Special education changes made with student needs in mind

School Board Report

It’s about what is best for students. 

That is what the top administrators at Winona Area Public Schools said was the main reason to make several changes to the locations of special education programs throughout the district. The changes were presented to the school board last Thursday

“We needed to make sure that we were balancing what our students need,” Superintendent Dr. Annette K. Freiheit said. “That was the biggest push on this, was to really get that continuum of services for our students and balance that with adult preferences. … The ultimate end is: ‘How does it help the students?”

Some of the changes have been in consideration since Dr. Sarah Knudsen joined the district as the Director of Special Education in 2018 but have been delayed for several reasons, including disruptions from COVID-19. However, with increasing student need and a realization during the WAPS Community Task Force meetings that the most accessible elementary building was not being utilized for special education services, the numbers, data and facts all pointed to now being the right time for a shift.

Most of the changes involve students who are in need of the most intensive supports offered through what are called Setting III programs. Students in these programs typically spend about 80 percent of their day in a special education setting and are integrated into a general education classroom the remaining 20 percent.

The changes include: 

  • Moving the Setting III Emotional Behavior Disorder LEO program from the Winona Area Learning Center to Winona Senior High School (to the agriculture building)
  • Creating a center-based Setting III Emotional Behavior Disorder program at Jefferson Elementary
  • Moving two Setting III Developmental Cognitive Disabilities classrooms at Jefferson to Goodview and W-K 
  • Creating a center-based Autism Spectrum Disorder program at W-K 

There are pros and cons to any decision that relocates students and staff, but in this case, WAPS administrators said, the pros outweigh the cons for the students — both now and in the future. 

The dominos at the elementary level started with the need to house the Setting III EBD program at one location. Jefferson was identified as the ideal location for the program. That meant, however, that the two DCD classrooms at Jefferson needed to go elsewhere, which necessitated the move of one classroom to W-K and one classroom to Goodview.

“When we move a program like this into two buildings, we give more opportunities for students to be in their neighborhood school,” Knudsen said. “We increase the number of buildings in our district that have a greater continuum of services. We utilize our Goodview space that has fewer barriers to accessibility and air conditioning. We have several students who require air conditioned spaces due to their health needs. And this would also more evenly distribute programs across the buildings.”

Knudsen said that utilizing Goodview became apparent during the WAPS Community Task Force discussions, which often bemoaned the lack of accessibility at Jefferson and W-K. Freiheit added that including students of all abilities is beneficial to the entire school community, not just those students in special education programming. Spreading out the special education programs throughout the district will also allow building principals to more easily integrate students in these programs into general education classrooms, which is required by federal law.

“There’s more opportunities to be exposed to the state’s curricular standards in a general education setting,” board member Jim Schul said. “So therefore, this is a 14th amendment civil right that we are privileging on our students, which is what we should have been doing a long time ago.”

Knudsen said there was a comprehensive analysis done to determine the changes that needed to occur, and staff input will be critical when these changes are implemented. Staff input will also be critical when evaluating these changes. 

Board member Steve Schild acknowledged the complexity of providing special education services by admitting he didn’t fully understand all the complicating factors that went into it. But he did support the decisions made by administrators because of what they identified as their top priority.

“What the superintendent said about the administrative decision emphasized primarily the needs of the students … that is a real trump card put down on something like that,” he said. “I was very glad to hear that. That should be at the heart of everything we do. That helps me understand.”