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Buffalo, NY: Addressing "growing number of special needs students, most with challenging behaviors"

Stanley G. Falk School Superintendent Rachael Greene saw the wait list for special education students referred to her agency exceed 200 at times last year.

The immense need underscored a national issue: A growing number of special needs students, most with challenging behaviors, rapidly outpaces the number of qualified special education teachers applying to work in individualized settings.

Second-graders Declan and Patrick hit the dance floor at the new Stanley G. Falk School Mullen Campus during a "welcome to school" assembly Friday. "It's a very welcoming atmosphere," Stanley G. Falk School Superintendent Rachael Greene says.

When the Tonawanda City School District consolidated three elementary schools into a new $54 million building this summer, Greene and Child and Family Services, Falk’s parent organization, leaped at the opportunity to take over one of the vacant schools and chip away at the wait list.

Falk-Mullen Elementary opened Wednesday at 130 Syracuse St. in Tonawanda, the former site of Mullen Elementary.

Eighty-five students in kindergarten through third grade ventured into 20 classrooms with support from 60 staff members, including teachers, aides, maintenance workers, nurses and a kitchen crew.

The elementary school will eventually welcome 120 students, Greene said, in classes with six students, one teacher and one aide, known in special education as 6:1:1 classes.

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The Falk School includes three other campuses: Falk-Roosevelt elementary in Kenmore enrolls 162 students; Falk-Roessler high school in Cheektowaga-Sloan instructs 144 students, and Falk-Cambridge high school in Kenmore-Tonawanda is the largest, with 204 students.

Its entire 630-student population comprises referred students with a range of needs that includes a mental health diagnoses, behavioral disabilities and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Greene said they are united by “behavior impacting their learning in some way.”

Several parents of students with autism are angry by changes Buffalo Public Schools implemented in July and August to address special education class size and structure for the 2023-24 school year.

Falk pulls from 39 school districts, with Buffalo Public Schools referrals accounting for the largest proportion at 37% – a decrease from 50% in prior years. For the past two decades, the Falk School also set up satellite classrooms inside four Buffalo schools. Environments that paled in comparison to a Falk location, unfilled classes and effects of the Covid-19 pandemic led Falk to shut down the satellites.

Despite the changes, Buffalo Public Schools applauded the growth of an agency that serves more than 200 of its students with special needs….

“This is tremendous news for the Stanley G. Falk School and will help ensure those students in the Buffalo Public Schools who require specialized instruction and emotional and social supports receive them in a highly structured school environment thanks to this new central location,” said district spokesperson Jeffrey Hammond in a statement.

Niagara Falls, Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda and West Seneca are other public districts who transport at least 20 students to Falk, but the school’s geographic reach touches even Fillmore and Pine Valley, Greene said….

The 6:1:1 setting is the most individualized classroom for special education students. It’s becoming more rare as trends move toward integrated co-teaching, in which special education students are woven into general education classes. The shortage of special education teachers, too, is another reason districts may lean toward larger classrooms.

Buffalo this summer eliminated 58 elementary 6:1:1 autism classes and moved those students to 62 classes in an 8:1:1 setting – with the aim of increasing social opportunities for students with autism – but the district kept the 6:1:1 setup for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Hammond said in August that Buffalo was still short 18 high school special education teachers….

Teachers “saw the increased need of students,” Greene said, “while managing their own health and wellness.”


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