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East Grand Forks Public Schools weighs its special ed needs

"We’re in the process of analyzing things and seeing what we can do better," Superintendent Mike Kolness said Wednesday

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EAST GRAND FORKS — East Grand Forks teachers and administrators are considering how they might improve — or at least fine-tune space for — special education services there.

A working group composed of special ed teachers, building principals, and special and community education administrators has met twice this year to go over changes the district could make to better accommodate special ed students.

“We haven’t come up with any plans, yet,” Superintendent Mike Kolness told the Herald. “This is just really a brainstorming session…We’re in the process of analyzing things and seeing what we can do better.”

That could mean new or more training — “professional development” — for staff, or measures to boost student and staff safety and mental health. It could also entail renovating or reshuffling classroom spaces to better fit the size or needs of a given special ed class or, say, place it closer to a bathroom, according to Herald interviewees. And, in the next five years, it could mean seeking out special ed services in cooperation with other school districts, according to meeting notes provided by district staff at the paper’s request.

District staff formed the work group in the first place because of an increase in special education needs and "elevated behaviors," according to those notes. Other reasons include "two years of unprecedented times in our careers," student and staff safety, staffing concerns, and, in all-caps, "TO MAKE THINGS BETTER."

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The number of students who receive special education services at East Grand Forks Public Schools has risen from 254 in the 2016-17 school year to 366 this school year, according to Tiffany Litman, an assistant director at Area Special Education Cooperative who’s been at the working group’s two meetings thus far. The co-op is an East Grand Forks-based coalition of 11 northwestern Minnesota school districts that pool their money to hire specialists — school psychologists, interpreters, teachers for the deaf or blind, and so on — that a single member district might not be able to financially justify on its own.

“I think COVID really intensified a lot of the needs that maybe were already there,” Litman said. “There's increased social emotional needs, there's increased behavioral needs….That’s part of what the work group is doing, is looking at: how do our facilities meet the needs of the quantity of students but then their individual needs?”

‘Every square foot’

Kolness told school board members on Monday, March 14, that the district is using every square foot of space it has, something he repeated to the Herald on Wednesday. When asked whether the workgroup was kicking around a new or expanded building, the superintendent said the district is “always looking at options” and is considering what its physical needs are, especially if a preschool program there continues to grow. When pressed, he said there’s been “some discussion” of a new or expanded building in the workgroup’s meetings.

“There are some limits, there,” Kolness said. “There are certain things we can handle, financially, that would be short-term fixes, for example, if we needed to renovate a classroom. But if we’re looking at something larger than that, it’s going to take some time and there’s more to that because we probably don’t have the funds internally to build, for example, a new building.”

Notes from the group’s March 8 meeting indicate that such a building might be made in cooperation with other school districts, and could be a preschool center.

So, if the district is mulling the idea of a separate facility or a preschool center, but probably can’t come up with the money for something larger than a classroom renovation on its own, does that mean a building referendum might be on the horizon?

“I wouldn’t put that out there, no. I don’t want to say that,” Kolness said.

He noted that districtwide enrollment has more-or-less leveled off: 1,874 students in Kindergarten through 12th grade are enrolled at East Grand Forks Public Schools, according to a count taken this month. That’s slightly larger than the 1,866 students recorded at the same time last year but slightly smaller than the figures recorded in the two school years before that. Steady or decreased enrollment could preclude the need for a new facility or large-scale renovations to an existing one.

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“The preschool program, it’s going to depend on…how much we want to offer,” Kolness said. “We will limit what we offer based on the available space.”

Community education staff, he said, have also mulled a preschool center and whether it would be a good fit in the school district.

“Right now, I don't have the answer for that,” Kolness said. “In a perfect world, it would be great, but sometimes we have limits, financially.”

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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