Dwindling Resources, Diminishing Expectations

Twin Cities teachers talk about how their schools and classrooms have changed

In an inner-city school you have kids at the poverty line or lower, and you're asking them to do well in school--which they should. But you also have to understand that when kids are struggling with having a safe and secure place to live and warm meals--the basic things--it is harder for them to do well in school. The focus is just not there. Suburban schools don't have as much of that, and they also don't have diversity, so they are addressing one type of student.

MARILYN ROHLFING

Social worker since 1969; has worked in St. Paul public schools since 1971. Currently at J.J. Hill Magnet School.

David Fick

Years ago, school social workers worked with any child doing whatever would help them get more out of their education. We used to take what I call at-risk children, not only with Down syndrome or autism but someone who just didn't seem to be up to snuff and just needed the experience to prepare for kindergarten. It was pretty easy to get them in.

I'm not sure when the laws and the funding changed, but at the present time our funding is special ed funding, so I can only work with special education children. Now early childhood special ed is only there for children tested for a significant delay in at least one area of development. This is because there are more [special ed students now]--many, many more. Neonatology has allowed us to keep previously nonviable preemies alive; the majority have something pretty significant wrong growing up.

And it's not scientifically corroborated yet, but I believe we have a significant increase in autism. We have all kinds of syndromes now. There is classic autism and Asperger's, and genetic syndromes--beyond Down syndrome, more unusual, rare syndromes. My theory is, the gene pool is affected by environmental problems--chemicals and radiation and what have you. I believe that is playing a role. I don't think it is just that we're testing more children so we're finding more cases. That is true, but it isn't solely that.

 

ELIZABETH SARSFIELD

Twenty-four years of teaching, the last 16 primarily as a speech pathologist in the St. Paul public schools. This year she will divide her time between speech pathology and early childhood special education for a number of schools in the district.

Demographics have changed greatly in St. Paul over the last 10 years or so. There are over 75 languages spoken in our district. Couple that with any disability a child may have, and the fact that we also tend to serve a lower economic population, and often kids don't come to school prepared. Nationally and in St. Paul, more and more children are being identified as being on the autism spectrum. It has really become quite broad, with Asperger's being at a higher level of functioning. Some of the children have absolutely no communication skills.

I think the biggest change is the increase in paperwork for anyone in special education. As a result of it, we spend less and less time teaching children. I have been determined not to work at home, so instead I work 12- or 13-hour days at school. I would go to school last year at 6:30 a.m., although my first class was at 9:30. Our students left at 4:10 and I stayed until 6:00 or 6:30. A lot of that is computer time and paperwork time, and a lot of that is classroom prep and having access to a copy machine.

In the last five to eight years, we have been getting more financial support through third-party billing. Any student who receives services could be covered by health insurance, or Medicaid or Medicare. Speech therapy, social work services, vision services, physical therapy--things like that can be considered medical services. And if they are billed like that, the school district can be reimbursed. We have been able to hire more people. We have more speech therapists than we used to have. With us doing the billing, there's more paperwork and it's more time-consuming, but we are compensated.

 

ROMA LEE RASMUSSEN

Has taught in Minneapolis for 27 years, currently at the Performing Arts Magnet at Kenwood.

I have a friend whose son dropped out of high school. I worked with this boy and he did not do well on written tests and reading, but he was the most empathetic boy with people, especially with children with special needs. He was borderline special ed himself, but not enough for benefits. He knew geography and auto mechanics but he just did not do well on tests. He went on to get his GED and is now a heavy equipment operator. He was one of the most sensitive, caring people you would ever meet, but you wouldn't know that from tests.

Of course the more you test, the less you teach. And testing is only one way of showing what a child knows. I have seen children who know the information and yet don't test very well. The tests don't show growth during the year. One set of tests compares this year's second graders to last year's second graders, which is very frustrating. And we give many of the tests in the spring and we don't get results back until just before the students are gone, so there is no way to benefit from it right then.

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