Wraparound Services

A community approach to keep even severely disabled children in local schools by RITA STEVENSON

It seems like when a student goes into crisis, the first thing we do is refer him to someone else.” (Author unknown)

Nontraditional, pro-active and cost-effective approaches exist within school districts to creatively meet the behavioral, academic and transitional needs of students with disabilities.

What I and others term “wraparound service delivery” is a community-based solution for meeting the needs of behaviorally challenged students who are at risk of being placed outside the community in residential or foster home settings. The goal is to turn what resources we have into what the student needs.

Resources are created and organized around the student, family and teacher. This collaborative process focuses on identifying the strengths of the student and his or her family and extended family. These strengths are used as the basis of the wraparound plan. Rather than sending the student to a placement away from his or her family and community, community-based services are wrapped around the student. The ultimate goal of wraparound is to turn our most frustrating challenges into our greatest successes.

Kenny is one such success. At age 8, Kenny was posing a significant challenge to his teachers. His constant misbehavior resulted in two hospitalizations totaling eight months in a psychiatric children’s unit approximately 80 miles from home. When he returned to his home school with a diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome, the disruptive behavior continued. He ate the dirt and grass on the playground—acting as if he was a dinosaur. Aggressive acts, attention deficit and hyperactivity resulted in the school district’s response—which was to send Kenny to an out-of-state residential facility.

What the district wanted and what the family wanted were two different things. As Kenny’s mother stated, “For most of my child’s life, my husband and I felt like we were at war with professionals, not a helping relationship. It seemed like what we knew and wanted didn’t matter to them.”

After much persistence on the part of the family and school, the Illinois Department of Mental Health agreed to allow the school district, Peru Elementary District 124 in Peru, Ill., to use its state funds (known as individual care grants) intended for a residential placement to wrap community-based services around Kenny. Rather than sending away Kenny to the distant services, the services were brought to Kenny. A plan was developed that would enable Kenny to stay in his home school with his family and community.

Because wraparound services were a relatively new concept, the district recruited the technical assistance of Lucille Eber, a national expert on wraparound service delivery. She assisted the district with designing a plan that included the services of a respite worker for the parents, Youth Service Bureau support, afterschool tutoring, swimming lessons, social skills training and various other afterschool activities offered through the local park district and YMCA.

This wraparound plan was initiated 10 years ago. Kenny, a lover of animals, snakes and insects, is now successfully working at an animal rescue facility and earning a paycheck. This spring, Kenny will walk across the stage of his community high school and receive his high school diploma with his lifelong peers. His goal is to go to college to study herpetology.

His path to this point was not without roadblocks. Many revisions in services and changes of service providers occurred along the way. The success of the wraparound plan can be attributed to a school district that was willing to attempt a nontraditional, effective and cost-efficient approach to special education service delivery. It also can be attributed to a team that stayed focused on what was in the best interest of the student and most importantly to the partnership the school district forged with committed and caring parents.

This successful wraparound not only saved taxpayer dollars, it also saved Kenny the trauma of being separated from his family. A cost comparison done in 1999 indicated a savings of approximately $63,000. The community-based services amounted to $12,000 compared to residential costs exceeding $74,000. Since 1999, residential costs have more than doubled as a recent annual cost estimate for a residential placement was over $150,000.

Preventive Measures
Neverstreaming is an approach for meeting the learning needs of children at risk. It means using effective prevention and early intervention programs that help all students in the general education environment. The goal is to ensure every child is successful before the need for special education or remedial services arises. These programs are usually funded by reallocating Title I funds and creatively using special education funds and personnel.

Programs such as Success For All, Reading Recovery and Prevention of Learning Disabilities are examples of neverstreaming. The premise is to put all needed supports in the general education setting in the elementary grades. These programs use one-to-one tutoring, intensive professional development and extensive parent involvement. Rather than pulling students out for services, the services are brought into the classroom. One example is the one-on-one tutoring provided for at-risk 1st-graders through the Prevention Learning Disabilities program.

