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Bay Vista program needs more students

Teachers say the fundamental school's special education students make rapid gains, but not enough kids are applying.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Bay Vista is one of only five fundamental elementary schools in Pinellas County, with a long waiting list of prospective students. And within it is a program unique to the entire county: Bay Vista is the only elementary school that offers the fundamental program to special education students.

But unlike the packed regular classes, and to the surprise and dismay of parents and faculty, there are openings in that program at Bay Vista, so many that one teacher has been reassigned. Officials say they hope that enough new special education students will apply to the school to avoid losing another teacher.

"I think people don't know about this wonderful program," said Mary Williams, whose son Josh is a fifth-grader in Connie Aldrich's class. "I feel like my son is getting a private school education for a public school cost."

The special education classes at Bay Vista, for children with specific learning disabilities or emotional handicaps, are self-contained. The students have their own teachers and classrooms.

But like the rest of the school, the special education students must conform to the stringent fundamental school guidelines that stress discipline, academics and mandatory parental involvement. The school principal and special education teachers say the students have thrived within that format.

Bay Vista, which has about 540 students, began the year with three special ed teachers and classrooms and a projected enrollment of about 40. On Thursday, only 18 students were enrolled and they were saying goodbye to one of the teachers, Terri Caton, who has been reassigned.

The two remaining classes of second- and third-graders and fourth- and fifth-graders have nine students each but can have up to 13 or 14 students according to county guidelines, Aldrich said.

"We have vacancies in the ESE (Exceptional Student Education) classes," said principal Len Kizner, "even though our waiting list for regular students is in the hundreds."

Bay Vista, at 5900 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. S, became a fundamental school that required application for admission in 1997.

Fundamental schools have higher standards for homework, dress code and behavior. Parents sign contracts requiring them to attend PTA meetings, review and sign all homework assignments, and attend regular teacher conferences. They must provide transportation for their children. Bay Vista's special education students must meet those standards just as if they were regular students.

Pinellas County provides a huge array of programs and services for students with special needs, and all public schools have special education resources. The majority of these students, most of whom have varying levels of specific learning disabilities, such as attention deficit disorder, or emotional handicaps, need the services as supplements or enhancements and they are in regular classrooms much of their school day.

In self-contained programs, the students have their own teachers, classrooms and sometimes curriculum. To be eligible for special education, the student is evaluated by county staff. Parents may request that evaluation or it can be suggested by teachers.

Aldrich said the concern when Bay Vista became a fundamental school was that the fundamental model would be too difficult for ESE students.

Instead, say Kizner, Aldrich and Mrs. Williams, the students have excelled under the program. They are making faster gains than Aldrich has seen in her 20 years as a special education teacher, she says.

"Discipline, structure and routine are the most important things for these students," said Aldrich. "The fundamental school adds a layer of parental commitment and support that makes those things stronger. The emphasis is on academics now. All testing shows gains."

Bay Vista has received an A ranking in the two years since the state began rating schools based mostly on standardized tests.

"We're a magnet school for reading, writing and math," said Kizner. "It shows on our test scores."

"Parental involvement is the key to student progress," Aldrich said. "That's especially true for SLD (specific learning disabled) and EH (emotionally handicapped) students, who need someone to say, "Okay, you have a math worksheet. Where is it? Now you need to practice spelling.'

"They need that special attention. We know the homework we give them will be done. We know the parents will come to conferences. Before we became a magnet school, I could go a whole year and never meet a parent. Now they have to be involved or they leave. Our students are with other students eager to learn and parents who really care."

Mrs. Williams, who also has a daughter in a regular second-grade class at Bay Vista, said she especially likes the ESE program there because, although it is self-contained, "they're blended into the regular school for extra-curricular things and field trips."

Aldrich said that her students use the same math, science, language and spelling textbooks as regular students, but instruction in her class is more individualized because her students work at many levels.

SLD students "have trouble processing information so we give it to them in smaller chunks with more repetition," she said. EH students "usually have problems managing their behavior that gets in the way of their learning."

"We teach at a slower pace with extra practice."

A stereotype, she said, is that special ed students are unruly.

"Our children come to us highly frustrated," she said. "Before they are identified, they have been in regular classrooms for a year or two and have experienced so much failure. Once they experience some success, they do a 180-degree turnaround with their behavior."

Kizner said that some parents might not want to put their special education child at Bay Vista because they have siblings attending another elementary school and want them at the same school. But those students, said Kizner, have a better chance of getting into Bay Vista than most.

"We have two waiting lists," he said, "one for the general population and a sibling priority list. That's standard with fundamental schools. The priority list is very small, so students with siblings in the ESE program here have a much better chance of getting in."

Transportation, which must be provided by parents, is another potential deterrent, Kizner said, because the county does not supply buses to any fundamental school.

"We have car pools and an after-school program here," said Aldrich, "that help parents who have a hard time with that."

Most students, including the ESE students, go to Southside Fundamental Middle School when they finish, Kizner said.

"They created a program to accommodate our exiting ESE children," he said.

Kizner conceded that "a fundamental school isn't for every parent. But we've only lost two exceptional ed kids last year and that was because their parents couldn't meet expectations, so most can adhere to the program. It's based on parents' commitment to work with teachers for high student achievement. That is how it ought to be for every student in every school."

Information available

For more information about the self-contained special education program for students with specific learning disabilities or emotional handicaps at Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary School, call 893-2335.

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