1. Spencer
  2. Nathaniel
  3. Cassidy-Rae
  4. Sophia
  5. More Than Academics
  6. All in One Place
  7. Time for Transitions
  8. It Comes with a Cost
  9. Re-inventing Special Education
Ashley Reese and Heather Adams

Exploring the Paths of Missouri's Special Education

Exploring the Paths of Missouri's Special Education

Tim Banger stands at the head of his classroom in Farmington High School trying to motivate his students. It's afternoon on a Friday, and the students are antsy for class to be over- they're about two hours away from beginning their spring break. Spencer Hoffmeister is antsy too; his favorite class, P.E., is the last of the day and then he's home-free. 

Although Spencer is working and participating the same as everyone else in the room, he has a few extra challenges to face compared to many of his classmates. He learns at a different pace than his peers, and has developmental delays with his speech. Because of this, Spencer receives special education services through the school; services that have only been around for the last 40 years. 

Schools have been mandated by law to provide a free, appropriate education to all children since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, passed in 1975. Although it provided a framework for special education in the United States, it left it up to states and schools to figure out the best practices for educating children with special needs- creating a wide range of possible education paths for students with disabilities. Missouri offers one path that is only available here.

Sophia isn' t surrounded by regular education peers; all of her classmates have special needs. She attends Delmar A. Cobble State School in Columbia, Missouri, a separate, state-funded school for children with severe disabilities. Students at these schools are considered low-functioning, and recommended by their public school district. Students typically have an IQ around 40 and have multiple physical and/or mental disabilities. 

When Part B of IDEA passed in 2006, there was a push for more inclusive education. This push led to the closure of those separate, state -funded schools for the disabled in many states- leaving Missouri's 34 separate schools for the severely disabled to be the last of their kind. 

 To explore some of  the many options for special education in Missouri, we found students with special needs in both public schools and in Delmar A. Cobble State School for the Severely Disabled. Here are their stories:


Spencer Hoffmeister works on an assignment with the help of his aide, Jenny Bowling. Photo credit: Heather Adams. 

Spencer Hoffmeister is a junior at Farmington High School in Farmington, Missouri. He was diagnosed with a cognitive impairment at 5 years old. His disability has caused developmental delays, including some problems with his speech. 

Despite his disabilities, Spencer is pretty much your average teenage boy. He loves music, video games and sports. He spends his evenings in his favorite room: his family's screened-in porch that's complete with St. Louis Blues decor, a TV and his Xbox. His favorite player is David Backes, though he could probably give you the stats for every player on the roster. 

Spencer spends most of his day in the regular education classroom with the help of Jenny Bowling, a paraprofessional who has worked with Spencer since he started high school. 

Press play below to hear a clip from Spencer and Bowling. 




Nathaniel Wright glues together a paper bunny during class at Blair Oaks Elementary. Photo credit: Heather Adams. 

Nathaniel Wright is a third grader at Blair Oaks Elementary, right outside of Jefferson City, Missouri. He was born with a rare chromosome deletion; he's nonverbal and has some other developmental delays, which makes it harder for him to keep up in school.

Before he moved to Blair Oaks, he spent 80 percent of his day in a separate classroom for students with special needs. Now, he spends about 40 percent of his day in the regular education classroom. 

His mom said he's into the same things as any other 8-year-old: he loves movies and gets fixated on one every few months that he wants to watch over and over again. Right now he's stuck on Big Hero 6.

Press play below to hear from Nathaniel's mom, Melissa Wright. 



Cassidy-Rae uses her paper bunny she made in class as a mask. Photo credit: Heather Adams

Cassidy-Rae Luebbering attends Blair Oaks Elementary, right outside of Jefferson City, Missouri. She has Cerebral Palsy Quadriplegia, severe hearing loss and is developmentally delayed. Cassidy-Rae was born prematurely and had complications, including being without oxygen for 4 minutes.

Her mom said she has made tremendous strides this semester in school. And she said during this time Cassidy-Rae has learned 18 upper case letters, 16 lower case letters and up to the number 11.

Cassidy-Rae and her mom can be found at almost any Children's Miracle Network. But when she's not at an event, Cassidy-Rae loves riding her bike, playing with friends, the movie Frozen and Winter and Hope the dolphin. 

