The Argyle ISD board of trustees approved hiring additional special education staff at an April 15 board meeting.

Academic consulting firm Moak Casey presented its review of AISD's special education program to the board at an April 2 workshop, which prompted the district to consider program revisions. Special education enrollment has increased by almost 215% since 2013, according to district documents.

Zooming in

After reviewing the firm’s data, district officials recommended hiring five more special education staff, three of which will fill positions at the new Jane Ruestmann Elementary School slated to open in August.

The positions include:
  • One life skills teacher
  • Two special education teachers
  • One diagnostician
  • One occupational therapist

The total cost for all positions is estimated at $374,000, but $232,800 of that is covered by the elementary school's budget, which allocated funds to hire special education staff, according to district documents.

The backstory

Hiring additional staff was the first step in a three-year plan to update and optimize the district’s special education program after Toni Riester-Wood, Moak Casey executive director of academics, and Consultant Cynthia Anderson provided recommendations at the budget workshop.

The primary goal of the changes is to better integrate special education and general education, Superintendent Courtney Carpenter said. Three years ago, the district shifted from a cooperation model, in which they partnered with other districts, to running their own program. The transition left residual practices that were more antiquated and in need of refinement.

The details

One of these was the lack of an inclusion model, which integrates students with special needs into general education classrooms alongside their peers without disabilities. The district runs a parallel system where special education students are served in separate classrooms. The absence of this model can impact performance and inhibits the district’s ability to provide access to the general curriculum for students with special needs, Anderson said.

Shifting to an inclusion model means adopting a co-teach system where a special educator will work alongside a general education teacher in the same classroom to have seamless integration between special education and general education students, Riester-Wood said. In this system, both teachers can assist each other while retaining their specialties.

“Having teachers work together in a co-teach setting is now being shown as an effective and efficient use of staff, but it's also really good for students because they then have access to the general education curriculum,” Riester-Wood said.

While there is a small percentage of special education students who qualify for an alternative assessment, the majority are required to take the same state tests as general education students, such as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, Riester-Wood said.

“This is not unusual to have parallel systems. Having a district get rid of a parallel system takes effort—huge effort on the part of general education and special education," Riester-Wood said. "It's got to be an intentional effort in the district to get there.”

More details

Part of this intentionality would be eliminating the district’s Content Mastery Centers, which is not an effective use of staff and fosters the mindset that special education is a place and not a service, Anderson said.

The district has several Content Mastery Centers, two of which are at Argyle High School. The centers are dedicated spaces where special education students work on general curriculum assignments for specific areas, such as reading and math. However, if students know they can leave the classroom to get help, they can start exercising this option for every subject, Riester-Wood said.

This can lead to oversized pull-out sessions with students who need help in multiple areas, which strains special educators and limits the aid students receive. In many cases, the Content Master Centers have class sizes larger than the ones students left to receive help, Riester-Wood said.

Content Mastery as a practice in special education has largely been retired for at least 10 years, Carpenter said. But AISD will keep them in place until it builds out its alternatives and the co-teach model can facilitate students' needs.

“[Content Mastery] was actually a burden on the classroom teacher because they had to provide the CM teacher with lesson plans, copies of whatever they were doing that week, and it was a lot of preparation for them,” trustee Leona McDade said. “So I think in the long run it's really going to be easier for everyone.”

Going forward

The district is communicating the changes to staff. The three-year plan will include more nuanced changes than what was discussed at the board workshop, such as developing a student-centered master scheduling process as well as increasing the frequency and variety of professional learning opportunities for special educators. Most of the changes are programmatic and won’t require board approval, Carpenter said.

“It's going to take time to right the ship and get us turned,” she said. “When you have been doing things one way, [changing that] does take a philosophical shift.”