Volume: 4, Issue: 2


One Region’s Response: Services for People with Disabilities in Columbia County
Магерген, Джек [about]

DESCRIPTORS: people with disabilities, Head Start, Chatham Central School District, a five-step process, a Committee on Special Education, a problem child, Questar, Individual Education Plan, COARC, Camphill Movement
SYNOPSIS: The author describes services for people with disabilities provided by various public, non-governmental, and private institutions of Columbia County, New York, USA, as an example of what a region can do for its citizens. This article forms the basis of the Power Point presentation made by the author at the March, 2012 Seminar on Special Education held at the Regional Open Social Institute (ROSI) in Kursk, Russia.

Located on New York State’s eastern bank of the Hudson River and more than 100 miles north of New York City, Columbia County is typical of rural areas throughout the United States of America. It has a relatively small but diverse population of mainly middle class citizens that is spread over a large geographical area of farms and woodlands. Its one city, Hudson, has a population of about 10,000 people counting the city and its closest “suburbs” which form the shopping and medical services center for the region. Albany, the state capital, is about an hour’s drive to the north.

Public institutions in Columbia County face the same state regulations as every other area of New York State and the same federal regulations guiding institutions throughout the United States of America.

Columbia County has a long tradition of concern for people with disabilities that is evident in its response to these county residents. Like all county health departments in the United States of America, this county’s health department (www.columbiacountyny.com) collects information on births, records the health status of the newborn, and guides parents toward services that may be beneficial for their child. Among these services available for young infants are a variety of organizations that are geared toward the health of newborn children as well as others that focus on the education of parent and child. Among the latter is the U.S. federal program, “Head Start” (www.headstart.com) which is meant to serve families at or below the poverty line.

Children with disabilities are often identified and their parents are guided toward appropriate services by their doctor, by hospital notification, by health department reporting, or during “Head Start” participation.

The local school district is more commonly the place where discreet disabilities are discovered as the child grows and passes through formal schooling. There are six public school districts in Columbia County.

For our present purposes, we will look at Chatham Central School District (www.chathamcentralschools.com) for the practical reason that this is the public school district where I worked for 11 years as principal of the Mary E. Dardess (MED) Elementary School and, understandably, have a greater knowledge of its programs than those of the neighboring districts.

Guided by U.S. Federal regulations (www2.ed.gov) each school district is required to provide placement in the “least restrictive environment” for children identified as having a disability. NYS Education Department (www.p12.nysed.gov) regulations require each public school district to have a Committee on Special Education (CSE) and each school to utilize a “Child Study Team” (CST) when identifying and placing students with disabilities.

The state outlines a five-step process for those suspected of having a disability:

  1. Referral to the school district’s CSE;
  2. Evaluation/re-evaluation every 3 years;
  3. Classification of the child for services by the Individual Education Plan (IEP) team based on the following classifications: Autism; Deafness; Hearing impairment; Blindness; Visual impairment; Emotional disturbance; Learning disability/dyslexia; Retardation; Orthopedic impairment; Speech or language disability; Multiple disabilities; Other; and Traumatic brain injury.
  4. Establishment of an Individual Education Plan which includes the child’s strengths, weaknesses, and prescribed services.
  5. Placement based on the IEP. The child should attend school where “he/she would attend if non-disabled” unless the IEP requires other placement. Transportation is included. Private school tuition must be paid by the school district if required by the IEP. Parents are included in this decision-making process. They have the right to “due process” in which they may call for arbitration by an impartial hearing officer if they disagree with the team’s plan.

While following the state and federal guidelines in the process of identification and placement of a child with disabilities, school CSTs function in many different ways. Some schools follow the “letter of the law” and use the team minimally. Others explore the possibilities of such a team and make maximal use of its potential.

At the minimum, the CST must include an administrator, a psychologist, and a special education teacher. At Mary E. Dardess School, we saw in the Child Study Team the potential for great growth for our staff, students, and parents. By a consensus decision of our school’s advisory council which included the principal, elected representatives of each grade level and the special area teachers meeting weekly on overall school issues the CST was opened to all who would like to attend with the stipulation that at least one teacher from each grade level and a representative from the special subjects would attend each meeting. All teachers providing special assistance to students such as speech and special education teachers were invited. Our greatest hopes were met and every meeting had encompassing representation very often with most special area and special education teachers in attendance.

We expanded the criteria for submission of a child’s name to the CST. A teacher could refer any child to the CST who was a cause of concern. As a result, teachers referred not only students who were suspected of having a disability but those who were failing academically, excelling academically, behaving poorly, or appeared to be in need especially those who appeared to have no apparent reason for being needy. Over time, we allowed parents to refer their children to our CST and invited these parents to make their presentation to the team.

Using the CST in this manner had some amazing and, initially, unexpected results. The “before school” meetings grew in number and attendance. By year’s end we were meeting twice a week, with full attendance. It became obvious that the CST was meeting teacher as well as student needs.

During meetings, as teachers presented the case of their “problem child,” the other attendees contributed ideas, coordination of effort, encouragement and even assistance during class. The “T” in the CST was forming ever-closer collegial bonds for our school culture. Teachers felt the support of the CST and were more confident when dealing with the child and in meeting with the child’s parents. Other CST members even attended those parent-teacher meetings in order to provide support and additional ideas. Parents began to realize that their child was being helped by a coordinated team and not just by a single, “overworked” teacher. Decisions concerning retention of a child in grade became more rare and when taken were backed up by “the considered opinion of the staff” and were not laid solely on the back of any individual teacher.

