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Program a bridge back to classroom for students with special needs

A Grand Forks Public Schools program that is facing criticism from a disabilities advocacy group has helped most of the students it has served transition into neighborhood schools in less than two months, according to numbers from the district.

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A Grand Forks Public Schools program that is facing criticism from a disabilities advocacy group has helped most of the students it has served transition into neighborhood schools in less than two months, according to numbers from the district.

The student transitional education program (STEP) has served 118 students since it was first implemented in 2014, according to a five-year synopsis of the initiative. Of those students, 58 percent have returned to a traditional classroom setting with 45 days, and 4 percent stayed in the program for more than a year.

“Grand Forks Public Schools, I think, does a really, really good job of working with kids that struggle and providing interventions that are meaningful and important,” said Marilyn Iverson, coordinator for STEP and the special education coordinator for the district.

The program is meant to help students with special needs who cannot be in a traditional school setting by educating them in classrooms outside neighborhood schools. The staff try to identify what struggles the students have -- anxiety, depression -- and find ways to address problems children have so they can return to the traditional classroom setting successfully.

“Sometimes that means teaching coping skills, social skills,” Iverson said. “Sometimes it means identifying academic needs that teachers hadn’t been able to address.”


STEP faced criticism by the North Dakota Protection and Advocacy Project, a state organization designated by the governor that advocates for the rights of residents with disabilities, as the district considered renting space into the Herald building. In a letter the School Board members, the group said the the program violated the rights of students with disabilities to be educated in the least restrictive environment alongside their peers, more specifically, with students who do not have disabilities.”

"This 'space' would effectively segregate students based on disabilities, which is a violation of their civil rights,” the letter authored by Grand Forks-based Disabilities Advocate Carol Weiler said.

The advocacy group hadn’t taken legal action or filed other complaints against the district as of Friday, though it was gathering information on how students are placed in the program and how long they stay, Denise Harvey, program services director for the agency, told the Herald earlier this month.

The Protection and Advocacy Project has seen the percentages on how long students stay in STEP before returning to traditional schools, Harvey said, adding the agency is gathering further information on how many students in the program have disabilities.

She said she couldn’t comment on the figures until after that information is gathered.

It was the first time the district received a letter alleging STEP violated student rights, district leaders said. The program has grown over the years from 14 in the 2014-15 school year to 34 this year, prompting the district to rent space in the Herald building to accommodate the growth.

The district has denied the accusations, with officials noting the program has been located at the LaGrave Learning Center, which is not a school building, since it was launched.

A quarter of the students who participated in the program returned to neighborhood schools in three to four months, while 13 percent returned after being in the program for six to nine months, according to the data from the district. One student spent 10 days in the program, Iverson said.


Most of the students -- almost two-thirds -- who used the program started when they were in high school, but the program has served some children in grades 5-8 and at least one child seeking a GED, according to the statistics.

Twelve children who were served by the program graduated from high school after returning to schools, and 91 of the students aren’t eligible to graduate yet since they are in lower grades, Iverson said.

One student who participated in the program eventually dropped out of school, according to the data. The district considered that case to be the only one in which it was not able to make progress with a student.

Four students who previously dropped out of school returned to the traditional classroom after being referred to STEP, Iverson said.

“I’m really proud of that because those are students who disengaged so much that they officially dropped out, and we got them back,” she said.

The program doesn’t only serve students with disabilities. She noted one student who suffered a head injury had trouble in a traditional setting but was able to return with help from STEP staff. Others have asked to used the program after physical injuries, said Tricia Lee, executive director of special education for the district.

Alternatives to the program would be homeschooling or residential facilities, Iverson said. The district has a continuum of educational options for students who need help, Lee said. She noted the district previously received funds from the state to run STEP, has had positive comments from parents and has been acknowledged by other school districts and education leaders, Lee said.

In response to criticism from the advocacy group, Lee said staff work with parents and students to discuss what options best meet the needs of students on a case-by-case basis.


“It’s never a one-size-fits-all kind of thing, and it can’t be,” she said. “We feel very confident in the offerings that we have.”

STEP is an example of how the district never gives up on students, Lee said.

“We are just trying to give them every opportunity to succeed,” she said. “However we can make that happen, that’s what we are here for.”

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