Guest Column: What’s special about special education?
On Tuesday, as registered voters in the community of Gaylord and greater Otsego County, we will have the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the education of our youth. By now, you are probably aware that the proposed Cheboygan-Otsego-Presque Isle Educational Service District (COP-ESD) special education millage is up for renewal.
However, the really important information is how our special education students benefit from this millage, so vital to 10 school districts here in northern Michigan.
Special education was created in 1975 with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Since that time, special education has been changed and re-authorized many times, most recently in 2004. This act is now known as IDEIA – Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. Special education exists to provide all youth with an equal access to curriculum, and an equal opportunity to learn.
The majority of children with disabilities are now being educated in their neighborhood schools in regular classrooms with their non-disabled peers. High school graduation rates for individuals with disabilities have risen more than 14 percent. Employment for individuals with disabilities after school age is nearly twice what it was just 20 years ago. And a truly rewarding statistic – post-secondary education is also up, with the number of college freshman reporting disabilities tripling between 1978 and 2005.
The term "child with a disability" means a child with one of the following challenges: mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities. In addition, because of the disability, the student often needs special education and/or related services.
These students have extra challenges both in education and in life. The special education system exists to assist in overcoming these challenges and to provide students with equal access to the general curriculum to the maximum extent possible.
Each student is looked at individually in an effort to identify what services he or she is most in need of. A student with a physical impairment may need occupational or physical therapy in order to correctly use writing instruments, or even get around the school. Students who have difficulty talking may be provided with special exercises regarding speech or language. Students with learning disabilities are provided with assistive curriculum and services. It is the job of the student’s educational team to determine what the student’s specific challenges are and what can be done to assist him/her in the educational setting.
It is interesting to note that nationwide, 1 in 8 students receive special education services. This percentage is no different in the Gaylord Schools, and this means that most of us know not just one, but probably several young people who benefit from special education. These are children who, prior to the adoption of special education acts, may very well have slipped through the cracks or simply were not allowed to be educated with their peers.
Special education builds success, not just for the individual students, but for the community as a whole. These are individuals who will soon be members of the community. This is our opportunity to help make them positive, productive and educated members of our community.
By federal law, schools are required to provide special education services for all eligible students. Failure to renew the COP millage will force the Gaylord Community Schools administrative team to cut an additional $600,000 from the operating budget.
The Cheboygan-Otsego-Presque Isle Special Education millage renewal will fund these services, programs and educational success stories for more than 450 students in the Gaylord schools alone. The 10 schools that comprise the COP-ESD – Cheboygan, Johannesburg-Lewiston, Mackinaw City, Vanderbilt, Posen, Inland Lakes, Wolverine, Onaway, Rogers City and Gaylord – have a combined total of 1,400 children who depend on these funds. This millage renewal will not generate any new taxes. In fact, on a $100,000 house, this millage will cost the homeowner approximately $32 a year – or the equivalent of 11 gallons of gas.
The election on May 2nd is our opportunity as a community to continue to provide support for all students in the Gaylord Community Schools – not only support for the general education of our special needs students, but also by supporting individuals with disabilities in the community as a whole.
– Kurt Soltman is the Gaylord Community Schools director of Special education. You may write to him at 615 S. Elm Ave., Gaylord, MI 49735.