A Trip Down Memory Lane: Sandy Creek on Special Education

Hello everyone!

As you can probably tell, this is another assignment piece for Teach NOW. While it provided me with invaluable information, in order to attain said info, I had to once again enter the halls of

sandy creeksurprised-rainbow-face

See, I thought that’s how my face would look. Instead, I looked a lot more like

elf nooooooo horrified gif

Oooooh Sandy Creek, Sandy Creek. I forgot how HUGE, WHITE WASHED and IMPOSING it was. Seriously, I was staring down this:

public school hallway

I’m not ok with that. It felt like I was being sucked into a void of shiny linoleum and WHITE. so much white ugh

Further,I saw teachers standing like pitbulls at the end of the hallway, pinballing students towards wherever they needed to be but currently weren’t. And THEN, worst of all…

MOST, if not all, of my favorite teachers were GONE. 

cry forever sad girl gif

but my favorite teacher was still there and he had gone all white haired and he was shaking like he had palsy or something and it really scared me


Enough ranting. I was not there solely to reminisce and wonder what on earth had happened or how I had changed. I was there on a mission: to interview two special ed ladies on how the special ed referral process works. So, ON TO THE MISSION!


Please introduce yourself:

My name is Lilli Odonnell,  and I’m the special education department chair and LEA for Sandy Creek High school.

-How is a student identified for special education referral?

Ok, they have to go through the RTI process, which is a pyramid of interventions. As a student starts to struggle, they’re identified in tier two as struggling, then there are certain interventions that are put in place. Those are looked at to see if they’re continuing to struggle or if that’s enough to solve the situation. If they continue to struggle, we put more interventions into place. All through out this process, we continue to progress monitor, check on how they’re doing after the interventions are put in place. Is it making a difference, are they becoming more successful? If tier three interventions don’t work, then we will put in a referral for a complete evaluation, and the school psychologist will go ahead and evaluate. Then we will meet at an eligibility meeting, and determine whether there are processing deficits: what kind of academic or emotional struggles the student is having, what kind of interventions have been in place, what that progress monitoring looks like, whether those have been in place for a long enough period of time, usually a 12 week period, and then determine if they are eligible and which area of eligibility they fall under.

Who takes responsibility for the progress of the child before and after the referral?

Until a child’s determined to be eligible for special education, it is general education that takes that responsibility for the interventions and progress monitoring. Once they’re identified, as special ed, then special ed takes responsibility.

What is the school administration’s directive for special education?

Our goal is to provide a successful environment with enough support and accommodations that students need to be successful. And to improve student achievement through the strategies we use, the specialized instruction.

What provisions are made for students identified for special education?

Here, I have a range of programs from the very severe and profound. I have a severe and profound classroom, a mildly intellectual disabled classroom, an autism triad program, which are all self contained. And here we have a bridges program, which is identified for students who are special education, but they have an overall academic struggle in all areas. So we slow the curriculum down, it’s a 5-6 year program, it’s focused on a general ed diploma with all the requirements in terms of classwork, academic classes they have to complete: all that’s the same. Standardized testing, everything’s the same; it’s just slowed down with additional support set up through the program. To continue on the continuum, I also have collaborative classes and resource classes, where collaborative is where there are two teachers team teaching. Then I also have consultative students who are out in the regular curriculum with only very slight support. They have someone identified that they can come to for support, but it’s trying to make them as responsible for their education as possible. Because we’re trying to prepare those students for going to college.

What is the level of parent involvement in referral process and special education?

Parents need to be in the referral meeting and of course the eligibility meeting. They should be involved with the progress monitoring and the strategies, the interventions that are put in place, because sometimes, a parent will call and say, “I’m concerned about my student being successful,” and they will be quite involved with getting them into the RTI process.

Have you had any parents who were perhaps difficult? Perhaps they were very resistant to the idea that their student had a learning disability?

Most parents at this point and time have not been that way, because, when they see their student struggling, they want any kind of support they can get for the student. We have had a few that feel like their students can be successful without services, and sometimes we’ll look at, when we go to eligibility, we’ll look at, that’s the big question at the end: do they need specialized instruction? Because they can have processing deficits, they can have weaknesses, but is it negatively impacting them in their success at school, and we have some who we’ve gone through an evaluation, and they don’t, and at that point, they can be covered for the accommodations under the 504, as opposed to special ed, the difference being 504 provides accommodations, special ed provides services.

So it sounds like most parents are very supportive. So you don’t feel like there is any stigmatism at all?

Yes and no. I mean, there’s some, but there are some students who recognize that they need any help they can get. And there are a lot of other students who aren’t identified who come to us for extra help too.

Is there a protocol for ensuring confidentiality in the special education referral process? (Thanks for the question, Bonnie!)

It’s all covered under FERPA, which means it has to be confidential.

(This question kind of confused her, so I explained that I’m part of an international class which has varying levels of education protection). 

What do you do when parents don’t think that their child is improving?

I suggest that we have a parent meeting and talk about what things are causing the student not to improve. Because sometimes I can’t say it’s motivation, but sometimes students don’t take the responsibility for their learning which they really have to. We can only do so much.

How do you set up realistic higher educational plans upon graduation, like for college?

