BATESVILLE, INDIANA — An enhanced special education department at the Batesville Community School Corporation (BCSC) this year is part of a series of adjustments to the program since these services returned under the school corporation’s umbrella several years ago. Prior to the 2020-21 school year, special education services were shared by BCSC with several other local school corporations through a cooperative program. Now in the third full year of having in-house special education services, BCSC continues to improve and refine its ability to meet these students’ needs with its own dedicated staff.
“Our first year of handling special education in-house was during the height of COVID,” explained Lynn Gosser, director of BCSC special education. “”My transition to BCSC was made easier because of the great team hired around me. That year, we spent a lot of time getting settled, figuring out what our services would look like, and assisting our initial full-time and part-time therapists. During the 2021-22 school year, we added a school psychologist and put many formal processes in place. I would consider this year, our third, as the final year in our transition. We are smoothing out any kinks in the system and have expanded our staff to better serve our students.”
Staff in new positions on the team this year include an assistant director of special education, an educational consultant, and an administrative assistant, as well as a full-time occupational therapist. Other staff members include a special education teacher for non-public schools, as well as one part-time and two full-time speech therapists and part-time positions for physical therapy, blind/low vision students, and students who are deaf/hard of hearing. Hillary Timonera, who began her career at BCSC as the school corporation’s psychologist, is now the assistant director of special education, while retaining her former role until a replacement is found.
“My role right now as school psychologist is primarily spent, due to time constraints, conducting evaluations for students in need of special services, in order to determine if they qualify,” Timonera said. “Special education services assist those with a variety of concerns, including autism, blind/low vision, cognitive ability, deaf/hard of hearing, development delay, emotional disability, or language/speech impairment, to name a few. In addition, as the new assistant director of special education, I have been working with our educational consultant, Kindra Moore, to streamline our evaluation processes and improve our services. Her input has been integral to our success, as is the support our entire department receives from our administrative assistant, Barb Greene.”
Staff includes Brandi Hofer (occupational therapist), Elaina Beach (physical therapist), Brandy Westrick (special education teacher for non-public students), Kelly Spencer, Rachel West, and Megan McKinney (speech therapists), Mindy Koehne (teacher for students who are blind or have low vision needs), and Lori Trimble (teacher for students who are deaf or hard of hearing). The therapists who work for the BCSC special education department provide their services to students from age three on up. Therapists develop their schedules based on the number of students at each building who qualify for services. The special education staff works closely with general education and special education teachers, as well as building principals, to provide an integrated, yet child-specific, educational plan for each student they assist.
Roughly fifteen percent of BCSC’s students qualify for some sort of special education services. Some, such as the youngest learners who often only need speech therapy, may receive assistance for just a short time. Others may need more long-term help. The goal for the special education department, in general, is to provide assistance in such an impactful way that the majority of students can move eventually out of the program.
“That’s one of the great advantages to bringing the special education department under the umbrella of the school corporation,” Gosser said. “The services provided before, through the cooperative, were getting the job done, but now we have more familiarity with each student. Our therapists are readily available, and we can build a more cohesive school community with our own staff providing services to the Bulldog family.”
“The other benefit to having our own dedicated department is the sense of camaraderie and rapport that has developed within the staff,” Timonera added. “From being able to provide feedback to the building principals about special education issues on a regular basis to the new monthly meetings of the special education teachers and therapists, we are really starting to see our plans bear fruit.”
Besides meeting each student’s individual education plan that addresses specific needs, the department stresses that, as much as possible, special education students should feel that the BCSC environment is one that promotes inclusion. To that end, efforts are made to reduce the number of times the student is pulled from the classroom for services, instead offering them right alongside what their peers are engaged in. Services such as occupational or speech therapy, are even offered as a whole-class activity on occasion, since all younger students can benefit from speech fluency or fun occupational therapy-based activities.
“When you look at the percentage of our special education students’ school day spent with peers versus being separated out, BCSC is ranked in the top tier for the State of Indiana,” Timonera shared. “We want our students to receive the services they need, but it is not lost on us that it is important for them to be integrated into school life and experiencing what other students are doing. Our special education teachers are phenomenal at exposing those students to an activity in a general education class, then returning to the special education classroom to review it and spend a bit more time applying it. That’s our goal; to get them the extra help they need without taking away from the everyday rhythm of attending school.”
The next challenge for BCSC’s special education department will be when Gosser retires at the end of the 2022-23 school year and Timonera steps into that position. Once a new school psychologist is hired, additional services like collaborative programming with the school counselors, can be added.
“We are in a good spot as a district,” Gosser concluded. “All of our special education teacher positions are filled, we have a full component of therapists, and enjoy a good student/teacher ratio. We knew that developing our own special education department would be a challenge, but I’m leaving the department in the capable hands of a talented team. The staff members in Batesville’s special education department truly are special, just like the students they serve.”