Emotional Support Classrooms planned for elementary schools

Terry RogersEducation, Milford Headline Story

Milford School District is planning to implement emotional support classrooms for elementary students

Milford School District plans to partner with Specialized Education Services Incorporated to create what is known as a High Road School in the three elementary schools. The new program is designed to address an increase in behavioral problems in younger children since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“This year in particular, we’ve seen much higher rates of problem behavior in our schools at the elementary level. As many of you are aware over the course of the past 10 years, we’ve expanded programs and built them at our middle school and our high school to ensure that we are able to support them,” Dr. Laura Manges, Director of Special Education, said. “This past year has shown us after COVID that we are now having to quickly change and support many of our students at the elementary levels in ways that we are often ill prepared and in the past had not recognized as high levels of needs for our elementary students. I’m sure you’ve heard about PBIS and PBS in the past and that is something that has always worked in our elementary buildings. It is providing a universal language of behavioral expectations for our elementary students and for the most part, during my 15 year career, in Milford, our students responded very, very well to it. This past year in particular, we’ve met with an enormous level of need in the mental health and behavioral area for our elementary kiddos.“

Manges continued, stating that the district was moving from traditional discipline strategies to those that were more restorative. In the past, exclusion and punishment were used to try to address behavioral issues, but they are learning that pro-social skills training under the special education umbrella may help with academic restructuring that will meet the student where they come in. This allows staff to support the process and use more positive behavior interventions. Because the need has grown significantly over the past year, Manges explained that the district realized it was time to seek a partnership and found Specialized Education Service Incorporated who support more than 200 classrooms across the country.

“What they do is they actually come in and help us build the setting. They offer intense individualized academic programming. They use research based behavior management systems, and they will help our school system address the most challenging and at risk behaviors, utilizing the basis of PBIS at tier two and tier three levels, along with restorative practices that went with what we’re doing currently, or at the High Road School. Specialized Services Incorporated, is one of the only programs that is State of Delaware approved. So, we currently do support some of our students with the most intense needs at the High Road School. When they are there, we take their names to statewide ICT and we seek approval for financial support for their placement there and most of those students have graduated or they have returned to us unless they have moved out of district.”

Districts that have emotional support classrooms supported by Specialized Education Service Incorporated include Brandywine, Woodbridge, Smyrna and Indian River. Manges explained that Seaford and Cape Henlopen used an out-of-state program that was not approved by the state and they have not had as much success with those programs. Manges spoke to all those districts and Specialized Education Service Incorporated came highly recommended. When asked if this would provide assistance for nine students in grades K through 5, Manges stated that it would and that it would meet the current needs of the district.

“As you know we’ve really been working to build our inclusionary programs here in the district. There’s only one location in the state that accesses programming for kindergarten through fifth graders with severe emotional and behavioral needs and that is the current elementary ILC in the Caesar Rodney School District, and we’ve placed four students there this year. So that’s a big number for us. We do a lot to build our own programs and support our students in our buildings and in their typical classrooms. But this year, upon reflection, we definitely know that we need to expand and have a very specific program that will work with some of those students. Eventually, Caesar Rodney, because they’re also seeing a spike in behaviors, may not be able to support out of district students so we need to be prepared to support our own.”

Manges was asked which school this would be located in and she stated that Dr. Bobbie Kilgore had offered the opportunity for the program to be placed at Banneker. The program would begin with building the classroom and training staff which could take a few months. However, the spikes in behavior do not usually develop until October or November.

“My second question is from a cost analysis, which obviously is not the whole story, but it’s always part of the story,” Board Member Dr. Adam Brownstien asked. “This would enable Milford School District to actually save some money because this would be paid for through the grant and we would not be having to send these children to a facility outside the district that Milford would then be footing the bill for is that, is that an accurate assessment?”

According to Manges, this would help the district save funds as the amount of money coming out of grants to provide special services was concerning.

“We’re talking about students that if we don’t intervene would potentially need a residential placement. Some of those placements for students could cost upwards of a half a million dollars a year so this isn’t even going to touch anything,” Manges said. “Yes, it if we are able to return the students that we have based out of the district in the Caesar Rodney district, it would solicit funds but that’s not our initial intent. Our initial intent is to land and provide for students that we have needs for .I’ve also heard that Caesar Rodney, the number of behavioral needs that they are seeing may not be able to offer us seats in the future and they’re considering getting out of supporting a countywide program for behavior because they have their own needs, which is completely understandable. It’s what we’ve seen after COVID.”

Board member David Vezmar asked what would happen to a student who was in fifth grade and in this specialized classroom who was then moving to grade six. Manges stated that there is already a program at Milford Central Academy that is similar, and the child could simply transition to that program if necessary. The issue was that the district had never seen such a level of behavioral problems in the past.

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