Austin moving toward special co-op; Arrangement would be with 4 neighboring school districts

Published 10:13 am Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Austin Public Schools District is looking to partner with four area school districts to improve programming for students with more severe special needs.

Earlier this month, the school board approved joining a cooperative that could include the public schools in Albert Lea, Owatonna, Faribault and Northfield to make a separate school, which could be located in Owatonna, for children who’s needs aren’t currently being met as efficiently as possible.

“Essentially, we’ve been having some difficulties in the district programing for some of our students with more severe needs,” APS Director of Special Services Sheryl Willrodt said.

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So far, Austin, Albert Lea and Northfield have passed resolutions to join the cooperative, while Owatonna and Faribault will meet within the next few weeks to decide.

Wilrodt said about four Austin students would be recommended for the special programming, which will help lower-functioning students with aggressive behaviors, some who are non-verbal, and have other needs.

“It’s been difficult to integrate just a few students into those classrooms because of the significance of their aggressive behaviors,” Willrodt said. “And in speaking with other special education directors in our region, I found that every district is having the same issue with just a handful of students.”

Willrodt pointed out in larger districts, such as in the Twin Cities, there’s a specific school to cater to the needs of those students. Since Austin only has a handful of students, there is not a school set up for that — a problem the other four districts also face.

Willrodt explained the program would form a cooperative between the districts to open a special school to fit those needs.

“Every district by law is required to provide a continuum of services … and so that means we’re able to provide services according to what the students need,” Willrodt said.

The district meets the needs of students in a variety of ways. Some are met in the general education classrooms, while others are occasionally pulled out for support services, some require a separate classroom and others finally to a separate school.

The district has focused on providing either homebound instruction or creating a separate classroom staffed with paraprofessionals, with the teacher rotating in. For the 2015-2016 school year, the district is looking to cluster the students into one building with their own teacher and paraprofessionals, yet they will start with only two students in the classroom. Willrodt said the programming the district is able to provide currently doesn’t meet the students’ needs as well as a cooperative could, and it’s not as efficient as going to a program with the cooperative could be. There is also a high burnout for teachers who do this instruction, since they are working alone for much of the day without other teachers and staff to gain support from, which is another issue the cooperative could address.

“This would provide more of a program in a special school where there’s several teachers, several staff members kind of supporting each other,” Willrodt said.

The districts are currently looking at an empty warehouse space in Owatonna as the new school building, which would be completely remodeled to fit the needs of the students and make a safe learning environment. Owatonna is the most central site for all five districts. Willrodt said many of the smaller, surrounding school districts are already involved in cooperatives. They hope to start the cooperative in the fall of 2016.

Willrodt said program costs should come in around the same as what the district is paying now, but it will be more efficient and provide more appropriate programming for the students.

“I really believe it will probably be pretty even,” she said. “While I don’t think it will be a huge cost savings for the district, I don’t think it will be a huge cost expense for the district, and I think the programming for the students will be much, much better.”

The staffing costs will stay about the same, with a similar number of paraprofessionals to work with the students, but with about six students to one teacher it will be more efficient. Willrodt’s biggest concern with the cooperative is the transportation. Though she said the costs won’t be an issue — as about 95 percent of transportation costs are reimbursable by the state — the level of the students’ needs could make traveling a longer distance more difficult.

“I have some ideas about how to kind of work with that, but that is probably one of my biggest concerns is transportation,” Willrodt said.

She is working through options such as providing adequate staffing on the bus, or providing the students with something to fill the time, such as iPads or other devices.

Willrodt hopes the cooperative will provide more adequate programing for the students “to better meet the needs of the students and families, while being fiscally responsible,” she said.

Thus far, Wilrodt said the parents administrators have spoken with about the potential program have been excited about the opportunity.

Willrodt said it’s been a lot of work to research the cooperative and find out what the costs will be. There have been about six meetings with staff, managers, superintendents of all five districts, administration and others. Administration has also toured some facilitates in the cities. Willrodt said there is a lot of planning to be done still if the cooperative moves forward.