like this can be found at all the School Board of Highlands County's schools, which are serving the needs of students with disabilities through Exceptional Student Education. While the typical classroom setting has the teacher presenting a lesson to the whole class, and occasionally students work in pairs or groups of three or four on certain projects, a visit to an ESE classroom reveals a much more varied setting to serve the various needs of the students.Sitting at a semi-circular desk, ESE teacher Marie Daniels worked with two boys on her left, Tarniz Williams and Jamel Newsome. She also monitored Joselyne Racki's progress with a computer reading program on her right and kept an eye on Isaias Rojas, who was at the Smartboard working with a "basic concepts with pictures" computer program. Para-professional Fran Lewis worked one-on-one with Dylan Thomas, who is blind, while para-professional Linda Wooden taught language arts to four students. Four students, each at a computer to Lewis' left, were quietly working on a computerized lesson. Also, a speech therapist stopped by a couple of times to take one student at a time out of class for individual instruction. Daniels was prepared with a battery of questions and follow-up questions for Williams and Newsome. "Put your thinking cap on, come on, open up your ears," she said. "Name a business." "McDonald's" Williams responded. Daniels said, "Name another business." "Red Lobster," Newsome responded. Daniels continued with her questions while she encouraged the boys and acknowledged their correct answers with a good word or a "high five." Daniels' class has students from second- through fifth-grade. She explained, "All of my students are on a different level," which means the students have individualized lessons. So when students finish their day in school they have had individualized instruction in reading, math and language arts, which includes writing and spelling, she said. In the afternoon science and social studies are targeted. The students are in the classroom most of the day, but they also go to electives such as chorus, media and physical education. Through a University of South Florida grant, an artist teaches drama and dance in the classroom on Tuesdays. Last year an intern taught art to the students. "So we're doing a lot of things," Daniels said. "We are getting ready for our annual play that we do for other classes." Her students' disabilities range from an intellectual disability to autism spectrum disorder, she said. "You can't tell the difference." She asks Newsome to answer the phone. "Use your telephone voice, please," she asked. Lewis, who has been an ESE para-professional for nearly 29 years, has worked with visually impaired students for 26 years. "I do Braille with the students," she said. They don't get any study materials in Braille for Thomas so she translates it to Braille for him, Lewis said. She started working with Thomas five years ago when he was 5 years old. One by one, Thomas moved a collection of different shaped items, about 2 inches in size, from the table he was sitting at to a tray above the Braille machine. He is counting and then putting his answers in Braille, Lewis said, so he is working on two things — math and reading skills. Meanwhile, Wooden helps students with writing and grammar. They were working on spelling and capitalization and punctuation, she said. "We've had a couple students in the class actually participate in the writing contest and actually win at the school level," Wooden said. "We have some great writers in here." Williams worked at a fast pace at the Smartboard selecting the correct picture according to a written and computer-spoken prompt. "It's going OK," he said. When asked if school gets hard at times, Williams replied in a clear and positive voice, "Well, it gets a little hard, but I keep working." Daniels said her philosophy is to take her students "higher." "They come in with a disability … but, my philosophy is I want to focus on their 'ability' and take them further so they can function and have a quality of life with dignity," she said. But many ESE students are not in a separate classroom. School Board ESE parent assistant Sandra Bass said there are a lot of misconceptions about being in ESE. Many believe it means the child is in a separate class or is severely impaired and in a wheelchair, but in many instances the student just needs a little extra help so they can very easily earn a standard high school diploma. For example, some students have a slight speech impairment or are a little slow in learning, she noted. Nearly 13 percent (1,570) of the district's students have one or more disabilities, called exceptionalities, which fall under ESE. There are 16 exceptionality classifications, including: orthopedically impaired, speech impaired, deaf or hard of hearing, autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability. School districts and schools develop their own programs to serve their students in the most effective way possible, according to the Florida Department of Education. The FDOE Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services provides training to school staff, district administrators and others on important issues and current instructional practices. Highlands County Student Support Services Director Pat Landress said the biggest challenge is trying to get the right fit for the students and coordinating the programs that they need with the teacher that they need, along with what the parents think their children need to be successful. Though a relatively rural county, the district has been able to hire some "outstanding" ESE teachers, she noted.
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