The final Board of Education meeting of 2017 was held on Tuesday night, and it centered around an update on special education services in the district. The board received information about special education services, settings, and goals for the future from the Early Learning Program up through Darien High School. Administrators and the new special education department chairpersons were on hand to deliver reports and entertain questions from the board.

The Early Learning Program is an integrated preschool setting. Students with special needs learn alongside typically developing peers, and the age ranges from three to five. Referrals to the program happen from parents, pediatricians, and other sources, and those referrals happen between birth and age three. ELP has different levels of involvement, with itinerant services like speech and language alone being the lowest level. There is also a 16-hour program, a 20-hour program, and a 22.5-hour per week program. ELP employs teachers, school psychologists, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, assistive technology specialists, behavioral analysts, and hearing specialists in the delivery of their programming.

Teachers within the program receive extensive professional development and training in a number of methods of instruction in order to serve each individual need within ELP.

The elementary school update was actually similar to that of the ELP, which was a bit of a theme to the night.

There are 258 students identified in the elementary schools in special education. Many of the same services and professionals used in the ELP are used in elementary school special education, and there is also a great deal of overlap in the training and professional development given to the special education teachers.

The hope is that this overlap smooths the transition for students from one school to the next as they move through the system. The elementary school presentation highlighting the “grouping and looping” structure that has been employed at schools. Grouping refers to the grouping together of students with aligned needs in order to maximize opportunities, while looping refers to keeping teachers with students as they progress from grade to grade to maintain continuity with the staff.

The elementary schools also feature the Developmental Learning Center, or DLC, programs in two schools. DLC-1 and DLC-2 are at Ox Ridge and serve grades K-2 and 3-5 respectively. Hindley houses DLC-3 which also serves students in grades K-2. Teachers and administrators work closely to create a gateway program and smooth transition from school to school, and there is a partnership with Middlesex to support students in DLC-2 who will be moving up. Again, a primary focus and goal was continuity and smooth transitions from grade to grade and school to school.

At Middlesex, there are 144 students in special education. The staff includes 16 teachers, three speech pathologists, three school psychologists, and one social worker. Middlesex is where co-taught classes are first employed, and that continues through DHS. The district has done a great deal of professional development with Marilyn Friend, considered to be one of the leading voices in co-teaching classes and special education. There is also a resource room model, where special education students receive direct instruction in a “pull out” setting, rather than a “push in.”

Teachers in these settings all also receive extensive professional development in line with what is offered at elementary school levels. The middle school has Academic Learning Centers, or ALCs, which are similar to the DLCs at the elementary level. ALC 2 has slightly modified academic classes and is focused on skill development, while ALC 1 is self contained and has modified instruction across all academic areas. Both are focused on preparation for transition to Darien High School.

At Darien High School, there are 235 students in special education. The co-teaching model is used at DHS like it is at Middlesex, and the professional developing with Marilyn Friend continues here as well. DHS has programming similar the to ALC programs at Middlesex, as well as the Excel program. Excel has five students, and is self contained with modified instruction. There has been increased interaction with the community through job site visits, as well as a collaboration with the agency Abilis.

Students also participate in unified sports, and a goal for the future is to develop more robust programming for 18-21 year old students.

There was also a look at trends within the district compared to statewide. While ELP has stayed relatively static, elementary school and high school special education numbers have trended up over the last three years, while numbers as at Middlesex have trended down. The trend in Darien is consistent with the trend in the rest of the state, and administrators pointed to the particular cohort of students moving through the district right now as a reason for the spike. The cohort from grades 8-12 is particularly large, and accounts for the increasing numbers in special education students.

The presentation in its entirety can be viewed at www.darienps.org.

darestia@darientimes.com