Originally created 12/21/06

Special pupils gaining ground



Things are looking up for special education pupils in Richmond County schools.

A year after state officials rebuked the system's special education efforts, they are now praising it for improvement.

The Georgia Department of Education recently honored Richmond County for making the greatest academic gains in reading and math among the state's 13 largest school systems. That's a turnaround from last year, when the state department issued a report highly critical of the program because of the gaping achievement gap between special education pupils and regular education pupils. At the time, Richmond County's gap was the largest among similar size systems in the state.

Richmond County is demonstrating that children with special needs can perform better through what's called inclusion, or co-teaching, a team approach to teaching with special education and general education instructors, Director of Special Education Sharon Harkrider said.

The numbers back it up.

According to The Augusta Chronicle's latest analysis of Georgia Department of Education data, Richmond County narrowed the special education achievement gap in reading on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests in first through eighth grades. The gap was also narrowed in math for all but second and eighth grades.

In fourth-grade reading, for instance, special education pupils scored four percentage points more in 2006 compared with a year ago, while general education pupils scored 10 points worse.

And on the reading test in sixth and eighth grades, special education pupils made gains of more than 20 percentage points.

Mrs. Harkrider, an educator for 33 years, recalled a time when children with special needs were ushered out to a portable classroom behind a school and all but forgotten. The assumptions, however, are no longer that these pupils can't perform.

Mrs. Harkrider said the improvements didn't surprise her, but she was, nonetheless, excited about the progress.

She expects scores to continue going up and the achievement gap to continue downward as Richmond County expands its inclusion program.

If they're tested on the general education content, they need to be exposed to it, she said. This year, inclusion is used in every school in the county to some extent, but through additional training it will be expanded to more classrooms and students.

While busy addressing the needs of special education pupils, department coordinator Talithia Newsome said the goal is to improve education for all pupils.

The general education teacher provides the content, while the special education teacher provides accommodations, understanding that a class of pupils is diverse with various learning styles.

The strategy is designed to aid all "struggling learners," Mrs. Harkrider said.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.

Narrowing the gap

Special-needs children continue to lag behind general-education children on the same tests, but the gap has been narrowed in reading and math in nearly all grades on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. The following shows the gaps in proficiency between special-education pupils and general-education pupils:


Test 2005 gap 2006 gap
First-grade reading 19% 15%
First-grade math 20% 14%
Second-grade reading 33% 28%
Second-grade math 27% 30%
Third-grade reading 24% 23%
Third-grade math 22% 20%
Fourth-grade reading 37% 23%
Fourth-grade math 38% 31%
Fifth-grade reading 40% 29%
Fifth-grade math 41% 40%
Sixth-grade reading 44% 32%
Sixth-grade math 42% 35%
Seventh-grade reading 43% 37%
Seventh-grade math 45% 44%
Eighth-grade reading 51% 38%
Eighth-grade math 47% 51%

Source: The Augusta Chronicle analysis of Georgia Department of Education data