LARGO — Special-education students in Pinellas County schools are performing well below the level of their peers across the state, but a new plan could turn things around before Florida schools transition to a new set of education standards next school year.
Only 21 percent of about 12,900 students in exceptional-student education programs met the proficiency score of three or higher in reading on last year’s Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and only 22 percent met the standard in math, down from 27 percent on both tests in 2011-12.
The Florida Department of Education’s goal for special-education programs is for 34 percent of students to score a three or higher in reading and 37 percent in math. The state average is about 35 percent in reading and 40 percent in math.
Also, the graduation rate for Pinellas students with disabilities was about 40 percent last year, 10 percent below the state average and in the bottom 10 statewide. “But not for long,” said Lisa Grant, executive director of Exceptional Student Education.
The school district intends to eliminate the gap between students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers, to streamline classroom lessons and to re-evaluate special-education staffing.
“We’re moving ourselves, as well as others, out of comfort zones, but that’s good learning for all of us and it will help us move forward,” Grant said. “We can’t stay where we are. I can’t sit here and just accept those achievement levels.”
The exceptional-student education department is analyzing student-teacher ratios in hopes of “focusing resources on better meeting student needs,” Grant said.
According to preliminary staffing models sent to school principals in February, as well as job postings on the school district website, the district could hire new teaching positions in exceptional student education at schools such as Gibbs High School, but the number of special-education aides will go down. Jobs won’t be lost, school Superintendent Michael Grego said. Instead, open positions may not be filled and some aides may be transferred to where they are needed.
Officials would like to place prekindergarten through fifth-grade programs in the same school. Currently, second- through fifth-grade students are in one school and kindergarten through first-grade students are in another. That would prevent students with behavioral, physical or learning disabilities from having to change schools early in their formative learning, and school staff, such as behavior specialists, could follow students through multiple grades, Grant said.
At middle and high schools, students would be divided into three classes — mild, moderate and intensive — instead of grouping students with various levels of need into one class. The new structure will cause a “small percentage of students” to change schools, Grant said.
The district is working to ensure that seniors could stay at their current schools if they choose. Schools also are encouraged to have student ambassadors welcome the special-education students and help them get settled.
The school district also is developing a curriculum matrix to use in all classes, aligned to the new Florida Standards, so students are learning from the same materials and teachers are trained to use them. That will help to compare practices and student achievement in county classrooms.
“There’s no silver bullet for any of this,” Grego said. “We need to look at recruitment of highly qualified teachers, retention, staff development, every single variable to help strengthen ESE services for our students.”