Clarissa Fish, director of Special Education for Regional School Unit 10, speaks to the board of directors Dec. 9 in Mexico about the growing number of students in the program and the need for qualified people to help them. Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times

MEXICO — The Special Education program in Regional School Unit 10 has more students with severe disabilities and a lack of qualified help, program Director Clarissa Fish told the board of directors recently.

It’s facing “some big concerns and challenges,” she said.

As of Nov. 13, there were 489 special education students in the district, or more than 27% of the 1,784 students enrolled as of Oct. 1. That’s nearly 5% more than on Oct. 1, 2018.

Of the 13 disability categories, including autism, emotional disability and intellectual disability, 53% of special education students require extensive services such as additional adult support and/or supervision, increased instructional time in the special education setting, individualized programming, behavioral consultation, community-based programming, or out-of-district placements, Fish said.

“First of all, … the need and intensity of the kids is on the rise,” Fish said. The high number of students with complex social-emotional needs requires constant supervision and individualized instructions, she said.

“The teachers can’t really step away,” she said. They’re having a hard time preparing for classes or taking their lunchtime because there’s really not a time where the kids can be unsupervised.

Another challenge teachers face is are the multi-faceted work demands and responsibility.

“As a special ed teacher, it’s really three jobs within one,” Fish said. “They teach all these really involved kids, but they are also a case manager, which involves all of the (individualized educational plan) meetings, all the paperwork, all the parent involvement, and then most of them are also a supervisor of ed techs.”

Another challenge is retaining teachers and finding qualified teachers, educational technicians and clinicians. The lack of qualified help “puts a huge demand on a special ed teacher,” Fish said.

The percentage of special education students at the district’s six schools is:

  • Mountain Valley High School in Rumford, 25.83%
  • Mountain Valley Middle School in Mexico, 32.90%
  • Rumford Elementary School, 33.61%
  • Meroby Elementary School in Mexico, 23.65%
  • Buckfield Junior-Senior High School, 23.01%
  • Hartford-Sumner Elementary School in Sumner, 24.52%

The middle school and Sumner school have relatively high class sizes of 26 and 20 students per teacher, respectively. The middle school is not fully staffed, Fish said, with four teachers and a part-time program coordinator. The Sumner school has four teachers, although one is a long-term substitute who is “actually an ed tech,” she said.

After the presentation by Fish on Dec. 9, Superintendent Deb Alden said the number of of special education students is “going up everywhere,” and many schools in Maine are having difficulties filling and retaining special education positions, except for wealthier areas such as Cape Elizabeth.

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