Press play below to hear from Cassidy-Rae's mom, Renee Luebbering. 




Sophia sits in her favorite rocking chair. Photo credit: Heather Adams

Sophia attends Delmar A. Cobble State School for the Severely Disabled in Columbia. She is blind and has Cerebral Palsy. 

Sophia's not her real name, it's an alias because she's a foster child, taken during an emergency situation. She has lived with Lisa Thomas for about two years.

Thomas said Sophia loves Barney and listening to music while sitting in her favorite rocking chair. Thomas is also learning braille in hopes to one day help teach Sophia to read.

Press play below to hear from Thomas.

“All special needs kids, they’re not one and the same.”

Teachers and students gather around during class at H. Kenneth Kirchner State School for the Severely Disabled in Jefferson City, Missouri, and sing a song together. Photo credit: Ashley Reese. 

Press play below to hear their song:

More Than Academics

Spelling tests, learning times tables and studying about Abraham Lincoln are common parts of elementary school curriculum. But for a child with special needs, the course of study often looks a little different.

Nathaniel spends about 40 percent of his day in the regular education classroom. He’s integrated with his regular ed peers for lunch, recess, music, art,PE and reading time. But for most of the core subjects, like math, reading, or spelling, Nathaniel leaves the regular education classroom and goes to a room where he receives one-on-one instruction from a special education teacher. 

“If they’re doing any work, they usually pull him out and work with him at his level,” Wright said. “So they do the same thing, it’s just if it’s math, he’s doing counting while they’re doing multiplication.”

Wright said the one-on-one time is integral to Nathaniel’s learning. She said she isn’t sure how his old school expected him to learn in a separate classroom with multiple students with special needs and only one teacher.

"All special needs kids, they're not one in the same," she said. "Just because he's in third grade with special needs, he's not the same as another third grader with other special needs. He needs areas of concern that may not be a concern [for another student]." 

“I wish there were more of an educational curriculum, like teaching them ABC’s, 123’s."

Just as Nathaniel has his own areas of concern in school, Sophia has hers. Instead of spelling and counting, her education will focus on life skills, such as sorting and folding laundry, feeding herself, and communication skills.

A student works to sort silverware at H. Kenneth Kirchner State School for the Severely Disabled in Jefferson City. Photo credit: Ashley Reese.

Administrators from some of the Missouri State Schools for the Severely Disabled said they focus heavily on these life skills and less on academics. Janice Gerken, building administrator for E.W. Thompson State School for the Severely Disabled, said their focus is ultimately on making the students as independent as possible.

“The whole purpose of the school here is to progress them through the transition to where they can graduate,” Gerken said. “So, we try to indicate employment skills, vocational skills, and independent care skills. So, there they will be some sense of independence when they graduate.”

The standards at the schools are clearly different. According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, while it’s a goal for Kindergarteners through 2nd graders in general education classes to be working on speaking and writing english, one goal for students at the Missouri Schools for the Severely Disabled is “producing any vocal response, other than crying, when presented with stimuli.”

But Lisa Thomas, her guardian, said she feels Sophia can do much more. She currently works with Sophia at night using books in braille and books with raised squares and triangles Sophia can feel to help her learn her shapes.

But during school hours, she doesn’t get the chance to work on this.

"I wish there were more of an education curriculum, like teaching them ABC's, 123's. That may not be possible at all but there's no attempt to teach anything like that," Thomas said.

“All special needs kids, they’re not one and the same."

Thomas said she also understands these goals might not be possible during school hours, “maybe because of time restraints and also because of the mental capabilities of the students. To me, Sophia’s a little genius because of how far she’s come, but in reality maybe she’s not mentally ever going to be able to read or write or say or count or anything,” Thomas said.

But the state schools are looking to add more academics into their programs, possibly combining it with other activities. A lesson on addition could be taught while also learning to fold laundry.

A student uses a communication device at H. Kenneth Kirchner State School for the Severely Disabled, one of Missouri's 34 schools for the severely disabled. Photo credit: Ashley Reese.

Robin Williams, director for the State Schools for the Severely Disabled in the northwest part of the state, said teaching academics can be emphasized once basic communication skills are learned, which sometimes takes much longer for students in the state schools.

“Our students understand so much more than they can communicate back to us,” Williams said.

