New program to meet special needs of students in county schools

OAKMAN — A new classroom in the Walker County Schools system is specially designed to serve a growing population in the learning community. The Walker County Board of Education recently approved to develop a new special needs classroom at Oakman Middle School that is now fully operational and contains sensory equipment to meet the students’ unique needs. The new program is being deemed PROPS (Positive Reinforcement Opportunities for Promising Students). At a school board meeting in October, Director of Student Services Butch Sargent pleaded for board members to approve the new classroom, which will serve students across the county who may benefit from a specialized educational environment. After some consideration and a financial status update from Walker County Schools Chief Financial Officer Margaret Scurlock, the board approved the new classroom at their Nov. 16 meeting. Sargent previously recommended the new classroom be located at Oakman Middle, since the school has many special needs students already in attendance. The board said they also had the space at that particular school to develop the specialized classroom. “The PROPS class is designed to use a variety of proven approaches and teaching methods to meet the varied and unique needs of students with behavior and/or social problems,” Walker County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jason Adkins said. “The program and the classroom environment recognizes and develops the strengths of each student as problem behaviors are addressed.” The classroom will serve students in first through eighth grades with special needs and autism, and the board has invested in sensory equipment for the classroom, a special needs bus to transport students and necessary personnel. Adkins said the board is funding $340,000 through the general fund for the program, and hopes the Alabama State Department of Education will grant that amount back through a catastrophic funds allocation. “Catastrophic funds are monies that are set aside, and if you have an unexpected, costly need in your area, you could apply for those monies,” Sargent said at October’s board meeting. “There is no financial issue,” Adkins said of funding the program. “It all comes from the general fund budget, hopefully to be reimbursed through this state mechanism that has funds set aside for programs like this. I feel good about it. ... We haven’t spent any money we can’t replace at any point in time.” Rachel Taylor will serve as the classroom’s special education teacher, and she is a certified Managing Crisis Safely instructor. She previously taught special education at Carbon Hill, but will now educate students in the classroom at Oakman Middle. Taylor said the new sensory equipment in the classroom provides stimuli that will enhance learning. The sensory items light up, glow in the dark and have interesting textures that intrigue students and foster improved behaviors. “I’ll use the sensory equipment as a motivator for them to do something for me. ... It’s using positive reinforcement as a motivator to get them to do what is needed for academics,” Taylor said. “The type of environment we’ve set up is to hopefully decrease the problematic behaviors to enable them to learn.” Fewer than 10 students currently use the classroom, but that number will grow, as the specialized classroom is open to students county-wide who are deemed to benefit from the learning environment through an individual education plan team decision. “This classroom is set up for those students county-wide who are having difficulty learning in [already established special education classrooms],” Taylor said, adding that she is thankful to be able to serve students in a new learning environment designed specifically for their needs. “I feel very blessed to have this opportunity. I feel very blessed to work in a county that is thinking outside the box and is supporting it — from the superintendent, to the board members that voted for it — and a special thanks goes out to Butch Sargent and Michelle Howell, the special ed team that is at the board, for seeing the need and implementing a program to meet those needs,” Taylor said. Adkins said providing this opportunity for students is a no-brainer, and he said the goal is for students who use the classroom to slowly be transitioned back into regular classrooms. “We have a growing number — just like every other school system in the state — of children with senory and behavioral disorders, social disorders and mental health disorders. This is just one way to have a systematic approach to solving some of those deep, very problematic issues that nobody really has an answer to,” Adkins said. “It’s the responsible thing to do that’s not only possible but also very appropriate and necessary.”