Special Education in Burleson makes strides
Burleson ISD is making strides yet again, this time with its special education program, which recently scored a 100 percent compliance indicator with the state.
Dr. Lucretia Gartrell, executive director of special services, has worked for the district since 2005. She took the role as executive director in 2014. Gartrell said she is very proud of the strides BISD has made in special education.
“One of the core values of the district is that we have high expectations for our students,” Gartrell said. “I have not been in a district that has embraced all students to the level that Burleson does.”
In fact, last year the homecoming royalty from both Centennial High School and Burleson High School had students with disabilities in its court. Gartrell said she even has parents that chose to move to Burleson because of the quality of its special education program.
“All parents want a quality education for their children, but the parents of students with disabilities also want their children to be seen as individuals,” Gartrell said.
BISD Superintendent Dr. Bret Jimerson only had good things to say about the work the special education department is doing.
“I’m extremely proud of the great work our Special Services department is doing for our kids,” Jimerson said. “The success of our students and the appreciation we hear from parents is a testament to our dedicated staff and the support from our school board.”
At a recent school board meeting, Kathleen Beckham, mother of six BISD students, some of whom have disabilities and receive services, spoke praises of the special education program.
“I’m here because I want to thank you,” Beckham said to the school board. “Everything about Burleson is so positive. Things in Texas may be bigger, but things in Burleson are better.”
Unfortunately, in other independent school districts in Texas, this hasn’t been the case. In 2017, the Office of Special Education Programs found that Texas ISDs, starting in 2004, took measures to specifically decrease the number of students identified as children with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to 8.5 percent or below.
“When the Department of Education came to Texas following the removal of that 8.5 percent cap, they did a fairly broad parent satisfaction survey,” Gartrell said. “Parents could voice their concerns and have a conversation face-to-face. That information was then shared with us, and we did not receive any indication of parental concerns expressed through the survey or through the attendance of the face-to-face meetings.”
The total number of students enrolled in special education in Burleson ISD is 1,045, or 8.57 percent, as of Feb. 2.
However, that number doesn’t include the percentage of students with dyslexia, which the TEA does not consider a learning disorder.
“If you factor in the students we serve that have dyslexia, it’s more like 11.9 percent,” Gartrell said. “In Burleson, we have a system in place where I am confident that decisions are made as to whether or not a student has dyslexia, or further characteristics of a learning disability.”
Parents who have a child who has auditory or visual impairments are able to take advantage of special education services from birth, according to Gartrell. Moreover, children are eligible to receive special education services on the day they turn three. However, when a student enters school and a disability is suspected, staff have 45 days to conduct tests and evaluations.
“When you determine that a child has a disability, districts are required to have what’s called a continuum of supports,” Gartrell said. “It can’t be a one size fits all program. It has to be individually support driven.”
When a student is determined to have a disability, an admission, review and dismissal meeting is held that includes a campus or district administrator, parent, general education teacher and special education teacher. It is then determined what kind of specialized instruction would be beneficial to the student.
“Specialized instruction can include vision services, auditory services, adapted physical education, speech services or instructional services,” Gartrell said.
However, sometimes students with “low-incidence disabilities,” meaning disabilities that do not occur as frequently in the population at large, are removed from their home campus and put in a centralized program with targeted curriculum, Gartrell said. These kinds of disabilities include autism.
The district has had an autism specialist on staff since 2003. Gartrell initially got her start with the district in 2005 as a contracted autism specialist.
“We currently still have an autism specialist, but the need has greatly increased since 2005,” Gartrell said. “We have a very well-trained autism evaluation team. When a student is suspected to have autism, we start with a really quality assessment. We also have a social skills instructional specialist who not only works with kids with autism, but a lot of times that social communication piece is one of the areas that is impaired.”
The district also has an occupational therapist who works closely with students who have sensory needs. Parents can also take advantage of in-home training when a student and parent needs assistance transitioning skills from the school environment into the home and community.
About one in 68 children has been diagnosed with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. The disorder is also four-and-a-half times more common among boys than girls.
“A lot of times for students with autism, you have to work on things that are more social in nature, such as working through the ability to sit in a restaurant which allows the family to go out and have a family meal,” said Gartrell. “You’ve got to work on desensitizing that stimulating environment that a restaurant sometimes brings.”
While some school districts choose not to hire first-year teachers for special education, BISD embraces those new teachers and provides them with the tools they need to succeed as educators.
“We’ve all been first-year teachers,” Gartrell said. “We try to pair our first-year teachers with a mentor and a low-incidence disability coach. We also provide collaborative teaching and provide the professional development that they need. It’s kind of like first-year teacher boot camp, because in special education, not only are you being taught all of the district initiatives, but then you are also taught state standards and how to collect data and report progress to parents. So they have a double learning curve, and we try to provide as much support as possible.”
As Burleson and the district grow, Gartrell said maintaining the small town personality and establishing relationships with parents is a priority.
“We want to maintain our reputation for embracing all students and keeping the consistency and fidelity of the program, as well as keeping current with new research,” she said.
Above all, Gartrell’s favorite part of her job is seeing kids with disabilities graduate.
“Seeing students succeed and be successful when, at one point, perhaps it might not have been thought possible, is amazing. It’s definitely worthwhile.”