Missouri State Schools for the Severely Disabled are working on using more technology, like iPads and eye gaze boards to help students communicate. But before these technologies can be used to their full capacity, students have to learn how to use them.

“Sometimes these kids have so many physical disabilities and language issues and sensory issues and if you can get past some of those things and find a way for them to communicate what they know inside, you might be able to get there,” Williams said.

Spencer has managed to achieve a whole new level of communication skills over the past few years. His teachers, peers and parents said they have noticed remarkable changes.

“The first year that  I had Spence, our communication wasn’t nearly as strong as it is now," Bowling said. "I remember walking down the hall the day that he called me Mrs. Bowling and I had tears in my eyes," Bowling said. "Because it was just like we stepped over this new line, a new connection, and now he talks non-stop. He's chatty, chatty Spencer."

"You don’t know when they’re going to be able to be that sponge that absorbs something and later in their life they squeeze out something that they brought from a high school classroom."

As Spencer has gained communication skills, he has also gained confidence- which has led to a huge increase in socialization. And, as his classmate Jake Andrews said, better behavior and acceptance among his peers.

“I remember toward freshman/sophomore year, he was kind of rowdy, kind of energetic- like a very happy kind of energetic- but he still kind of acted up a little bit,” Andrews said. “But I noticed that between last year and this year, he’s more, I’d say grown up, like he doesn’t talk out of turn. He talks more, but he talks raising his hand and that kind of stuff.”

His classmates now describe Spencer as popular.

Spencer Hoffmeister waits in the hallway with friends for his mom to pick him up after school. His classmates said he's always talking to someone, usually about the St. Louis Blues. Photo credit: Ashley Reese. 

“He talks to everyone in the hallway, a lot of people know him… I don’t see anyone being mean to him,” said classmate Breanna Belbin.

Classmate Cole Sutton said he always sees Spencer talking to someone- usually about the St. Louis Blues.

“He knows more people than I do,” Sutton said.

Spencer’s teachers have noticed his increasing popularity too. Tim Banger described him as a kid who’s just easy to say hello to. He said when Spencer’s not in class, everyone notices.

“And it’s not certainly because he’s a disruption in the class,” Banger said. “He definitely doesn’t get any of my attention in a negative way. He’s a very well-behaved young man.”

Banger said teaching Spencer really isn’t all that different than teaching any other kid in his class. He said technically he should be able to recite themodifications and accommodations listed in Spencer’s Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. But he said he just as soon forgets which student has what requirements- as he put it, every kid has needs.

“I don’t have too many kids who I have to hover over,” Banger said. "If a kid comes into the class they’re going to offer something and hopefully they’re going to absorb something and take it with them. You don't know when they're going to be able to be that sponge that absorbs something and later in their life they squeeze out something that they brought from a high school classroom. But I do think that Spencer can absorb something and on days can contribue and offer something."

Spencer walks the track with his friends during P.E. class. Farmington High School provides him with an inclusive environment, allowing him to socialize with his both his peers with special needs and his regular ed peers. Photo credit: Ashley Reese. 

"I remember walking down the hall the day that he called me Mrs. Bowling and I had tears in my eyes. Because it was just like we stepped over this new line, a new connection, and now he talks non-stop. He’s chatty, chatty Spencer.”

Cause for hesitation

Spencer Hoffmeister is eager to answer a question in Tim Banger's Communication Arts class. Photo credit: Heather Adams.

Many parents fear their child with special needs wouldn’t be able to keep up in the regular education classroom. The thought of their child learning at the same level of their peers can seem impossible. But the teachers find ways to work around this. Peggy Harris, Spencer’s family and consumer science teacher, said having Spencer in her class challenges her to think of her lesson plans in different ways- which in turns benefits not only Spencer, but his classmates as well.

“It makes you think, OK, here’s this lesson for 30 kids. And every kid is going to take something away from it. And I need to do what he’s going to take away from it,” Harris said. “Like in my class, if it’s just the social part and that’s what he takes away from it, then that’s what he’s supposed to be doing. It doesn’t matter if he can define a certain word or whatever.”

Thomas said sending Sophia to Delmar A. Cobble State School for the Severely Disabled isn’t about core academics, but also about fitting Sophia’s other needs, such as physical and occupational therapy.

