Last updated: August 12. 2014 11:47PM - 3619 Views
By - smocarsky@timesleader.com

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WILKES-BARRE — The Wilkes-Barre Area School Board on Monday approved a new policy regarding homeless students, due to an ever-increasing population.

“Homeless students … the numbers continue to rise. We monitor and serve on average 100 students annually, and on any given day, we have about 50 students in homeless status,” Deborah Mileski, director of pupil personnel programs, told the school board.

Mileski attended the board’s meeting Monday to answer any questions about the homeless policy she drafted, as well as to impress upon the board the urgent need to hire an Instructional Support Team teacher.

Despite having already dipped into the district’s $12.6 million surplus to balance the 2014-15 school year’s budget, the board narrowly approved Mileski’s request to hire an IST teacher — an unbudgeted position — after she provided information and statistics to back up the need.

One student population that an IST teacher would work with is the homeless segment, Mileski said, noting that the IST program is designed for any child who is academically at-risk.

According to the policy, a child can become homeless for a variety of reasons:

• High housing costs and poverty causes many families to lose their housing. Children from such households live in motels, shelters, shared residences, transitional housing programs, cars, campgrounds and other placess.

• Some children leave their homes because of abuse, neglect and family conflict. Many are placed in foster care.

The policy notes that a lack of permanent housing can lead to potentially serious physical, emotional and mental consequences. It details steps for identification of such children, school selection, enrollment requirements, transportation issues and the types of services the students should be provided.

It also notes that children living under these circumstances will be referred to as “children and youth in transition” rather than “homeless.”

Special ed numbers climbing

Mileski said homelessness is not the only reason that more personnel are needed, noting that she’s spoken with several board members about a new focus on the need for more special education teachers.

“What’s happened in the last few years, with a 29 percent increase in special ed (students), that is not going to stop,” Mileski said. “One-fifth of our student population is special ed. One-fifth. That’s about 1,600 students in special ed.”

She noted that the district has gone from having five IST teachers to one “child find” teacher whose role it is to identify at-risk children.

“The goal of our IST program is to maximize student success in regular ed,” Mileski said. “It not only decreases the number of students going in to special ed, but it also decreases the number of grade retentions.”

Board member Rev. Shawn Walker asked if there was documented evidence of the cost attributed to a lack of IST teachers.

“My experience in business, there are times that when you invest in something, it saves dollars, and you can reallocate those dollars somewhere else. I’m just curious if this is that kind of situation,” he said.

Mileski said the cost to educate a special education student is about twice that to educate a regular education student — about $18,000 annually compared to about $9,000. She said IST program is research-based and proven effective, and if an IST teacher can identify at-risk students before they are referred to special education, it can save the district money in the long run, she said.

“And we need to stop the trend of moving our children (into special education) without some type of a screening process, without the opportunity to give them a chance in regular ed,” Mileski said.

Board member and former principal Ned Evans said parent involvement in an Instructional Support Team can make all the difference in a child’s success. And, he said, rather than have one IST teacher in every school, school districts can get “a better bang for their buck” by having one IST teacher organize Instructional Support Teams at multiple schools.

The board voted 5-1, with three abstentions, to hire an IST teacher.

District Business Manager Leonard Pryzwara said the position could be a wash financially if a current employee is moved to the IST position and the former position is not replaced. Or, a new hire at base starting salary could cost $43,365 in salary; total cost could be near $60,000 with benefits.

But a reduction in special education students through the work of the IST teacher could end up saving the district more than the position costs, Pryzwara said.

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