Powell schools see surge in students with special needs

Posted 9/24/20

Powell’s new school year brought a wave of new students, especially those needing special education services.

The district welcomed 25 new special education students on the first day; that …

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Powell schools see surge in students with special needs


Powell’s new school year brought a wave of new students, especially those needing special education services.

The district welcomed 25 new special education students on the first day; that number has since climbed to 34.

As for why families have been choosing Park County School District No. 1, “they’re hearing that we’re open,” Ginger Sleep, the district’s special services director, told the school board last month.

While many districts across the country have continued remote learning this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Powell schools reopened with various safety measures in place, such as social distancing and face coverings.

Sleep said that while she hasn’t talked with every family about why they moved to Powell, she thinks some came to the community specifically for the in-person special education services.

“I know that as a parent myself with a child with a disability, if I knew that I could get services face to face, I would do that for my own child, as I’m sure you would all do that if you knew that that was a possibility,” Sleep said.

As 34 new students needing special education services moved into Park 1, only a few moved out, Sleep said. In addition, the district has 32 kindergarten students on individualized education programs (IEP) who need special services.

Overall, Park 1 serves around 300 students who are on an IEP.

Some schools are well-positioned to absorb the influx of new students, but others are not. The district has looked at increasing hours for the special education employees already in place, and had hoped to hire a new full-time teacher.

The district started advertising for a teacher in late August, but initially did not receive any applications.

Special education teachers are in high demand, and positions can be difficult to fill even in an ideal hiring season. Autumn is even tougher, since most teachers have a job and are in contracts for the school year, Superintendent Jay Curtis said.

Even if someone wanted to leave their position to teach in Powell, they could face penalties for leaving a contract early.

As an alternative to hiring a teacher, Curtis proposed hiring three paraeducators for special education, dependent on student numbers. The board unanimously approved going forward with the new positions this month, and the district soon started advertising the para positions.

About half of the new students moved here from out of state, and the Powell district is required to offer comparable services to what they had in place in their previous schools; each student is undergoing an evaluation process, Sleep said.

“With those students that have been added to our district and offering the comparable services, some of them have intense needs, really intense needs that I haven’t seen in a while — emotional disabilities, behavior plans, cognitive disabilities,” she said.

Sleep said she wished she could have projected last spring that the district would have this many new students, to help with preparations for the new school year.

“I haven’t been in this spot before,” she said. “We’ve had new students move in, but not that sheer quantity and then the severity of their needs.”

Some of the students need services that require a lot of support, which the district doesn’t currently have, Sleep said.

“I’m so blessed that they’re here,” she added. “I just want to be able to provide the services that they’re entitled to ... and we need to figure out what that looks like here in Park 1 for each and every student.”

Superintendent Curtis said it’s a challenging job to meet very specific needs, and “there’s so much paperwork involved” for every student.

Curtis said the Park 1 special education department does a better job than any he knows of, commending Sleep and her team.

“Park 1 has established a reputation that goes far and wide in our country,” Curtis said.

Word of mouth is powerful in the special education community, he said, and parents want to go to a district “that’s doing great things for kids.

“There are few things in the world that will make parents want to move more than going someplace where they think their kids are going to get the services that they deserve and that are going to help them be successful,” Curtis said. “And so it’s easy to see why we’re getting so many move-ins in special education.”


Will the students stay in Powell?

The district is planning to use federal funds for new employees this year “to bridge the gap,” Curtis said.

As part of cuts to K-12 education in recent years, the state capped special education funding for school districts.

“This is why that’s a bad idea,” Curtis said last month. “Because there’s no possible way that we can predict that 25 kids will move into our district, which is, again, like a year we’ve ever seen before.”

The new positions will be dependent on student numbers, and the district will have to evaluate what its needs are going forward.

If 25 students move at Christmas, the district would have the option to reduce the number of paraeducators mid-year, Curtis said, while a teacher’s contract would continue through the end of the school year.

If numbers remain steady, the district may look at hiring a special education teacher for next year.

“It would certainly be much, much easier to get a teacher during the hiring season in the spring,” he said.

Trustee Kimberly Condie asked Sleep whether she thinks the new families will stay in Powell after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s hard to kind of get a sense how long they’ll stay, but I do think that they know there’s quality education that’s going to be provided here, and they like the face to face instruction,” Sleep said. “And we really care about our students and families.”

There may be a better barometer by Christmastime and in the springtime, she said.

“I anticipate that they would stay,” Sleep said. “I mean, why wouldn’t you want to stay in Powell, Wyoming?”