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Special Education Finds Resources to Help Children Succeed

Parents enrolling their children in school for the first time naturally have questions. For some, those concerns may revolve around whether their child needs extra support. 

Reuquiyah “Rikki” Saunders, director of special education for Kalamazoo Public Schools, said that as part of the Michigan Child Find system, KPS “has a legal obligation to ensure we identify, locate, and evaluate any child that may be suspected of having a disability. That means all children and young adults up to the age of 26.” 

In addition to providing services to KPS students, the district also provides support to private schools, the Kalamazoo County Jail and the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home. 

Many young children who need services and support come into the school system already having been identified for special education through their preschool experience, doctor’s office or the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency (KRESA), which provides in-home support services for children ages 0 to 2.

Parents of children who have not been formally assessed as requiring special education services, but are worried about their child’s learning, should always feel free to speak to their child’s teacher, which is a good first step to seeing how the district can support a child. 

“Just let us know you’re concerned about your child.” But, Saunders cautioned parents against assuming a child needs special education. There are many factors to take into consideration in evaluating a child’s needs, and the district offers a variety of interventions — short of special education — which may help a child. 

“As special education advocates, we want to work ourselves out of a job,” Saunders said. “We want children to grow and matriculate with their general education peers when possible. We also want to make sure we’re not identifying kids too early, without using all other requirements of the law, such as interventions.” 

The Child Find process prescribes steps that help staff identify, locate and evaluate students and determine when special education is appropriate. Sometimes a child’s special needs are more easily identified, such as in the case of students with severe medical needs, but oftentimes numerous other issues could be at play, Saunders said. 

Some common issues that may be affecting a child’s learning: 

Child development — A child may lag behind peers in a skill such as reading simply because of maturity and development issues. “We need to give children a chance to develop. Let’s look at what a child is actually expected to do at their age,” Saunders said. “Not everyone develops in the same way. Disabilities are things that don’t go away with time or development or a change of environment.” 

Social-emotional needs — With the pandemic, Saunders said, “Everyone is struggling.” KPS has acknowledged the reality of the trauma caused by the pandemic by putting a renewed emphasis on social-emotional learning. She said students have been demonstrating that simply being in school with peers has resulted in academic growth. 

Transitional periods — Some periods in a child’s school career are more stressful than others, such as fifth grade and the transition into high school. In those cases, children often need time to decompress and learn new social skills and the expectations of their learning environment.

Social stability — Some students are impacted by stressful social and environmental issues such as homelessness or foster care. That may result in a child that has environmental challenges and needs socioemotional support. The district offers services to help students deal with those situations. 

KPS serves about 1,700 students in special education but offers support to many other children through other programs. The goal is not to label children but to ensure that they are getting the appropriate help they may need at specific moments in their lives. For the vast majority of students with special needs, excellent services are provided within the regular education environment. 

“We have to find the right interventions and specialized instruction to support students,” she said. “We don’t want to over identify children for special education programs and services. Our goal is to assist students with disabilities make progress in all areas of need, so they will become productive now and in tomorrow’s world.”