How Do Special Education Programs Fulfill Students' Needs?

Parents and administrators weigh in.

“My kid is a square peg,” Lee Fulton says, “and no matter how big the round hole was, he wasn’t going to fit in comfortably.”

Fulton isn’t the only parent who will tell you that her child wasn’t meant to sit in a traditional classroom. About 20,000 students in Delaware public schools—roughly one in seven—and several hundred more in private schools have been classified as qualifying for special education programs.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) lists 13 categories of special education—autism, blindness, deafness, visual impairment, emotional disturbance, intellectual disability and others—so even the square pegs tend to be different from other square pegs.

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It didn’t take long for Damien Satinober to recognize that his son Luke didn’t belong in a typical public school. “In a large classroom, teachers were not equipped to deal with his behavior. It’s not like they didn’t have the programs, but he was literally bouncing off the wall, and he felt like he was in trouble all the time,” Satinober says.

After Luke completed second grade in the Brandywine School District, he transferred to the Gateway Lab School, a charter school in suburban Wilmington where most students in third through eighth grades have learning disabilities. 

For teachers, Luke and all other kids with identified special education needs present a never-ending array of challenges. Timothy Griffiths, Gateway’s executive director, says one teacher puts it this way: “If I have 41 kids in my grade, I have to figure out how to teach the lesson in 41 different ways.”

In special education, there is no secret sauce. It’s all about recognizing that each child is special and finding the best way to reach him.

“You must treat students with dignity and respect,” says Mary Fischer, director of the Skills for Independence, Transition and Employment (SITE) program at Mount Pleasant High School. “If you can develop trust with your students, you can get even the most complicated students to do anything.”

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As the school year began, we took a look at four special education programs —private and public, spanning all grade levels. All four demonstrate signs of success, though it’s not of the kind measured through the state’s standardized testing programs.

With 41 years of experience, Centreville Layton School has become a model of stability and durability in Delaware’s special education universe. Founded in Wilmington in 1974 as the Delaware Learning Center, the school expanded to serve learning-disabled students through eighth grade until 1984, when it moved to its current 23-acre campus on Kennett Pike and became the Centreville School. Two years ago it merged with Layton Prep, founded in 2005, to create the only independent K-12 school in the region to offer a comprehensive program for children who learn differently.

At Centreville Layton, as in most special education programs, entering students tend to perform below grade level on standardized tests. That is to be expected—students who have trouble learning aren’t likely to be keeping up with their peers in traditional classrooms.

Class sizes there are small, usually six or seven students, and a fleet of specialists—language and occupational therapists, reading specialists and a psychologist—work together to create individualized academic programs. “They’re in the classroom or consulting with teachers every day,” says Barton Reese, the head of school.

There’s nothing watered down about the curriculum, Reese says. Teachers take a standard grade-level curriculum and break down the lessons into smaller pieces that are easy for students to digest.

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If students need additional supports—ear phones, books on tape or other assistive technology for the older kids, larger pencils or pencil grips for the younger ones—they are always available, adds Deborah Maguire, assistant head of school.

The goal at Centreville Layton, Reese and Maguire say, is to transition students—to give them the skills and tools needed to function capably in a traditional classroom. Students often—but not always—achieve that goal.

“We want them to demonstrate independence, to understand who they are and to show that they can advocate for themselves,” Reese says. 

Independence, Maguire adds, means being able to “organize for themselves, get their work done with no more parent or teacher support than a typical child their age, and perform at grade level.”

Not only does the school strive to keep parents in the loop on their children’s progress, it schedules coffees and other group get-togethers to discuss issues of common interest. “Everybody is friends. It’s like a huge support group,” says Dara Greene. Her son Brady, who started in the Appoquinimink district, is now in third grade at Centreville Layton.

Fulton, whose son Mitch entered Centreville Layton in 10th grade and will graduate this year, bubbles at the progress her “square peg” son has made. 

“They’re building a tiny house in engineering class, and he’s the project manager. Now he wants to study engineering management in college,” she says. “They’ve prepared him to go to college and lead an independent life. Boy, is it good.”

