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SSD to hold virtual Town Hall meetings ahead of school year

A lot of attention has been given locally to what the Parkway and Rockwood school districts will do this fall in terms of educating students. But there is another district, with a separate tax base, that educates local students – the Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD).

“The Special School District provides services for 22 public school districts covering over 260 schools. We are designed to follow each district in the same modality it is providing. We support them based on their mode of learning,” explained SSD Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Keenan.

In other words, while SSD provides the staff, it has no jurisdiction over the format and model of how school will be presented this fall. Between Rockwood and Parkway, approximately 5,700 students receive special education services through SSD. Services range from the lower end of 30 to 60 minutes per week of speech/language to high-level support for students with autism with academic and speech therapies. 

Child with disabilities and teacher
(Source: Adobe Stock)

The district has two distinct functions – it provides special education services for all St. Louis County students with disabilities, and it provides technical education for area high school students. District personnel assist inside partner districts and at six SSD-operated schools, which will also be using a distance learning model until health data shows that students and staff can go back to school safely. That data will be reviewed on a monthly basis.

In total, more than 24,000 students receive special education services or technical education from SSD. Its services are designed to meet each student’s social, emotional, physical and educational needs. 

In addition to academic services, SSD provides speech and language services, occupational therapy, physical therapy, music therapy, social work, audiology and itinerant services in vision and hearing. All of which seem infinitely more difficult to deliver virtually. 

Keenan, along with Parkway SSD Director Dr. Bobbi Fleming and Rockwood SSD Director Dr. Carmen Harris acknowledge the challenges but say the district has worked hard this summer to prepare for fall. 

“Our teachers did an amazing job in terms of working on developing classrooms for Zoom and Google Classroom by creating lessons and communicating through the Individual Education Program (IEP),” Keenan said, reflecting back on the abrupt end to in-person learning last spring. However, she said things will be more streamlined moving forward. 

An IEP is a legal document under United States law that is developed for each public school child in the U.S. who needs special education. It is written in tandem with the child’s parents and educators both from the child’s home district (Rockwood or Parkway) and the SSD. Under normal circumstances, a child’s IEPs contain information about the student’s strengths and needs, measurable goals that can be reasonable achieved during the school year, and a list of the services needed for the student to achieve those goals. Additionally, the student’s home district  has expectations that must be met for a student to progress from one grade to the next. 

This year, rather than having multiple documents detailing the expectations of both the student’s home district and SSD, there will be only one. 

After receiving favorable feedback from parents, virtual IEP meetings, up-to-date learning plans and one-on-one Zoom classrooms will continue as standard practice, as will Zoom meetings for parent support. On its website, SSD has provided pages of resources and videos on related services for families and define the difference between teletherapy and telepractice and details on what those services will look like.

Fleming said the experience SSD families have at Parkway this fall will be vastly different than what was offered to its students last spring. 

“We have (had) time to plan that the quick two-day turnaround this spring didn’t allow for,” Fleming said. “We will have the specialist support for parents with the virtual learning and virtual lessons.”  

Specialist support comes in the form of paraprofessionals, who work alongside students on a one-to-one basis to help provide teacher support in the classroom. 

Over the last several months, Parkway paraprofessionals have received professional development to meet the unique needs and challenges of both students and the distance learning model. 

“We will provide paraprofessionals with technology to do breakout rooms with teacher supervision to provide ADA support, not necessarily one-on-one, but it will be a comparable amount of services closest to their IEP,” Fleming said. Similarly, Parkway will offer a breakout model for homework and behavior support. 

Harris said the distance learning plans for Rockwood’s SSD students is comparable to Parkway’s. Prior to the announcement on Aug. 6 by Superintendent Dr. Mark Miles that Rockwood would begin on Aug. 24 with a distant learning model, SSD was planning for both a blended approach and distance learning. 

“We (were) planning for both phases so that kids are prepared to receive services on either mode,” Harris said. “We are working hard and very closely with our partner districts to be prepared to meet the needs of our students. We have been planning for the support of teachers and paraprofessionals.”

For specific answers to what school will look like for SSD students this fall, Keenan suggested visiting the Return to School Guidance page on the SSD website. 

Sometimes links or plans are embedded on a school’s website. However, if you can’t find (the SSD information) on your school’s website, then check on the SSD website, she said. In the coming days and weeks, the goal is to link the SSD site to the student’s home school and district websites. 

SSD is in the process of planning virtual Town Hall meetings for its families. The list of dates for those webinars will be available on the SSD website and through invitation beginning Aug. 10. It will address pre-submitted questions, as well as, allow for some additional chat room discussions for other questions. 

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