The hallways of St. Charles Unit District 303 schools will be filled with more special education students and teachers in coming years.
District administrators announced special education program changes Wednesday night that are designed to both improve the school lives of special needs students while also reining in some of the growing education costs of those students.
More than 1,800 students in District 303 use some level of special education services. That's about 13 percent of all the students in the district. A good portion of those students spend their school days outside the district's classrooms. That represented a cost of about $3.3 million for the district's taxpayers during the district's 2010-11 fiscal year.
An outside study recommended eliminating the practice of educating special needs students outside their neighborhood schools. But Assistant Superintendent John Knewitz said that's a recommendation that won't be followed.
"We have too many students who are not educated in their home schools," Knewitz said. "The idea that we need to eliminate that is not something we think is possible at this time. However, when we have students placed outside the district, we really need to look at returning those students to our schools. It doesn't happen as often as we'd like it to."
In fact, the trend in recent years has been for more and more special education students to spend their days out of the district.
To reverse that, administrators plan to hire more certified special education teachers. Parents of special needs students at a Wednesday night forum at St. Charles North High School applauded that plan.
The downside will be a decrease in the number of special education teaching assistants. There are about 160 such assistants on the district's payroll. Parents said they fear a reduction in that number will mean less one-on-one attention for their child.
In general, parents said they were pleased with the district's special education program. Possible improvements they'd like to see involve identifying when a child qualifies for special education programs earlier and faster.
Parents said they also want students and staff educated about special needs before their kids come back into the general population of the schools. Bullying will probably increase without some student assemblies and teacher training on special needs students, parents said.
There was also a call for elementary, middle and high school teachers to communicate with each other more as special needs students move among the various grades and schools. Parents said there is often too much of lag during those transitions where teachers try to figure out techniques that work for individual students that were already discovered by earlier instructors.
District administrators said they will incorporate those themes into a five-year improvement plan for the special education program. There will be a slow rollout of changes from year-to-year.