Special Education and Teacher-Leaders: Waukee Teachers Take Team Approach to Effecting Best Outcomes

First Published by Iowa Department of Education March 28, 2016 here.

Special EducationWhen Kara Ozbun entered her Level III classroom for the first time last fall, she didn’t know what to expect. But the 15-year veteran knew she was facing a daunting task: Not only was she in a new district, but she would have to learn from scratch everything about her new charges before classes would shortly start.

Then she met Kelli Palcic. And Jennifer Kopp. And Amy Hayes. And Annie Miller.

As the special education instructional strategists for the Waukee Community School District, they were able to quickly bring Ozbun up to snuff on students, strategies and Individualized Education Programs.

“The level of support they provide in this district is amazing,” she said. “You never feel alone. This is very new to me.”

Through the district’s teacher-leadership program, which made its official debut last fall, Waukee dedicated four instructional strategists to special education. Prior, the district had one dedicated special education instructional strategist – Kelli Palcic – for the district’s 13 schools.

“The depth of service is unbelievably and significantly more,” said Peg Erke, the district’s Director of Student Services. “What we are doing mirrors a lot of the work Kelli did previously, but we know we are going deeper to support more teachers.”

In selecting the three additional strategists, Erke said, she worked to get a cross section of skills so they could lean on each other. That was a winning strategy, the strategists agreed.

“It was interesting to see how we decided to serve teachers,” Palcic said. “We decided to work together to get to know all teachers and then tease out which strategist would support which teacher based on the particular need.”

The strategists focused on instructional practices, goals, data, literacy programs.

“We try to provide teachers with different options,” Kopp said. “When a student is not improving in reading, we can dig in to the programming, and make instructional changes.”

It’s not just teachers and students who benefit.

“The volume of instruction has expanded tremendously,” Palcic said. “And it’s not just focused on a pocketful of teachers. We have provided training for all of the district’s 205 associates.”

It doesn’t end at just training.

“When we go in to model for the teachers, we model for those associates, too,” Palcic said. “The associates work so much with our students. They need to have some of the same skills for things such as behavior and reteaching.”

Strategist Hayes stresses that this is all done through teamwork.

“We focus on being out in the trenches with teachers,” she said. “We make decisions together and really analyze, ‘OK, what is our next step.”

Erke said a critical component of the district’s success is through collaboration with Heartland Area Education Agency consultants. They formally meet once a month with the Heartland team to ensure everyone is staying on track.

“When our strategists and our Heartland friends work together, it is more than an 8-to-4 collaboration,” she said. “They frequently call each other at night and say, ‘hey, I’m having problems identifying what this student needs.’”

The strategists have been especially helpful when the district hires a new teacher – something it does frequently since the district is one of the fastest-growing districts in the state. Just this past year, they brought on 16 new special education teachers.

“A lot of new teachers don’t have hands-on experience in developing IEPs and making decisions based on data,” Erke said.

The strategists also work with general education teachers.

“When we meet with general education teachers, it is really about the materials you can use to support that student to get him back to where his peers are,” Palcic said.

Finally, Erke is seeing the instructional strategists as key to retaining special education talent.

“They are no longer working in isolation,” she said. “You have people out there who are there to help.”

And Teacher Ozbun feels no isolation.

“When I came here, I knew I would have a mentor,” she said. “But I didn’t realize they would be this dedicated in helping me. Being a seasoned teacher, it is easy to assume, ‘Oh, she has got this, she knows what she’s doing.’

“But everyone has to continue learning. Everyone needs support and help.”

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Waukee, Iowa 50263
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