There are many kinds of special education classrooms as required by Federal law under the “continuum of placement” options. The problem is this, many parents are not fully informed or understand what kind of class the district is offering to place the child in the offer of FAPE. This is because these classrooms are labeled different things from state to state and even district to district. The bottom line is this ~ the class is either on the “diploma-track” or it’s not. The class is either offering standardized general education curriculum with accommodations or it’s not.
Years ago, it was a clear-cut description of SH (Severely Handicapped or non-diploma track) and NSH (Non-Severely Handicapped or diploma track). Today, a district can call the continuum of placement options for classrooms whatever they please, which makes it very difficult for parents to be fully informed on what they are agreeing to for their child’s placement.
Most parents don’t understand there are sped classes that continue to teach standardized curriculum, which is general education with accommodations, allowing students to graduate with a diploma, versus, a life-skills curriculum, which has nothing to do with general education and the student earns a “credential of completion.”
It is common for me to hear from a parent, “I had no idea that my child was in a life-skills class. That’s not what they told me at the IEP.”
When it comes time for the team to discuss placement, the IEP team sells the class to the parents like it’s the best thing since sliced bread. They go on about how the student’s needs will be better met in this class and will better prepare the student for life after high school.
How can a student be prepared for adult life if they didn’t earn a high school diploma and are not ready for secondary education or competitive employment? How can a student be better prepared for life after high school if they never learned to read, write an essay, or know basic math?
There are some students who are profoundly disabled, who may require a class such as this, and will benefit from learning life skills. However, over my 24 years of advocacy, I have seen hordes of students misplaced in this kind of class and their education stolen, when in reality, the student could have continued on the diploma track and graduated with a diploma.
Below are descriptions of the different kinds of sped classes. There may be others in your district but these are the most common. I am not able to put a name to them, as every district labels the classes with different acronyms and names.
This kind of obfuscation makes it very difficult for parents to Google information or even look it up on the district website, so parents have great difficulty gaining an accurate description of what the class offers or be fully informed about their child’s placement.
1.) Pull out / Push in services
The least restrictive service that schools can provide to a struggling child is a pull-out or push in service to the student in a general education class. Academic Support or Specialized Academic Instruction for reading or math in the resource room all fall into this category. Many schools will try this model first to see if a little extra help is all the child needs to catch up.
With this placement model, a service provider from the school or an outside agency will either pull the child out of class for a short session or push into the class to assist the classroom teacher and work with the student. These pull-outs or push-ins usually occur two to five days per week for a specified amount of time.
2.) The Inclusion (or Integrated) Classroom
(Also called co-teaching) If a child is not showing success with the pull-out or push in service, the district might recommend an integrated classroom. This is a general education classroom, co-taught by a gen ed teacher and a special ed teacher and sometimes an aide or a teaching assistant. Districts vary in how this model is set up. But the class usually contains a small number of students identified as needing specialized services and the remaining students being general education students.
Both teachers are there to service the entire class. Although in some models, the special education teacher may pull out the students with special needs for specialized instruction or therapy for a portion of the day. This model allows students with special needs to participate in a general education classroom while receiving individualized instruction and services to meet their needs. All IEP students are on the diploma track.
3.) The Special Day Class
This class is taught by a special education teacher and all students have an IEP. The class offers general education curriculum with accommodations and teaching is delivered at a slower pace with a much smaller class size than a general education class. All students are on the diploma track. Some students benefit from being placed in a smaller classroom of students who have similar educational needs. These students remain within the traditional school setting, while the lower student-to-teacher ratio can help them grasp educational concepts and overcome challenges that would hold them back in other general education classes.
4.) The Self-Contained Classroom
The self-contained classroom is a much more restrictive placement in special education services. These classrooms are usually made up of 4-12 students with one special education teacher and a few aids or teaching assistants.
In a self-contained classroom, the instruction is individualized to the specific needs of each student. Each student’s goals are worked on every day along with the life-skills curriculum. The general education curriculum is not offered in this class but instead, the curriculum focuses on functional skills. There are some schools that may integrate students in a self-contained classroom with the general population for opportunities like gym, art, and lunch. They may also work with a cooperating general education class for special projects or trips. The students in this class are not on the diploma track and receive a credential of completion.
Conversely, other schools have students in the self-contained class for the entire day, disallowing an opportunity to be educated alongside typical developing peers. I’ve even seen a life-skills class have lunch and passing periods at a different time than general education students, claiming it’s better for the student’s behavioral needs as not to escalate anxiety or sensory deficits.
5.) NPS – Non-Public School
There are Non-Public Schools for students who have severe cognitive challenges and certain physical disabilities that may be placed in a specialty school where the student’s individual needs can be met by a very low student-to-staff ratio. These schools offer highly trained teachers and therapists who provide not only occupational, speech, and cognitive services but also will take advantage of other therapies to help improve their quality of life and prepare them for adulthood. These may include art therapy, aquatic therapy, job training, life skills, and other services as offered by the non-public school.
There are Non-Public Schools that specialize in autism and focus on implementing AAC (Alternative Augmentative Communication Device) and ABA therapy. These students may be on a diploma track and still learn standardized general education curriculum or may focus on a life-skills program.
There are other Non-Public Schools that enroll students who have disciplinary records and were expelled from public school. These schools are certainly not appropriate for students on an IEP. Yet, I have seen students with autism and other disabilities be misplaced in this type of NPS.
6.) Residential Treatment Programs
Residential special education programs are best for students who require around-the-clock care that is beyond the capability that their community can offer. These students often have medical needs beyond what can be managed at home or present with mental health issues that come before their educational needs.
Depending on the level of needs of a specific student, there are many different placement options to ensure a quality education that expands on their strengths and helps them overcome challenges. However, when a parent is not fully informed about what is available under IDEA, many students are misplaced in a class that will limit opportunities to be educated alongside typical developing peers and jeopardize their ability to receive a high school diploma.
Here’s to your advocacy success!