By Emily Zhao

While over 13% of American public school students are enrolled in special education programs, they are often unheard and unrecognized in the masses of students in general education.

What is special education, and how do students qualify?

Special education is defined as a “form of learning provided to students with exceptional needs, such as students with learning disabilities or mental challenges,” stated by yourdictionary.com.

Students in the PHHS special education program are split into two general categories: mild to moderate and moderate to severe learning, mental and physical disabilities.
In order to qualify for either category of the school’s special education program, prospective students must be given a comprehensive evaluation. When a physician, parent, or teacher first has concerns about a student, they can refer the child to an evaluator.

According to understood.org, the evaluation process determines “whether or not your child needs special education services in order to learn the general education curriculum. Having any of 13 disabilities may qualify a child for special education.” The official list of 13 disabilities ranges from dyslexia to deafness to autism.

Afterwards, parents, teachers, administrators, and the student themselves work together to create an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), setting annual goals in both education and cognition for the future. This document also outlines the child’s strengths, needs, and present state of performance, essentially planning out the best way to accommodate the student with their needs. Additionally, the IEP team determines whether the student participates in specialized programs for the majority of the day or just one period. The purpose of the IEP team is largely to provide the student with the least restrictive environment possible or most inclusive schedule where the student spends the most time possible around general education students.

How does the mild to moderate special education program work?

The schedule of a student with mild to moderate accommodations varies between different students. Some students may attend SDC (Special Day Class) classes for just a few periods, while others for the majority of their day. SDC classes usually include supplemental assistance in math, English, social studies and science. These students may learn modified versions of the core subjects to fit their accommodations, and are taught in the LRE (Least Restrictive Environment). LRE means “(special education students) should spend as much time as possible with peers who do not receive special education,” according to understood.org. More importantly, this act guarantees special education students the right to an education as similar to that of general education students as possible.

How does the moderate to severe education program work?

Students with moderate to severe disabilities would stay in specialized education for the majority, if not all of the school day. This category of the special education program is vastly different than students in SDC classes. Students whose accommodations include being enrolled in the school’s Academy of Life and/or Academy of Life for Students with Autism classes typically have one primary teacher. Sectioned into classes of twelve students, they stay with the same teacher for their entire high school career. An average day at school entails all of the core classes modified to fit their needs, along with life skills and vocational training.

Life skills include any sort of training that will aid the student in the future, steering them towards independent living. For example, students in life skills teacher Nonglak Prasopsook’s class learn how to cook different cuisines on Mondays, feeding not only themselves but also members of the Pass the Plate club. Additionally, they learn about laundry, cleaning, recycling and other skills that will help them in the future. Every Wednesday, some of the special education students collect every classroom’s recycling. Throughout the week, students also work on arts and crafts, painting pictures, making keychains, singing and dancing.

Vocational training includes all education that will aid in finding employment in the future. Students might practice filling out online applications for jobs at Target, Home Depot, Walmart, etc and participating in job interview simulations. They practice dealing with and counting money and look for potential careers that interest them for the future.
Students with moderate to severe disabilities have flexible schedules that are subject to change, and the special education teacher provides different accommodations for each of the student’s unique needs. Day to day schedules change with the addition of different activities, including field trips and the arrival of guest speakers. Every week, Goodwill sends over a speaker to teach students about nutrition.

Other special education activities include seasonal activities like Christmas caroling door to door at school, performing at the talent show, competing in FANTASTICS, eating out at a special Valentine’s Luncheon, etc. Throughout the year, students in Piedmont Hills’ special education program have the opportunity to bond with students from other schools in the district, such as competing in soccer tournaments and a jog-a-thon. During second semester, they are able to visit NASA. Like all seniors, students are also given the opportunity to attend ‘Extra-Special Prom’ by choosing out dresses and suits at Princess Project and hold their own annual senior banquet.

These students also run three clubs: Pass the Plate, Good Earth, and Bloomer’s Club. Before lunch on Mondays, students in Ms. Prasopsook’s class cook foods of different cuisines, which are passed out during Pass the Plate meetings, a club open to all.

“After I pass out food to special education (students), general education (students) walk in and they (share) food with the special education (students). With many people (in the club), a very welcoming environment is created,” explains Pass the Plate president Anthony Hou.

Bloomer’s club integrates general and special education students together, organizing and volunteering for different events. The general ed. students help sell things at their events and throw parties to bond with the special education students, building friendships with students that they typically don’t see around school. Meanwhile, Good Earth club fundraisers for the many activities the students participate in by promoting recycling and waste management, making everything run smoothly.

In order to make these activities and clubs possible, they hold multiple fundraisers throughout the school year. Not only did they raise money for the program by selling handmade keychains and other arts and crafts, but the weekly recycling of bottles and cans that they collect are also exchanged for a few cents apiece.

In sum, the special education program at Piedmont Hills includes a variety of accommodations to fit the unique needs of their students. From least restrictive schedules to a multitude of activities, students are given every opportunity for success.

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