Cassidy-Rae’s parents recognized sending her to public school meant she got less therapy time than children in the state schools, but they feel she wouldn’t thrive there like she is in public school.

Renee Luebbering, Cassidy-Rae’s mother, said state school’s were brought up as a possible option. But Luebbering and her husband felt that wasn’t the right decision for her daughter and they got her tested on their own. The tests proved Cassidy-Rae didn’t qualify for the state school and the option wasn’t suggested again.

Nathaniel shows Cassidy-Rae his finished bunny picture. The two of them of are both pulled out of their general education classroom and brought here to work on things individually with teachers and aids. Photo credit: Heather Adams.

One of the reasons Luebbering felt state schools weren’t the best option was because she said Cassidy-Rae learns best from her peers, something she couldn’t do at a state school.

“I feel like she wants to be like her peers as much as possible,” Luebbering said. “She went to a daddy-daughter dance at her school and all these girls were around her apparently, it’s absolutely amazing. But she does learn from them and I believe she is making progress because of them.”

Nathaniel and Cassidy-Rae are classmates at Blair Oaks Elementary. And just as Cassidy-Rae has been learning from her classmates, Nathaniel’s been learning too. Educationally, Wright said he’d already met 50 percent of his IEP goals after the first quarter of the school year- something she said he’d never done in his past school where he spent 80 percent of his day in a separate classroom.

But beyond the academics, Wright said she’s been amazed at how much Nathaniel has already progressed socially. She said she really noticed a change when they were at a football game supporting her older son.

“Never before had any kids come up to Nathaniel and wanted to play with him,” she said. “And we were sitting there and this kid comes up and tags Nathaniel and says, ‘Tag!’ And they weren’t making fun of him, they weren’t picking on him, they were playing with him.”

Nathaniel joins classmates in a game of dodgeball during his general education P.E. class. The students have to start in different positions, such as lying down before each game. Photo credit: Heather Adams.

Wright said until that moment she hadn’t noticed Nathaniel was missing the interaction with his peers. Since then she said she’s noticed quite an improvement in his social skills.

“If I would go somewhere he would sit on my phone or he has an iPad, and now if we go somewhere he actually looks for other kids to play with,” Wright said.

While Sophia isn’t in a general education setting, Thomas feels Sophia’s getting the socialization she needs right where she is.


Sophia used to go to Parkade Elementary in Columbia Public School District for a music class once a week. But Thomas said she accompanied her on those visits, and felt she wasn’t being included enough, so Thomas pulled the outing from Sophia’s IEP.

Columbia Public Schools, however, said they accommodate their students, especially their guests.

Thomas said simply attending a school where she is in a general education classroom doesn’t mean she’s socializing with other children. She’s afraid Sophia wouldn’t get the help she needs if she went to a public school full-time.

“She is getting the therapy she needed, there is not, the teachers are totally and aides are totally dedicated and able to concentrate on the students and work with them one on one. They’re not having to get students out of drawers, they’re not having to get them out of filing cabinets, they’re not having to tell them to stop banging their heads on the wall. They’re not having to tell them to do all this other stuff. They’re able to just concentrate on the students and work with them,” Thomas said.

Gerken said many families with children in the state schools use family outings as a way to provide other types of community social interactions for their child.

But these types of social interactions don’t only benefit the child with special needs- Spencer’s teachers and peers said they learn from him as well.

Harris said she’s learned everyone has their own gifts.

“And you learn tolerance,” she said. “You learn the world has different things; every kid in your classroom has something different.”

Sophomore Breanna Belbin said being in class with Spencer and other students with special needs has inspired her and taught her how to interact with people despite their differences. She now plans on becoming a special education teacher herself someday.

“They’re a typical high school student, they’re just like everyone else, but they learn at a different pace than everyone else,” Belbin said. “So you just have to explain it in their kind of terms where they can understand it.”

“So, I kind of like the fact that she’s able to spread out. It’s not just one self-contained classroom.”

Children use the adapted swingset at E.W. Thompson State School for the Severely Disabled in Sedalia, Missouri. 

All in One Place

Students play outside on swings and jungle gyms at Delmar A Cobble State School for the Severely Disabled. But this playground is completely adapted for students with physical disabilities, including swings for students in wheelchairs and ramps on the jungle gym.

Ramps allow all students, despite their disability, to play on the playground equpitment. Photo credit: Ashley Reese.

