Schools unite on special needs
One program will serve 10 districts

Friday, May 8, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ten of Northern Kentucky's 14 school districts are creating an alternative education program for children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders.

The project will help small and large school districts serve at least 30 students in elementary through high school.

"Our special education directors have been talking about more and more children being identified with these conditions," Southgate Superintendent Bernie Sandfoss said. "Some districts can meet those students' needs on an individual basis. Others need to work together."

The superintendents, through the Northern Kentucky Association Cooperative for Educational Services, will hire a director, five faculty and five staff members to serve students.

Superintendents want to start the alternative class in the fall. The program will be in an existing facility, and each student's case will be handled individually.

For a small school district like Ludlow, the alternative program could be a big help, Special Education Director Marcia Hayes said. While schools first make every effort to educate students in their home schools, that often is not the best setting. Students needing special services are referred to existing programs in larger districts.

"All students deserve a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment," Ms. Hayes said. "A regional program would expand the options available for students whose emotional or behavioral problems are too severe for the settings available within the district."

The new school will target students with "low-incident" handicaps -- conditions not very prevalent in the overall population. These students might have emotional disruptions that interfere with learning in a normal setting; they may need more one-on-one attention; and they may require unique environments for learning. Some of these students attend school in regular classrooms; others don't. Students could be in the new program for a few months or a few years, depending on their progress and condition.

The Bellevue, Campbell County, Erlanger-Elsmere, Fort Thomas, Kenton County, Ludlow, Newport, Silver Grove, Southgate and Walton-Verona school districts will help fund the program.

The state Education Department is encouraging similar programs in other parts of the state, and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education also favors cooperation among districts to give students the best service.

The Northern Kentucky cooperative will also provide a technical adviser to help all special education departments coordinate services.

"It's just a major need," cooperative Director Laura Thomson said. "Special education is just becoming more and more complicated." Kenton County Superintendent Neil Stiegelmeyer said his district already provides some of the services the alternative school will offer. But cooperating with all districts will be more efficient. "Some smaller districts might just have one student who comes in, and it might be difficult for them to find the staff and space to serve that student," Mr. Stiegelmeyer said. "It can be very costly."

This is not the first time the region's schools created a program for special students. Special-needs students from 17 Northern Kentucky districts and Cincinnati were once educated at the Fort Wright school in self-contained environments. Schools eventually decided there were better ways to help them.

This new program will keep students in an educational setting that may or may not include the mainstream student population. "It's not a dumping-ground kind of program," Mr. Sandfoss said. "It's designed to meet the needs of the students. And some need to be away from an environment that might be triggering some of their behavior patterns."

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