Balancing the Playing Field at Rockford Public Schools

“Special education” covers many areas in Rockford’s public school system, and it’s all aimed at helping a student to achieve his or her highest potential. Meet a few of these determined educators and see the difference they’re making in young lives.

No matter what type of challenges they might face, students in the special education program at Rockford Public Schools (RPS) are being equipped to tackle whatever’s in front of them.

Don’t tell this determined group of kids that they have a “disability.” Within these walls, it’s all about one’s abilities.

“If you talk to any special education professional, disability is never part of the conversation,” says Jennifer Lawrence, executive director of student services for the district. “The conversation is what can they do and how can we get there, and that’s the attitude we all have because we expect a lot out of them. They’re just like any other student, and that’s just how we see it.”

The purpose of the special education program is to balance the playing field by providing an education to all students, regardless of their abilities. It’s designed to give every child the same chance to succeed, no matter where they’re starting from.

“We serve the full continuum of service in our school district,” Lawrence says. “So, we serve the general education setting all the way to self-contained classrooms across our district. We serve all of the eligibility categories under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), due to our large population.”

Roughly 4,500 students are enrolled in RPS with a special need. That’s about 14 percent of the student population, slightly under the 15 percent statewide average, Lawrence says.

Special education at RPS offers a range of services from self-contained classes for students with profound needs to in-class accommodations such as additional time on assignments and tests.

The program also supports students who present developmental delays and social/emotional concerns or who need individualized physical, occupational and speech-language interventions.

Students can begin receiving special education services in early childhood, so they’re able to receive the support they need at a young age. On the other end of the spectrum, these students can receive the support they need long after they graduate.

“We also serve students postsecondary until they turn 22, so they can do things out in the community,” Lawrence says. “We try to place them in jobs and work on their employment and daily living skills. We have some students with very significant disabilities, whether it’s academically or emotionally, and we’ve been able to support them as they obtain long-term jobs in our community.”

If a loved one believes a child might have a disability, RPS does a comprehensive evaluation to determine what, if any, special assistance a student might need.

“The intervention team at the school has 60 school days to complete a comprehensive evaluation to determine whether or not your child actually does qualify under the federal regulation of IDEA,” Lawrence says. “There are a ton of rules and procedural safeguards for the parents. Those help everyone, and they keep the school district on track. They also ensure the parent is part of the process along the way.”

When the team is doing an evaluation, they might find a child may qualify with a “disability,” but specialized instruction isn’t needed. This is sometimes the case with asthma, for example.

“Asthma is a disability, but often students don’t really need any changes to how we teach them reading and math, or they don’t need help making friends,” says Colleen Cyrus, interim executive director of special education. “But they need a bus, because they can’t walk to school during the times when it’s hard for them to breathe.”

Cyrus says the RPS special education program is comprehensive and reaches special-needs students all across the region, beyond the borders of Rockford – a setup that’s unique among area school systems.

“Sometimes, small districts in the outlying areas don’t have the necessary programming for kids, like our self-contained hearing-impaired programs,” Cyrus says. “We have kids from Freeport, Dixon, Belvidere and many other communities.”

More than 300 talented and dedicated teachers provide guidance and care for these students. Classroom teachers need to be certified with a specific licensure in order to work in a special education setting. Other support staff, like physical, occupational and speech-language therapists, typically follow additional licensure requirements and training.

“When you see them with the kids, if you didn’t know that was a special education teacher, you’d probably figure it out,” Lawrence says. “It takes a special person to teach students with disabilities day after day. It’s really difficult because you can have 13 students in your classroom with 13 different, very unique and demanding needs.”

Lately, the department is experiencing a growing number of students on the autism spectrum. Lawrence says there’s been an overall increase moving into the community in recent years.

“We’ve grown by about four classrooms, so that’s about 40 or so students in the past couple of years, which is pretty significant,” she says.

In part, though, the caseload is growing because of an expanding understanding of children on the autism spectrum. Eligibility requirements have gotten broader over the years, so more students are falling under this umbrella.

“Students are being asked more specific autism types of questions during pediatric visits, and then the students are getting referred to early intervention,” she says. “The earlier you identify a student with autism and provide the necessary services, the better the outcomes will be for that child.”

And there are plenty of stories of positive outcomes. Lawrence can recall many former students who’ve gone on to live successful lives post-graduation. She quickly recounts those who’ve gone onto college and built successful careers, including some who’ve returned to their roots and now are working with special education students in the district.

“When I was a principal at Guilford High School, there was a student with special needs, and he’s just rocking it in the Rockford region,” Lawrence says. “He went to school outside of the state and returned to Rockford to live and work, and he’s a very successful young man.”