Sam Kitts started kindergarten at Centreville School and did well there for three years. Diagnosed with developmental and social delays, he was likely to remain in special education “for a long haul,” according to his mother, Bonnie Kitts.

She found out about Gateway Lab School when it was about to open in 2012. “Centreville is a very good school, just a lot of money,” she says. “Gateway is kind of like a free Centreville.”

“When students walk in the door, their parents can
rest assured that we’re going to find the right
path for their child. It’s not one size fits all,”
says Gateway Lab School executive director
Timothy Griffiths.

With about 225 students enrolled this year, Gateway is at capacity. “When students walk in the door, their parents can rest assured that we’re going to find the right path for their child. It’s not one size fits all,” Griffiths says. 

A curriculum based on the project-oriented Expeditionary Learning model gives students plenty of hands-on experiences, and Gateway’s multisensory classrooms allow children to feel comfortable as they learn.

Every room has a designated quiet corner where students can take a brief break. Beanbags, carpet tiles, large exercise balls, bungee chairs and stand-up desks offer an array of seating options. “Many of our kids fidget a lot. We encourage them to get up and move around and burn off some energy,” Griffiths says.

“All kids have sensory needs. The kids at Gateway have more,” says teacher Gina Harrison, who works with individuals and small groups in the school’s resource room on basic skills. “We’ll work on academics, and then take a 10-minute break.” In her room, a student who wants to read in solitude can slip into a makeshift tent created by draping a sheet over a small table.

“If you look at our Smarter Balanced [state assessment] scores, we fall pretty close to the bottom, but there are good reasons for that. We’re confident we’re making tremendous gains academically for our kids,” Griffiths says. 

For example, reading teacher Doreen Rathmell says, last year the school set a goal of having two-thirds of its third-graders exceed their targets for improvement in reading. By year’s end, 80 percent of the kids in class had surpassed their goals.

Gateway students recognize and accept each other’s differences, Griffiths says. “We’ve got a student who says, ‘Everybody’s got a quirkiness to them.’” With that sort of attitude, he says, “You can be yourself and not worry about fitting into a larger crowd in a different place. Everybody is accepted for who they are.”

So far, that’s working for Luke Satinober. “At Gateway, he feels more normal than he did at Carrcroft [his former school],” his father says. “He’s happy now, and he’s really excelling.”

Bonnie Kitts is equally pleased with her son Sam’s progress. “They push him, but he’s always going to have issues,” she says.

But she’s also worried. Sam is now in seventh grade, and she’s not sure about their options for high school. 

“We’re scared about it,” she says. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”  

High school special education programs like those at Centreville Layton are the exception rather than the rule. In traditional public schools, students tend to follow the same basic curriculum as regular students—taking classes in English language arts, math, science and social studies—and they are placed according to their academic abilities.

After four years of high school, however, many special education students need more help to prepare for a lifetime of independent living.

Two school districts, Red Clay and Capital, operate Project Search, a local version of a national program that provides exposure to real-life work experience to youth with significant disabilities and helps them transition to adult life.

The yearlong program, now in its sixth year, admits up to 12 students, ages 18 to 21, who have completed their standard high school class requirements. “We want students who are motivated, but don’t have significant work experience,” says Angie Hansen, the teacher who coordinates the program in Red Clay.

“They have a wide range of abilities,” she says. “Some are nonreaders, some have driver’s licenses, and the others are somewhere in between.”

Their classroom is Christiana Hospital. There, Hansen teaches them skills they need to hold a job. If, for example, they can’t tell time well, she will show them how to set an alarm on a watch or a smartphone so they know when it’s time to start or complete a task.

At the hospital, participants move through as many as 19 job rotations, stocking items in storerooms, moving patients in wheelchairs to the front door when they are discharged, handling clerical tasks, working in the cafeteria, or serving as porters or housekeepers. If a student is interested in working in an area where a rotation isn’t set up, Hansen works with Christiana Care to try to create that opportunity.

