Bixby Schools Special Education
Striving for independence and success.
Bixby mom Kelly Johnston laughs at this year’s first day of school snafu. She confesses she put her daughter Kara on the wrong school bus.
“When she got on the bus, I noticed a different bus driver but thought maybe it was a new driver so I smiled and waved and off the bus went,” Johnston said.
Diagnosed with Down syndrome, Kara rides the special education bus to school. “I accidently put her on the ‘typical’ kids’ bus,” explained Johnston, mother of three. Johnston refers to kids who are not in special education as “typical.”
While most moms would anxiously get in the car and chase down the bus, Johnston calmly texted Kara’s teacher at Bixby North Intermediate and explained what had happened.
The teacher met Kara at the drop-off point for the bus and walked Kara to her classroom. “Kara did not think anything about being on another bus,” Johnston said. “She is friends with all the kids in her school. My daughter’s teachers go above and beyond.”
Kara started kindergarten at the age of 7 at Bixby North Elementary. From the age of 2 to 6, Kara attended The Little Light House, an early learning center in Tulsa for children with special needs.
Before beginning kindergarten at North Elementary, Kara was evaluated by a team of Bixby counselors and special education teachers to determine the best classroom environment for her.
Gigi Barnett, director of Special Education for Bixby Schools, says that it is important to find the best classroom fit for the child’s physical and intellectual needs.
“Many children come to the district with orthopedic, visual or hearing impairments as well as multiple disabilities. Our special education counselors evaluate the child’s intellectual and physical abilities and meet with the child’s parents to determine the best type of classroom and length of day for the child,” Barnett said. “Some children attend school for half a day, while some maybe one to two hours a day.”
Kara attended half-day kindergarten her first year at North Elementary.
“When Kara entered Bixby schools, there was only half-day kindergarten,” Johnston said. “That was perfect for her. She was not overwhelmed. After her first year, her teachers and counselors agreed she should repeat kindergarten. That second year, Bixby changed to full-day kindergarten.”
That extra year helped Kara develop her social and reading skills.
“Down syndrome children learn to read by sight,” Johnston explained. “During her second year in kindergarten, the teacher tagged everything in the classroom with its name. Within several months, she could read all her classmates’ names. She also grew socially and developed many friends.”
Bixby practices “inclusion” with special education students. Inclusion is the educational practice of educating children with disabilities in classrooms with children without disabilities.
“We call it ‘responsible inclusion’,” Barnett said. “Kids adapt quickly. If needed, we will provide a paraprofessional or special education teacher to help the student in the regular classroom. But, our main goal is to make that student as independent as possible.”
All students, whether disabled or not, benefit in an inclusive classroom. Students with special needs learn social skills and tend to advance academically at a faster rate when in an inclusive classroom. And students without special needs learn tolerance for differences.
“Bixby wants its student body to be friends and helpers with the special need kids. It is important that the kids see a need and be empathetic,” Barnett said. “The more independent our special needs kids are, the more approachable they are to other students. That is why we do not want a special needs student to always have a paraprofessional by their side if possible. Special needs students are more approachable for other students when they do not have a paraprofessional with them.”
The practice of inclusion starts in the early grades at North Elementary. The majority of Kara’s days in elementary school and now in middle school are spent in a regular classroom.
“When Kara needs help, a regular student in her class is there to assist. If she needs to go to the library or the restroom, a regular students goes with her,” Johnston said.
All the students in special education get exposed to art, physical education and music and enjoy lunchtime in the cafeteria with all their classmates.
“Some of the students even participate in band and other school groups. All of our instructors are very accepting of these kids,” Barnett says.
Barnett says the degree of inclusion depends upon the severity of the student’s disability. For students with severe developmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy or spina bifida, the special education classrooms at Bixby are adaptable to each child’s needs.
“Each student works with an occupational therapist and a physical therapist during the school week. The therapists help the teachers know how they can make the student physically comfortable in the classroom so they can learn. Sometimes it is a low-tech solution like a pillow or a different chair. Other times it is a high-tech device such as an eye gaze or dictation device to help the student express and demonstrate their knowledge to the teacher,” Barnett explained.
The special needs classroom is not only funded through Bixby School District funds but also by grants from the Bixby Educational Endowment Fund and teacher grants. “We stay up to date on new equipment to help our students learn and physically become independent.”
Special education classes are kept small. The severe and profound class, says Barnett, has no more than 10 students with approximately four paraprofessionals or assistants helping the teacher.
Parents are kept aware of their child’s progress through regular Individual Education Plan meetings with teachers and counselors. “Along with meetings with the parents, our teachers communicate through folders, notebooks and behavior charts sent home daily with the student,” Barnett said. A student’s IEP is reevaluated every year and testing accommodations and alternative assessments are provided for all special needs students.
If a special education student has to be at home for an extended period of time, a teacher will come to his or her home.
“Our teachers are very responsible with our kids and find every way to help them and their parents,” Barnett said. “There is a growing curve for the teachers and the student and eventually the teacher can pull back and let the student lead.”
The majority of special education students that attend Bixby schools graduate with a diploma and some even move on to higher education. “Our special education students with more profound physical and learning issues start preparing for a vocational job when they are in high school. We help guide them to many types of job opportunities after they graduate. It is very important for the student to experience independence and even work after they graduate.”
And that is a goal for both Johnston and Kara. “We know she can graduate and we believe she will be able to work or volunteer after she gets that diploma because of the education and care she has received in school,” Johnston said.