Our staff became more confident and open in dealings with one another and with the principal. They tried “new” ideas suggested by CST staff members who backed up their suggestions with actual physical presence and concrete activities. Increased trust among the educators benefited the entire school program.

Other positive results of a “fuller use” of the CST include a welcoming attitude towards “inclusion” techniques and team teaching with special education teachers; increased teacher knowledge of special education techniques; greater staff sophistication in recognizing students with various disabilities indicators; an enlarged field of options for dealing with individual student problems; fewer retentions in grade; recommendations to the district Committee on Special Education that demonstrated that many options and a great deal of staff innovation and cooperation preceded each of our school’s recommendations to the committee.2

A student suspected by the MED CST of having a disability of some sort would be referred to the Chatham School District Committee on Special Education and the five-step process (and state imposed time deadlines) would commence.

Chatham offers many service options for a student’s individual education plan after the evaluation and classification processes have done their work. Most placements are in Chatham’s own programs but in unusual cases, the district can call upon the services of a three county cooperative board that provides services that a single school could not afford to provide for an individual student. This agency is called Questar (www.questar.org) and serves Columbia County schools and those of nearby Rensselaer and Greene counties. Questar is also, when necessary, able to contract services with other boards of cooperative services in Albany or Dutchess counties which are at a greater distance but have unique service options.

Examples of services too costly for a school district to provide for one or two children are those of classes for the hearing and/or visually impaired, emotionally disturbed students, or placements requiring a large degree of physical therapy. Children with these types of disabilities would be placed in Questar programs and would travel to the schools within the three counties of the Questar region where those classes have been established. A student placed in such a class might find himself/herself housed in the home district because unused classroom space is rented from local school districts by Questar for its classes. Questar’s sole school site is a technical school for high school age students located in Hudson.

It is at the end of middle school and during high school that IEP committees plan for transitions for the students under their care. Parents are included in the decision-making process of the committee and especially so during transition discussions. Older students take part in committee meetings as the transition planning that is required by state regulation narrows on the individual’s future goals and aspirations.

When a child reaches age 12, the IEP committee explores vocational interests, aptitudes and abilities. At age 14, the student attends meetings and explores with the committee transition steps. At age 16, the transition steps are listed as part of the Individual Education Plan. From 16 to 18, the student applies for working papers, investigates college programs or vocational schools, clubs and available social and educational activities. The committee and student review appropriate Social Security benefits, supportive employment prospects, and review independent or residential living options including transportation requirements. In the 18 to 21 year old period, male students register with the Selective Service for possible national service obligations. All students register to vote. In some cases, parents address legal guardianship and/or emancipation issues. Medical counseling should be considered at this time and the student should prepare a resume. The future has arrived and now the child with a serious disability is hopefully prepared for the next steps in life.

During the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, the institutionalization of individuals with mental disabilities was discarded as a means of “helping” them. Scandals of various sorts around the country as well as the expense of institutionalization contributed to the abandonment of large scale, “warehousing” campuses.

Like many other regions around the country, Columbia County saw the immergence in 1965 of a parent group that decided to do something for their disabled children, something that would be better than anything that had gone before. These four parents founded a not-for-profit organization known as COARC, the Columbia County Association for Retarded Children (www.coarc.org.)  This group whose motto is: “Expanding Abilities One Person at a Time,” now serves 500 individuals with disabilities employing 400 staff members in 20 locations. Children and adults who at one time may have been “warehoused” in a gigantic and distant institution live, work, play, and pray in Columbia County’s communities. They may live at home and work at a COARC facility, or they may live in one of several group homes located in small towns like Chatham or in the city environment of Hudson.

COARC provides work and living opportunities as well as respite assistance in cases where a disabled person is living at home with an elderly parent. Daytime recreation opportunities, legal and advocacy services are all part of the association’s offerings. The organization is justly proud of its contract manufacturing facility and the work opportunities that are provided there for its clients. Many COARC associated individuals can be found working in supermarkets and other businesses in Columbia County. In this way, COARC has connected with the transition process of the local public school districts and the Questar regional system to provide continuing services as well as living and working opportunities for those in our community with severe disabilities.

Within our county there are several smaller organizations that assist individuals with disabilities. The largest and most well known is part of the International Camphill Movement. It has three facilities in the county. One in a very rural setting is known as Camphill Village Copake (www.camphillcopake.org)  while a newer facility on the edge of the Village of Chatham is called Camphill Ghent. A third setting is in a house in the City of Hudson for those individuals who are more comfortable in a small city environment. All of these Camphill communities offer their “villagers” living and working opportunities. 

The Camphill Movement (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CamphillMovement) is based on the Theosophy of Rudolf Steiner and spirituality is a large part of community life. The Camphill philosophy believes that everyone is independent and equal. Every individual is a spiritual being. Each has the right and responsibility to pursue a personal education.

Columbia County is rightly proud of its organizations and institutions that enable individuals with disabilities of whatever severity to pursue happiness and independence as part of its communities large and small. The county provides all of its citizens with a wide range of growth opportunities through both public and private institutions and in so doing can be proud that it is fulfilling its purpose of serving all of its citizens.

For more information on the functioning of the MED CST see the article on creating a more effective school culture by the author in the April 1, 2010 issue of this e-journal. For more information on special education techniques such as inclusion, see the article by Kathy Cioffi in the January 3, 2011 issue of this e-journal. (www.rus-ameeduforum.com)

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