“It’s exciting,” Hansen says. “They’re open-minded. They’re willing to try things they haven’t done before.”

The state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, a partner in the program, contracts with organizations such as Community Integrated Services and Autism Delaware to provide job coaches for the students. The idea is to figure out what the students like to do and to assess how their skills will mesh with actual jobs.

That part of the program seems to be getting better each year. At the start, 70 percent to 80 percent of the participants were finding work within a year of completing the program. The employment rate hit 100 percent for 2014-15 participants, and almost all students who were in the program last year have found jobs, Hansen says. “Project Search has created a path for them to reach the potential they have.”

The Brandywine School District offers a comparable program, called Skills for Independence, Transition and Employment, based at Mount Pleasant High School. Up to 10 students enter each year for a three-year program they start when they turn 18. This year, Fischer and her team of four teachers, five paraprofessionals and a psychologist are working with 22 students.

In the school, they spend time in a classroom and in four work areas, learning a bit about culinary skills, office work, sales and service, and vocational trades. In their first year, they also spend two hours once a week at an outside work site. By their third year, they’re up to four hours working on site for up to four days a week.

For each job site, Fischer analyzes the tasks that must be completed and prepares step-by-step instructions for how to get the job done. Using the instructions as a guide, students work each task until they master it. “I teach what needs to be taught and slowly fade into the background” as students learn to work on their own, she says. “Once they learn a skill, I move them on to something else.”

At the Public Defender’s Office in Wilmington, students are organizing old records, placing them in alphabetical order for filing and scanning them into the office’s electronic recording system. They’re also organizing a clothes closet used by the office’s clients, sorting donated clothing by type and size so items will be easier to find by the people who need them.

“They’re learning office skills, social skills, how important it is to be neat and tidy,” says Kerry Ferriter, supervisor of the office’s psycho-forensic unit. “They’ve been coming here for two or three years and they’ve been great.”

One of the challenges of working with the 18-to-21 population, Fischer says, is educating parents about their children’s future. Parents are often afraid to confront the reality of their special needs child becoming an adult, she says.

“It’s a scary thing, trying to get them to change their mindset, to think about the future.” 

Programs like SITE and Project Search get these young adults ready for the inevitable day when they are out on their own. 

“You’re not giving your child up,” Fischer says. “You’re increasing their independence.”   


Here are some key things parents should know about special education placements and processes, according to Lisa Lawton, director of special education services for Brandywine School District.

  • The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires school systems to locate, identify and evaluate any child who will require special education services. 
  • A team that includes regular and special education teachers, a school psychologist, other specialists and the parents will assess the child to determine whether he or she falls into any of the 13 special needs categories defined by the law. (For children who have not begun school, the assessment can include input from preschool teachers and childcare providers.)
  • An Individualized Education Program is written for every child who requires special education. This legal document describes the child’s present level of functioning, his or her strengths, weaknesses, abilities and educational needs, and a series of annual goals and objectives. The IEP will specify any modifications or accommodations required in the child’s educational environment. Schools attempt to place special needs children in the least restrictive environment in which they can function, which means that, to the greatest extent possible, they are placed in classrooms with the general student population. Parents work with teachers and other school specialists to prepare the IEP. Schools cannot change an IEP without parent involvement.
  • The IEP will be updated annually, or more often, if necessary. Parents participate in the update process. (After a child’s 14th birthday, the IEP will include references to “transition,” beginning to prepare the child for life after public education concludes.)
  • Parents receive reports four times a year on progress the child is making toward the goals in the IEP. Some parents communicate weekly, or even daily, with their child’s teachers.
  • Some children make sufficient progress to graduate from special education programs. The primary standard is performing at the academic grade level of their peers. Behavioral levels and social and emotional adjustment are also considered.
  • Parents should pay attention to the procedural safeguards—the fine print—that are part of the IEP so they know their appeal rights and who to contact if problems or disagreements occur.

“We need to have high expectations, to set a high bar for kids, and parents have to be partners with teachers in the process,” Lawton says.

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