We have a transition plan where we have to work with them throughout high school identifying areas of interest for future occupations, areas of interest for further education. We have students who are interested in some of the career tech, vocational classes, so now it’s pathways, it’s not the old carrier tech diploma type, but they do have career paths. Some of them will follow that. We try to work with them to come up with some plans and we always have to discuss with the students as we’re going along, trying to help them come up with a plan for after graduation. Some of my teachers are very involved, helping students apply for schools, apply for many different things. So even after they’ve left (the teachers help).

What other resources are available other than the ones that are in Fayette County in terms of special ed?

Vocation rehabilitation is an area from the state of Georgia that is a department that is concerned with the transitioning of students into the work force and/or education. They don’t apply so much to students on college pathways, although sometimes depending on the disability, there is some support there. But there are different areas in the state of Georgia that students can go to. There is a, they have the different divisions and there is a group that works with providing accommodations for students when they go to college.


Please introduce yourself:

My name is Leigh Abeling,  and I’m a collaboration teacher at Sandy Creek High School.

How do you identify a student for special education?

Through data, through observing strengths and weaknesses, weaknesses in completing assignments, analyzing tests and quizzes, how they participate or don’t in class, looking at executive functioning skills. We compare against the average child in the classroom.

So those are signs of struggling students?


(I pointed out that the next question had basically been answered by her response to the first, so I moved on to the third question.)

Are there alternate methods of instruction tried out before referring the student for special education? If yes, what are they?

They go through the tier process, so specific strategies above and beyond what is given to the class in general is tried, perhaps they’re given an extra graphic organizer or extra prompting, things might be scaffolded for them, they might receive extra time, I mean we try a variety of strategies to see if that helps bring them up to grade level.

Any memorable cases?

I had a student that his was more behavioral, less academic. He would refuse to participate in any academic assignments, would refuse to move around. He would tantrum and things like that, so what I did was rearrange the room for him so he would do what he needed to do. Often times we removed things from him and he earned them back. So we did many methods behaviorally for him. When that still din’t work, he continued to move up the tier process. But I always try to keep them in the classroom. He was initially referred for behavior disorders. Another student in academics would be consistently failing tests and quizzes, we might try bringing it down for them. We might try note cards or might wee if they do better if it’s red aloud to them. We progressively collect data for about 12 weeks, and we must show frequency, intensity, in order to say truly this child isn’t functioning on grade level without support. We have to have data collected over a period of months.

So you want to keep them in the classroom for as long as possible.

Yes you want the least restrictive environment. Ideally, you want them mingling with their peers to the best of their ability with support from their regular classroom.

Any particular drawbacks of leaving a special ed student in a regular classroom?

No, I think depending on what their strengths are, it’s better for them to be in gen ed, they have those role models (i.e. their fellow classmates). But there are some obvious weaknesses, in which case it may be more detrimental, since no one wants to feel stupid, but in general, now with strategies in place, if they can function in a regular classroom, that’s where they need to be.

Are there any particular drawbacks to putting them in special classes?

It isolates them a little bit from their peers. There are some kids that prefer to be in smaller classes, since they feel it helps them get their work done. Others might think that social is more important and they don’t like going into the smaller classrooms, since they don’t want people to see them as stupid.

So it’s about striking that balance.

Mm-hmm, and what we’ve done, for instance today, in giving a test, I’m taking the group that I target out, but I also take 3-4 other students as well, so we’re splitting the class up. So we’re creating two small groups.

Ladies, thank you both so much for your time! 🙂

While I think I might’ve gotten further if I had done some research beforehand, I’m rather pleased with the results. I recorded the interviews and then transcribed them, taking out all the awkward pauses, fumbling over words and VERY loud bell ringing that punctuated the middle of the second interview.

As I reflect on these interviews, I’d like to point out that, in Georgia at least, the school systems recognize the necessity of children interacting with their peers, no matter the disability. Removing a child from their peers enhances the feeling of “not belonging,” of being “different” in a bad sense, and, from what I can tell, the RTI program at Sandy Creek does its utmost to keep that from happening. Seriously, it was great to learn that this was actual school policy. I guess I didn’t know what to expect since most of my “knowledge” of school policy comes from how it is parodied on TV (sad, I know). I was also intrigued by the long process of selecting students for special education: that there must be lots of data accumulated over a sufficient period of time, that even with said data, students might not be taken out of the classroom, that they prefer more interruptive methods only when things get more serious, etc.

This sounds a lot like what Finland’s school is doing, except Finland has a more extensive teaching team focused on special education for everyone (at one point, since nobody is the perfect student). If I could do these interviews again, I would have asked about how extensive the program was, so I could more clearly compare and contrast it to the more revolutionary schools we’ve been learning about this week. I would’ve asked for more statistics, like about how many students in the school received some sort of special education and to what degree? I would’ve even asked about how much they knew about the programs introduced this week, and about what they see as being the future of special education. I unfortunately limited the scope of my conversation to most of the questions prescribed by the assignment, but at least I’ve gotten a much greater understanding of what to do next time (if a next time is around the corner).

To wrap up, as I mentioned in a reflection paper this week, I don’t see rapid change happening for special education. Though innovative programs like School of One and Khan Academy are breaking new ground, I see the incorporation of these programs into the mainstream happening slowly. For the moment, schools are just focused on doing what they can with the children given to them. They’re trying to appease the government at the same time as parents and students. Yet, from what I can tell, Sandy Creek High is at least doing a good job where they are now.

Thanks for reading! 

again, sorry about the emotional beginning; I felt the experience pertinent in shaping myself into the teacher I long to be 🙂


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