Missouri State Schools for the Severely Disabled are entirely built around the idea of serving children with disabilities and eliminate many of the physical obstacles present in their typical everyday lives. This allows teachers, aides and therapists to easily move students around the building.

“Since it’s a whole school, the therapists are able to take her out of the classroom and work with her outside on the playground, in the hallway, they have a big room that she has gym and things like that,” Thomas said. “So, I kind of like the fact that she’s able to spread out. It’s not just one self-contained classroom.”

Sophia receives physical therapy, occupational therapy, orientation of mobility, music therapy, speech therapy, and has various medical needs. Although she has an allotted amount of time for each therapy, teachers in the state school are expected to help with them throughout the day, even when therapists aren’t there.

Teachers at the state schools must have a bachelor’s degree and Missouri teaching certificate in special education. But sometimes finding these qualified teachers is difficult.

There are currently about 16 teaching vacancies listed on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website. But sometimes substitutes step up and go back to school to get these qualifications.

Students are able to move around in the gym in H Kenneth Kirchner State School for the Severely Disabled in Jefferson City, Missouri. Photo credit: Ashley Reese.

“Some of our people are actually, they will come into here sometimes by accident,” Gerkin said. “Lots of, a lot of our folks will substitute with us in some capacity with us first and find that they really do love it.”

Each school offers various training for both beginning teachers and substitutes. And Williams said the staff all work together to help each other when they have a question.

Despite having an extra teaching certificate, state school teachers are paid less. According to a 2006 study, salaries were typically $5,000 to $10,000 less than public school teachers in Missouri. Stephen Barr, Assistant Commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said because they’re state employees, they can quit at any time and are also not eligible for tenure.

“It’s a challenge, because they are state employees they’re paid less than the typical school district pays and also different from public schools, we don’t have contracts,” Barr said.

The different kinds of schools, the therapies, the IEP meetings- it’s a lot to navigate for a parent who is just beginning their child’s education. Spencer’s mom, Michelle Hoffmeister, said she remembers when Spencer was first diagnosed with a cognitive impairment at age 5. She said at first she wasn’t sure where to turn.

“You’re the expert on your child. If something doesn’t feel right, then don’t do it. But you know better about your child than anybody.”

“The maze was, like, too overwhelming for me,” she said. “I think there were resources out there, but I didn’t know if I thought I was supposed to look for them.”

Hoffmeister said Spencer’s teachers ended up becoming very valuable resources themselves. She said his kindergarten teacher was wonderful, and empowered her as a mother. 

"And basically said, 'You're the expert on your child,'" Hoffmeister said. "If something doesn't feel right, then don't do it. But you know better about your child than anybody." 

Thomas gets the help she needs by being connected to other parents dealing with similar issues.

“One time I was at a PTO meeting and I was telling a story about Sophia and I was trying to explain something, one of the other parents goes ‘We understand. We have children like that too.’ And I was like ‘Oh, yeah. I forgot, your kids are just like mine. It’s so great talking to parents like you guys,’” Thomas said.

Lisa Thomas is learning braille and hopes to teach it to Sophia one day. Photo credit: Heather Adams.

She also said they are able to ask questions and bounce ideas off each other, like special recipes or different ways to make food accommodating for their children.

Sophia is limited to a pureed diet. Thomas said she thought this meant she was limited to apple sauce and baby food. But she said another mother at the school taught her out to make other things like Chocolate Cake, Sophia’s favorite food, in pureed form so Sophia can enjoy it.

“So, now it’s kind of a joke. Any time we run into each other I introduce her as the person who turned my daughter on to Chocolate Cake,” Thomas said.

Luebbering echoed this benefit of socializing with other parents.

She said you can find her at almost all the Children Miracle Network events, especially MizzouThon.

“Just try and reach out to other parents that are going through the same thing. Parents are your best resource,” Luebbering said.

“[Spencer] has a purpose. He has a job. He has something that he’s going to be able to continue to do.”

Time for Transitions

Students at the Missouri Schools for the Severely Disabled graduate on their 21st birthdays, regardless of where that falls on the school calendar. Paula Patterson, the building administrator for H. Kenneth Kirchner State School in Jefferson City, said she tries to prepare parents for this transition during their final IEP meeting.

