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Dalton, TX: Constant increases in special needs students

Jan 13, 2024, Cleburne (TX) Times-Review: Number of Dalton Public Schools students with disabilities increases

A presentation at a Dalton Board of Education meeting on Monday, Jan. 8, put a spotlight on students with disabilities (SWD) data.

Figures presented by the school district indicate that 1,155 SWD were counted within Dalton Public Schools (DPS) as of Oct. 1.
That’s roughly 15.1% of the entire district student population.
“The numbers do continue to rise,” said Pam Wiles, DPS' director of Exceptional Student Services (ESS). “We’re up again from the last school year, in number, but we’ve also increased in percentage when you compare it to the percentage of total students.”
The 2023 count comprised 13.3% of the total DPS student body. In 2015, the rate stood at 8.1%.

The numbers, she said, are comparable to those in surrounding school districts….

So far in the 2023-24 school year, Wiles said DPS has logged 195 initial evaluation referrals.

“It feels like we have had more parent referrals than we’ve had in the past,” Wiles noted. “And we really did feel coming back from COVID we are still having a lot of parent referrals.”...

“Forty-eight of those 81 pre-K schoolers are coming to kindergarten,” she said. “And we have 20 students who are in evaluation that are preschoolers.”

This school year, Wiles said DPS added six new specially-designed elementary school classrooms.

“We’ve had a K-2 room at Blue Ridge for a while, we’ve had a 3-5 room at Park Creek for a while and at Roan for a while,” she said. “The needs have just gotten so strong in each building that we needed to have that option where a student did not have to leave their home school and we were able to provide that level and intensity of support and that also made it a lot easier for us to be creative — where a student might need this intensive level of support for literacy and math, but they could participate in science or we could work them back into the regular classroom setting.”

That brings the total number of specialized classrooms to 10, Wiles said.

“We need the K-2 room at City Park pretty desperately,” she continued. “We see huge gains in the students and in their meeting their goals and them making strides in literacy, especially.”

Wiles noted that most DPS students with autism spectrum diagnoses, generally, are not involved in alternate curriculums.

“If they’re coming into us with significant markers of autism and they cannot communicate, then we want to teach them to communicate before we make a decision that they need to be alternate curriculum because they may not need to be,” she said. “We had students who had been in alt curriculums all their lives …

“We have a need to have dual-certified staff that are certified in both content areas and in special education,” she said. “And we also need to have a way for some students that are in the general curriculum to have an opportunity similar to what we have in the Transition Academy … job skill readiness, we want to look at some ways to offer some electives and some elective tracks to give them some additional opportunities that they might need.”

Wiles said 12 elementary teachers and three middle school educators have gone through dyslexia professional development modules.

“And we have 15 teachers who have been through some intensive literacy training and they’re still participating in ongoing professional learning,” she added. “Seven of those have a reading specialist degree, they have the dyslexia endorsement and they have an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) endorsement — they’re very highly-trained teachers.”

As for challenges, Wiles said maintaining full staffing is always a concern….

She also noted a substantial increase in “significant student behaviors” and communication needs.

“And those go hand in hand,” Wiles said. “Because if a student cannot communicate, then their behavior is a way to communicate, they’re telling us something.”…

From 2022 to 2024, Wiles indicated the number of DPS students with autism diagnoses increased from 106 to 150. Over that same timeframe, she said the number of DPS students with specific learning disabilities increased from 514 to 560, while the number of students with speech language impairment increased from 123 to 165.

“When our learning specialists are able to not just deal with behavior and they’re able to get into the classrooms and work with our teachers and support them as instructional supports instead of just behavioral supports,” she said, “we know what to do and how to support a student with a learning disability.”

Wiles said there are no shortage of SWD-centric needs for DPS, including positions for certified behavior analysts and registered behavior technicians….

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