FORTVILLE – As the first day of school looms, Mt. Vernon educators are putting the finishing touches on the corporation’s revamped special education program and realigning staff as a longtime multi-county organization for students with special needs prepares to dissolve.
Mt. Vernon administrators have hired more than 30 staff members in recent months and are making plans with other county school districts to share resources among schools tasked with spearheading their own special ed programming — some for the first time in 40 years.
This year, Mt. Vernon School Corp. will offer its own special education program, departing from Hancock Madison Shelby Educational Services, a Greenfield-based special education cooperative that at one time served six school districts from three counties. Mt. Vernon was the second district to withdraw from the program in as many years; in April, local school boards voted to disband the co-op, citing waning participation.
As Mt. Vernon launches its own in-house services, Southern Hancock and Eastern Hancock school districts are weighing their options for next year, when the co-op will dissolve, leaving them to plan and implement special education programming.
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At Mt. Vernon, in addition to a director and the assistant director, the new staff this year will include 23 special education teachers, five speech and language pathologists plus a handful of assistants, said Laura Durig, Mt. Vernon’s director of special education.
Other resources previously offered by the co-op, such as educators for deaf or hard of hearing or blind students, are needed by only a handful of students at each school and could be shared among the county’s school districts going forward, Robbins said. It’s important the district provide programming to meet the needs of all of its students, but some services won’t require a full-time staff member, he said.
“We’re all in this together, and we want to do the very best for our students,” he said.
Greenfield-Central Schools Superintendent Harold Olin said Greenfield educators have been mulling potential partnerships since receiving word the co-op was dissolving. Administrators at both Greenfield and Mt. Vernon want to employ their own special education teachers, but other staff members, such as occupational therapists, physical therapists or school psychologists could spend time in each district.
One school would hire the needed employee and subcontract them to the other county districts, Olin said.
“Those partnerships will be a win-win for all of us,” he said.
Educators across the county say their goal is to ensure students notice no change as special education services evolve across the county this year and next.
Programming at Mt. Vernon, for example, will mirror what students previously experienced through the co-op, Durig said.
This summer, teachers and administrators throughout the district were trained so they’re prepared to work with the 630 students who will receive special education this year. The trainings have focused on teaching students with autism and behavior problems. Another training focused on how to teach students who face learning challenges in general education classrooms, Durig said.
Beyond training, minor renovations were required in some Mt. Vernon classrooms before school starts. Last year, when Greenfield-Central left the co-op, students from other corporations who were previously schooled at Greenfield-Central returned to their home districts. To prepare for those students, Mt. Vernon completed about $150,000 of renovations, including gutting a former band room to meet the needs of five or six students with severe and profound special needs. As a result, most of the work completed this summer – cleaning carpets and giving walls a fresh coat of paint — was aimed at making students feel comfortable in new classrooms, Robbins said.
Though they’ve been busy preparing for the launch of their own program, Mt. Vernon educators say taking control will result in better learning experiences for their students, and they’re fully prepared to welcome special education students when school starts Monday.
“We’ll have a little more control over our destiny,” Robbins said. “If we need to make a change to our programming to better serve our students, we can do it pretty much immediately.”