Spencer Hoffmeister works at the bookstore Tuesday-Friday every week as part of his transition services. Photo credit: Ashley Reese. 

She said it can also be hard on students, especially to lose their routines. But Darlene Baugher, the area director for Southwest Missouri, said they try to help prepare the students as best as possible, as well. 

“Just because our students in general need routine and repetition, we still have to teach not to generalize because that’s not the world, really. So that’s part of actually teaching toward that transition, that you have to deal with different people, different places, different times,” she said.

Another part of preparation is the daily teaching of life skills to the students in the state schools. Those simple tasks- holding a fork, brushing their teeth, making a bed- will help the students become as independent as possible.

Thomas said she hopes Sophia will be able to stay at home for a long time, but she realizes that eventually she’ll have to go live at a group home.

“We hope that at that point she’s able to communicate her needs successfully. That she doesn’t have to rely on biting or for people just to, for her to cry and be upset and for them to just guess what’s wrong with her. And that’s about it. We realize she will probably never have a job, even a made up type job, just probably a group home,” she said. “She loves to listen to music, she loves Barney. Maybe she’ll outgrow Barney by the time she’s 21, who knows? But just something like that where she can just have a happy life.”

In the public schools, IDEA Part B requires transition services. These services are meant for students with special needs ages 16-21 as a means to help them transition out of the secondary education environment and into the real world. 

Transition services can take on a variety of forms, but many times it involved starting a student out in the job market before they graduate. The goal is to help them become as independent as possible upon graduation. Farmington High School students help run a coffee shop in the school, and the school also finds students work outside of school. Spencer works at Oasis Christian Bookstore in Farmington from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Tuesday through Friday. There he takes out the trash, helps clean the shelves, and interacts with customers.

Spencer Hoffmeister helps organize the shelves, interacts with co-workers and customers, and does other daily tasks like taking out the trash when he works at Oasis Christian Bookstore. Photo credit: Ashley Reese. 

“I think it’s kind of helped him see kind of what’s expected of him outside of a schoolwork environment,” Bowling said. “He’s really grown a lot I think since we’ve gotten here on a personal level.”

Columbia Public School District offers a number of transitional services as well. These include on-site services, such as allowing students to help with things like snow cone sales and car washes. The district also helps put its students out into the community, landing them jobs at places like University Hospital, Boone Hospital, and local nursing homes.

Beyond offering employment opportunities, the district helps with career-readiness by offering dual enrollment with the local community college, ACT prep, and technical programs.

All of this preparation- the life skills in the state schools, the transition services in the public- aspire to help them progress from students to members of the community.

“[Spencer] has a purpose. He has a job. He has something that he’s going to be able to continue to do,” said Farmington Assistant Superintendent Ashley Krause.

It Comes with a Cost

In 2006, Missouri Governor Matt Blunt asked the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to “examine best practices around the country for improving the delivery of services” for children with severe disabilities. The department commissioned a study which questioned the placement of children with disabilities in Missouri and other states.

When Governor Matt Blunt requested the study in 2006, the concern was Missouri was the only state with a “state administered day program” for students with severe disabilities. Today, Missouri is still the last one standing. But as the report notes, many other states have similar programs that are locally controlled, regional services instead of state-run programs.

Sixteen states were studied in the report. They were chosen because their total populations were similar to Missouri’s.

Out of these states, Missouri and Maryland had the highest percentage of students with developmental disabilities served completely outside of the regular education classroom. In Missouri, an average of 12 percent of these students were served in a separate day facility.

But many other states have regional schools similar to Missouri’s state schools.

“95 percent of all students with disabilities are educated in the general education building. And that’s tremendous when you look back 50 years ago that just was not the case at all.”

“So, even in a public school they might be in their own room, really not interact with a lot of other kids. School districts that don’t send them to the state school may send them to a private facility that might be closer by and things like that,” Barr said. “It’s just a different naming convention.”

Separate schools, though, go against the idea of inclusion. When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, was created, many put emphasis on the idea of inclusion: the integration of students with special needs into the regular education classroom. Often this consists of a regular education classroom teacher and a special education teacher working together to co-teach a class.

David Wilson, Assistant Director of Special Services for the Columbia Public School District, said in that scenario costs are a concern. 

