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Michigan Radio's Grading Michigan Schools is a multi-part series that takes an in-depth look at education in Michigan. We hear why one college student feels let down by the public school system in the state. We find out about "unschooling," an education philosophy that abandons textbooks and a curriculum. We also look at how the public school system is serving at-risk students through education for the very young and early intervention for kids with special education needs.Support for Grading Michigan Schools comes from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a founder of the Grand Rapids Education Reform Initiative, and The Skillman Foundation, a voice for Detroit children since 1960.

Special Ed Numbers Plummet When Teachers Ask For Help Early

Nov. 14, 2007
Asking for help used to be considered a sign of failure in teaching. It's encouraged in one district. Teacher support teams have cut special education numbers in half.

The number of Michigan children in special education is rising. It's now more than 14 percent.

A child placed in special ed rarely returns to mainstream schooling. It hurts the child's future, and it hurts schools, because special ed students cost more to teach.

Northville Public Schools has kept hundreds of students out of special education in the first place.

Third grade teacher Brooke Baker stands in front of her students, one arm raised like an orchestra conductor.

Would you just give me a quick thumbs up if you are already done right now," she says. "Give me a thumbs up so I can see.

Baker assigns learning buddies to students who haven't finished. Then she sits down with a student who's struggling with rounding. That's right, she prompts as the student works through the problem. Perfect.

Most of the time, Baker can keep all her students learning at about the same pace. But sometimes, she gets stuck. Like last year, when a student couldn't get the hang of counting by fives.

She called in a teaching support team, which discovered that the student was a visual learner, and needed more repetition. So Baker posted examples around the room. The student and his learning buddy practiced for a couple of weeks, and he was back on track.

Baker says, I kind of think of it that you have this child and they're like a puzzle, and I have a piece and I can't fit it in. The instructional support team can see that piece in a new light, maybe turn it and fit it in for me.

Statewide, special education numbers have risen from 11 percent in 1992 to 14 and a half percent today. In that same time, Northville Public Schools' numbers have plummeted to about five percent. The program saves the district more than seven million dollars a year. It also acts as a year-round form of professional development. Teacher Brooke Baker says as she has increased her repertoire, she needs to call the teams in less and less.

( I think) I could call them -- but wait a minute. I remember using this technique with so and so three years ago and I can bring that out of my toolbox.

Teaching support teams were introduced at Northville by Bob Sornson. He was Special Ed Director at the time and now runs a business that helps other districts set up similar programs.

Sornson says teachers know which students are falling behind. But in most districts, they can't do anything about it until the student qualifies for special education. He says by then, it's often too late.

If we wait a few more years until they get into a pattern from which they will probably never emerge, then we will give them significant support. How would I like to be the parent receiving that message?

Sornson admits money helps. Northville is one of the most affluent districts in the state. But he says instructional support teams can work at even financially struggling school districts.

Especially if they get help from their county Intermediate School District, as Redford Union Schools did. Redford Union set up teaching support teams two years ago. Already, Bulman Elementary Principal Susan Stanley is convinced it's working. Special ed placements went from nineteen to six in one year.

Stanley says the hardest part is breaking down the old culture of teaching, where asking a colleague for help meant you were failing.

It is a total paradigm shift to be able to say I'm going to open up my classroom door and have a colleague come in and observe a student that I'm having difficulty with and I don't know what to do and then we're going to have a professional dialogue.

The approach has such dramatic results that it tends to wins converts and disciples at a fast pace. One is State Senator Nancy Cassis.

In 2005, the Governor signed her bill which provided for grants to districts statewide to create their own teaching support teams. That funding fell to the state budget ax.

Well, isn't it ironic," she says, "that in a time of budget crunch a program that has proven itself through data and research to actually save money was cut.

But Cassis didn't give up. In this year's school aid budget, there is a provision allowing Intermediate School Districts, which provide support to all the districts in their county, to set up teacher support programs using existing funding.

It's not ideal, but Cassis and other proponents of teaching support teams say they'll make up for lack of money with zeal.

Something is working! Cassis says. And now we've got to spread the good news and get the program in place

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.