Successful implementation can result in a decrease in student referrals for special education. In Baltimore, Md., neverstreaming resulted in a 50 percent decrease in special education referrals in the primary grades, according to Robert Slavin, founder of Success For All. Similar results occurred in Fort Wayne, Ind., where special education referrals in grades K-3 were three times lower in schools using Success For All compared to those that did not, according to one study.

Another approach to neverstreaming is flexible service delivery, a relatively new early intervention model. Eligibility for special education is not a prerequisite for this service. Students’ needs are met in the classroom through the collaborative efforts and resources of both general education and special education staff. Flexibility of human and financial resources is emphasized and special education categories and labeling are de-emphasized. (See related story.)

Transition Needs
The Mid-Valley Special Educational Cooperative operates two programs—Vocational Academic Development and Vocational Instructional Program—directed toward providing a comprehensive and relevant program for students who are mentally retarded.

The curriculum emphasizes the development of functional academics pertaining to vocational, social and independent adult living skills and is implemented in a variety of settings including the classroom, work-training sites and the community. A team approach is used with teachers, parents and employers working together to reinforce the appropriate social, vocational and independent skills needed to be successful at home, school and work.

The goal of vocational programs like VAD and VIP is to take a pro-active approach to preparing students and their families for life after public education.

Existing Resources
Regardless of how unique and creative special education service delivery is, its effectiveness is dependent on parent support. Illinois recently developed and implemented a parent training program. During the 2001-02 school year, the Illinois Resource Center received a private grant to study the use of a parent liaison for parents of children receiving special education services. The goal is to develop and maintain positive and effective relations between parents and schools by giving parents the knowledge needed to understand the special education process.

The grant allowed two school districts to test strategies and materials. The pilot sites were Mendota, Ill., Elementary District 289 and Kendall County Special Education Cooperative in Yorkville, Ill. The external support allowed the two school agencies to pilot parent training materials to improve parents’ understanding of special education and their ability to navigate the special education process in their children’s schools. The training materials, developed by the Illinois Service Resource Center in conjunction with the Academic Development Institute, were presented to the parents in six 90-minute sessions. Parent participants later reported the training created a support system for them that did not exist previously.

The parent training materials are available to school districts at no charge through the Illinois Service Resource Center in Northbrook, Ill., at isrc@interaccess.com.

At the national level, IDEA Partnerships is an organization funded by the U.S. Department of Education. It is led by four groups representing families and advocates, teachers and related service providers, administrators and policymakers. This unprecedented network of 105 organizations is developing a more cohesive approach to special education service delivery.

One initiatives of the IDEA Partnership is the IDEA National Resource Cadre. The cadre consists of 250 service providers and administrators who can provide technical assistance at the local, state and national levels on the implementation of IDEA ’97. The cadre is supported by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs. Information, training and resource materials may be requested from IDEA Local Implementation by Local Administrators, also known as ILIAD, at ILIADcadre@cec.sped.org

Widely Inclusive
As the newly hired director of Mid-Valley Special Education Cooperative, I was encouraged to see the school districts in the cooperative already implementing many of these strategies. As a result of their effective implementation, more than 90 percent of the 3,200 students with disabilities in the cooperative are receiving special education services within their districts. About 250 other students with more significant disabilities are being educated in the cooperative’s special education programs. Fewer than 3 percent of special education students receive services in private facilities outside the cooperative.

Students who would otherwise be placed in day or residential programs outside of their communities are receiving services within the cooperative. Mid-Valley’s goal is to do whatever it takes to meet the unique needs of all students in the least restrictive environment.

Rita Stevenson is the executive director of Mid-Valley Special Education Cooperative, 1304 Ronzheimer Ave., St. Charles, IL 60174. E-mail: rstevenson@d303.org. She is the AASA representative to the IDEA National Resource Cadre.