"When you have two teachers in a classroom it's obviously very expensive," Wilson said. "It's not about the cost though. It's more about we want to make sure that we're utilizing the teachers we have both as effectively and efficiently as we can." 

But the 2006 report said local districts still spend less per student than the state schools. Local districts spent about $24,500 each year per student with severe disabilities, while special districts including the state schools spent more than $30,000 per student.

And the costs add up. Barr said the average cost per child last year for the Missouri State Schools for the Severely Disabled was nearly $38,000. The total operational costs for the 34 facilities last fiscal year were a little over $33.6 million.

“It’s more about we want to make sure that we’re utilizing the teachers we have both as effectively and efficiently as we can.”

Barr said the Missouri state schools provide a different option, especially for parents who are concerned about bullying, transportation and the value of their child’s education.

“There’s a lot better feeling for those kids in the classroom, and so it’s probably a more successful model than just maybe having been pushed by some people who think that maybe inclusion is right for everybody. It isn’t,” Barr said.

Students at H. Kenneth Kirchner State School for the Severely Disabled play in the gym. Photo credit: Ashley Reese.

In a survey back in 2006, 80 percent of parents of children in state schools were satisfied with the therapies their children were receiving, while at local Missouri public schools only 59 percent of parents of kids with disabilities were satisfied.

Inclusion isn’t actually written into the law. Instead, schools are required to provide a free, appropriate education in a least restrictive environment. But what’s appropriate? What’s restrictive?

The answer- it depends. The state, school district, or the parents define these terms.

Dr. George Giuliani is the executive director at the National Association of Special Education Teachers. He said understanding the definition of least restrictive environment comes down to the child.

“It’s the requirement that children with disabilities must be educated with those without disabilities to the maximum extent that it is appropriate for that particular child,” Giuliani said.

He said the concept of “free appropriate public education” was the focus of a 1982 court case, Petitioners v. Amy Rowley (link). While the school felt Amy was doing fine, her parents thought she could do even better with a sign language interpreter. But the court decided that wasn’t the expectation of the school.

“What is the standard? And in a sense should we be maximizing the potential of students with disabilities? And it was the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that that was never the intention of Congress, to maximize the potential of students because that’s not the standard that we use for general education students. The standard is we have to provide an appropriate education not a best education,” Giuliani said.

Giuliani said ideally the law would be more specific. But he said requiring a poor rural school to live up to rules set by a rich urban school wouldn’t work, either. So the law remains broad with specific mandates to ensure the rights of children with disabilities.

“They lay out, very specifically what is mandated in terms of what teachers and administrators and school districts must do for children to protect their particular rights,” Giuliani said. “But in terms of how to do it, that’s often left broad and left to the states, actually.”

And while inclusion isn’t written into the law, Giuliani said not including students with disabilities in the same building as regular education students isn’t the norm.

"We want these students in our buildings now, the idea of segregation of children with disabilities is really now a very foreign concept because what is known is that 95 percent of all students with disabilities are educated in the general education building," Guiliani said. "And that's tremendous when you look back 50 years ago that was just not the case at all." 

Despite the Missouri Schools for the Severely Disabled being unique to the state, 2.9 percent of students with special needs in Missouri are served in separate schools, which matches the national average.

The 2006 study found 78 percent of the 36 U.S. states that responded to the study had “multiple entities responsible for administering educational services to students with severe disabilities,” including single school districts, multi-district cooperatives, and state agencies (including schools for the deaf and blind).

Nationally, self-contained classrooms in local school districts were the most common placement for students with severe disabilities. Twenty-one states said this placement “was either always or often used,” and 13 other states said it “was used sometimes or rarely.” Regular education classrooms with supports such as paraprofessionals, who work one-on-one with the student with special needs, or co-teachers were the second most common placement.

Last year’s annual report showed 94.8 percent of students with disabilities in the nation were served in the regular education classroom for at least part of the school day in Fall 2012. Missouri fell just one percent below the national average, with 93.8 percent of the state’s students with special needs making it into the regular education classroom.

Re-inventing Special Education

Click on the states above to find out more specifically about each state.

Special education is complicated. There are so many different factors to consider- the environment, the teachers, the therapies and other services. So even though the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed 40 years ago and provided a framework for the country, it’s still left up to each state to come up with its own best practices.

Historically, special education and general education have been handled very differently, even separately. But now one organization in Missouri is working alongside a few other states in hopes to change that.

