Program offers an individual, ‘special’ education to students


Siuslaw’s Special Education Department matches students with resources

Oct. 2, 2021 — Now that it is October, students in Siuslaw School District’s Special Education Department have completed nearly a month of the 2021-22 school year.

According to Special Services Director Lisa Utz, there are about 192 kids who are on an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in the district, or about 14 to 15 percent of the student population. 

“With special education, we have programs at every building that provide full programming for a wide variety of student needs,” Utz said. “Everything from speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy, all the way up to different levels of response to intervention for learning disabilities, for example, with regard to reading and math instruction. We also have a set of classrooms that predominantly serve students with more intensive needs, whether that be physical needs and/or cognitive needs.”

Each of the district’s facilities has special education programs 

“We're really proud of what we're putting together. For a small district, it can be really hard to offer a wide variety of interventions. But we have some really, truly gifted teachers in place that can see all kinds of pathways to current best practice in special education,” Utz said.

Siuslaw is considered an inclusive district, where “Students who experience disability do not need to be pulled out of general education classes to be given the support, resources and the special education that they need in order to increase their skills,” Utz said.

While some students need additional support for learning and behavior, the district aims to keep students in the same classroom as their peers. 

“In fact, research shows that students who are included with general education, rather than being pulled out all the time, actually do much, much better,” Utz said. “Our goal is to just continue moving our programs to the full inclusion model … and doing the best we can to try and get all of our students included in as many of the general education classes as possible, in as many different ways that that can happen.”

That's when an IEP comes in. These programs lay out the special education instruction, supports and services a student needs to thrive during their PreK–12 public education.

“It's a process of what's called differentiation,” Utz said. “It is individualized, since each kid may have a different set of needs, and need help supporting their learning styles and their ability to receive information and, then, be able to show what they know.” 

The district’s special education teachers work with several different methods as they find what works best for each student. 

“It's a prescriptive thing, where you try and figure out how to individualize for each kid, even within a really broad spectrum of learners in a classroom,” Utz said. 

Sometimes that is small classes, with more adults able to help the students. Sometimes it’s adjusting assignments in the general education classes to accommodate the student. 

“There are lots of different small ways that that all of us can work together,” Utz said. “That's the ultimate goal — that every kid has a variety of ways to learn and a variety of ways to show what they know.”

Utz first got into special education when she started at Siuslaw School District. After becoming a classified aid, she saw how much her husband was enjoying his time as a certified teacher in Siuslaw’s special education program. 

“I saw what he was doing, and I saw what I was doing in the teen mom program, and decided I would go back to school and get my certification,” Utz said. “That's been 20 years ago now. It was just being part of a program that felt right. It was a pathway that opened up, and I've loved it.”

That love hasn’t gone away even with the ongoing pandemic and working with other district administrators to adjust an entire student body into working from home. They also guided the district into last spring’s hybrid model of education and the return to full-time in-person instruction last month.

“All of the stuff that goes along with COVID has definitely been a challenge,” Utz said. “When you think about public service, like a school, it can be tricky to navigate, but I think we're doing the best we can. We’re just trying to make changes where we need to and pivot with whatever new information comes our way. All that while we’re doing the best we can to provide for all of our students what they need, so that they can get back to whatever is close to normal.”

The special education staff are some of the best equipped people to help students — but that department is struggling to be fully staffed.

“We have been doing a really good job of moving people around and doing extra help here and there to make sure that we don't have kids without the staff that they need,” Utz said. “But it would be nice to be at full staffing.”

Currently, each school has at least one open position in their special education departments. Positions are open in the life skills programs and resource rooms. They are positions that have been budgeted for and planned for, but just haven't gotten filled yet.

“The reason they're open is pretty much as a result of COVID,” Utz noted. “People either were concerned about working in a more social environment or decided they were close to retirement.”

The job positions, along with others in the district, are posted at www.siuslaw.k12.or.us/page/job-openings. Each listing also shows the wages and benefits the district offers. 

Additionally, people do not need to have a background in special education.

“We can train and people can learn, because we have people who are really dedicated and love what they do as much as I do,” Utz said. “There's a lot of passion around it. So training new people coming into the profession is, in our mind, great. It's like, ‘Welcome! We are excited to share this with more people.’”

The department is also a good beginning for people interested in becoming a teacher.

“People start as a classified aid and then say, ‘Oh, I really love this, I want to become a teacher,’” Utz said, noting that is how she started. “I'm seeing this as a long game. With this many positions to hire, my hope is that we can get some people who are really interested in longevity and staying with us for a long time. Obviously, you need to have a heart for kids, and then need to be able to temper what you are seeing, feeling and thinking. You need to be able to walk a mile in that kid’s shoes, and help them from that vantage point, because what we do in special education is so individualized.”

After all, the program is about the kids.

“There really is no limit in my mind. Each kid has interests and strengths that we can expand from. There's no reason why any amount of after high school experience they have can't be fabulous, wonderful and exactly what they want it to be. The sky's the limit for our students,” Utz said.

For more information, visit www.siuslaw.k12.or.us/page/special-education-overview-resources.

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