Rules and regulations are often a big focus in special education, but now organizations are saying it should be more about the outcomes and specialized teaching. Seven states are trying to make that shift using a project called “Re-inventing Special Education” and Missouri is in the preliminary stages of becoming part of the project.

Steven Belden is the president of the Missouri Council of Administrators of Special Education, or MO-CASE, which started Missouri’s look at the program in 2013. He said the idea is to continue to provide all types of services, but to get rid of the idea that special education is separate.

In this program, individualized plans will be made for all students below a certain performance level and students would only qualify for special education if their disability impacts learning directly. Belden said ultimately this would help all students who might be behind their peers, not just those in special education.

A text book sits on the table during class in Farmington High School in Farmington, Missouri. Photo Credit: Heather Adams.

“Too often, there’s not a whole lot of collaboration looking at all the students and how we can set up the structures to best work together,” Belden said.

He said while MO-CASE is separate from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and doesn’t have specific influence over any laws, schools can still work with them to make changes to their systems now instead of waiting for what he said is an overdue update to federal law.

“Every state, Missouri included, although kids are more included and we’re seeing more progress, we’re not seeing enough as far as the outcomes,” Belden said.

The first step for looking into the program involved a study asking what types of things were needed in Missouri’s special education system. The second step is to learn from other states with the same program. Some of the final steps involve looking back at Missouri, partnering with other organizations and then creating a vision for the program, which will come at the end of this 10-year plan.

“And it’s just, I’m kind of surprised that your state still takes educationally funded kids and puts them in a separate facility. That’s… yeah… I would say your probably one of the few in the country that still do that.”

Florida is one of the other states with this program. Monica Verra-Tirado is the Bureau Chief at the Department of Education in Florida.

Verra-Tirado said the word “inclusion” is written into the Florida statute to emphasize its importance.

“And our emphasis has been that all students are a part of general education and some students may need extra support to be successful in general education,” she said. “But special education is a service, not a place.”

A small number of students in Florida are served in separate buildings but they’re run by the local public school. Students at these schools also have the same curriculum as they would in the general education building.

Colorado is another state with the Re-invent special education program, hoping to revamp its approach to special education. Colorado has had a long history of issues with complaints and, since 2004, has been struggling to meet IDEA requirements.

In the late 1970’s, children with disabilities in Colorado were living in institutions because public schools refused to educate them. In these institutions, children were not being educated.

Randy Chapman, director of legal services of Disability Law Colorado, was part of the lawsuit filed by Colorado Association of Retarded Citizens, now referred to as ARC, and the Center for the Legal Advocacy to end these institutions and require education for the children living there.

Many of the children were considered so low functioning people didn’t think they could be educated. But after the lawsuit, all public schools had to create IEP’s for each child whose parent lived in that school district boundary.

“There now are no children in our state institutions and all kids with significant disabilities are being served in the public schools. We no longer have segregated schools in Colorado,” he said.

“But special education is a service, not a place.”

But, he said, not everyone went straight into general education classrooms and all types of services are still provided, just within the public school district.

He said Jeffco Public School District in Lakewood, Colorado is the only public district with a separate school. The school continues to operate because of parent advocates.

In the mid 1980’s Chapman filed a complaint with the federal office of civil rights.

“(I was) arguing the school district could not require kids to attend that segregated school, that they had to allow children to attend public schools,” Champman said.

After the complaint, the Jeffco Public School District now creates accommodations for any child whose parent requests they be served in the general education public school building.

Randy Boyer, Assistant Commissioner for the Department of Education in Colorado, said the Re-inventing Special Education Program gives students the option to learn from their peers despite IQ levels.

“I mean that’s the whole problem with containment is that you have no other role models to select from or you don’t see anything any differently and it just becomes a whole…It’s just surreal is what it becomes,” Boyer said.

He said he’s shocked Missouri still has separate state-funded schools for the severely disabled.

“And it’s just, I’m kind of surprised that your state still takes educationally funded kids and puts them in a separate facility,” he said. “That’s… yeah… I would say your probably one of the few in the country that still do that.”

While Missouri’s vision for how the program would be implemented here still isn’t complete, “Re-inventing Special Education” is about uniting all education in Missouri schools, while still offering options to parents and students.