Special Needs for Special Students
Oklahoma teachers inspire confidence and empower special needs students.
Photos by Lance Shaw
In small towns and rural school districts across the state, local teachers and administrators are doing their part to ensure students receive the custom special education services they deserve. Each child’s needs are a little different, but their unique circumstances are embraced within the schools of Oklahoma’s close-knit communities.
A community of teachers
Kristi Dill teaches junior high and high school special education at Navajo Schools, a rural, K-12 district located near Altus with around 175 students. The Harmon Electric Association member is a veteran teacher who has spent 25 years in special education. Students who qualify for special education services through the Oklahoma Department of Education meet with Dill one-on-one for additional assistance outside of their general education curriculum, and she helps teachers provide appropriate accommodations based on a student’s individualized education plan, or IEP.
“I’m there to help meet individual student needs,” she says. “We have a great community of teachers and staff who want everyone to be successful.”
Students in need of special education services typically are identified in elementary school with conditions that fall into 13 different categories of learning disabilities such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism. They may score low in reading or lack the ability to focus on an assignment. Once a learning disability is suspected, students must meet state criteria to be placed on an IEP. Special education teachers gather and prepare the proper documentation and also meet with parents on a regular basis to review their child’s tailored roadmap of learning.
“As a rural community, we have a much smaller circle of professionals who can provide additional services,” Dill says. “Our teachers wear a ton of hats, and the school family at Navajo gets the job done.”
The relationship Dill has with parents is a different kind than most regular education teachers experience. Instead of knowing a student and family for one year, she accompanies them on their journey from seventh through 12th grade.
“I develop relationships with parents to help their children succeed, and it’s neat to see kids ‘get it’ with a concept or lesson,” she says. “They gain confidence that they can do it and that people believe in them.”
Dill’s Navajo colleague, Johnna Brown-Milner, teaches special education for pre-K through the sixth grade. A Southwest Rural Electric Association member, she has specialized in several different subject areas during her 14-year education career. Although student progress sometimes occurs at a slower pace, she says she enjoys the challenge of serving in special education.
"I want to make a difference in a child's life, big or small it doesn't matter,” Brown-Milner says. “Teaching in a rural atmosphere is focused on meeting each student's needs and seeing them grow and develop into productive citizens. It has a family feeling as well; everyone knows everyone
Kristi Dill (left) and Johnna Brown-Milner (right), Navajo Schools.
Districts like Navajo are valued for smaller class sizes that provide more individualized care to students. In today’s education environment, technological advancements and training opportunities help rural schools meet critical needs. After Brown-Milner noticed dyslexia was becoming a more common learning disability among her students, she attended a training to learn instruction modifications for students who struggle with reading disorders. Her efforts did not go unnoticed, and earlier this year she was nominated by parents for the Red River Best Chevy Dealers Teacher Appreciation Contest.
“Everyone is so willing to help and reach out to nearby districts such as Altus or the State Department of Education,” Brown-Milner says. “The resources are there. You just have to work a little harder to find them.”
Accommodations through the IDEA
Local districts are dedicated to providing specially designed instruction to students, but the Oklahoma State Department of Education (SDE) also is responsible for serving those identified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When disabilities hinder educational performance, the SDE helps schools provide accommodations to access the general curriculum.
“It’s all based on the unique disabilities of each child and completely individualized,” says Todd Loftin, the SDE deputy superintendent of special education services. “Rural schools can contract with service providers such as speech pathologists or occupational therapists. Some contract special education directors to oversee data collection and administrative reporting, and while some support is best when conducted in person, others use telehealth resources.”
Special education services educate students in the least restrictive environment possible, Loftin says, and the decision to offer support in-house or contract it out to providers has no effect on compliance levels.
The SDE ensures districts are complying with part B of the IDEA by providing a free and appropriate education for students with disabilities ages 3 to 21.
“As an executive agency, we allocate funding and collect data as well as offer technical assistance and professional development for teachers,” Loftin says.
Portions of the state budget are earmarked for activities and services to support local schools, such as an online information technology system and the Oklahoma ABLE Tech platform at Oklahoma State University. Other resources include contracts with the Oklahoma Parents Center, Sooner Success at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and the Oklahoma Autism Center.
Urban and suburban districts often employ special education coordinators, but SDE outreach with smaller, rural schools is more direct involving special education teachers. According to the SDE, there are 122 school districts in Oklahoma with fewer than 200 students, and 199 districts have an enrollment between 200 and 500 students.
“Oklahoma has a responsibility—if a child has a disability, we can serve them,” Loftin says. “We don’t want people to have to move to a different area to access services.”
Kelly Jensen, Minco Public Schools.
Keeping an open mind
Kelly Jensen, the middle school special education teacher at Minco Public Schools southwest of Oklahoma City, says many people don’t realize the broad range of needs students deserve and that schools must provide. From monitoring accommodations, meeting one-on-one with students, instructing in small group settings or providing physical therapy, special education teachers must keep an open mind and adapt. They are rewarded with the growth they witness in their students.
“So many enter the special education program with a defeated mindset,” Jensen, who is a member of Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, says. “When my students embrace their unique way of learning, they start making academic gains and take pride in their hard work.”
Lauren Stahlman, a special services teacher at Horace Mann Elementary in Woodward, is another example of a local teacher who goes above and beyond to help her students learn in the most effective way possible. She was named the Woodward Public Schools District Teacher of the Year and received the Jimmy Peck Educator Award in 2021. Of her 13 years teaching pre-K through fourth grade, she has devoted the past three to special education. She meets daily with most of her students, helping them with math or reading concepts, reviewing assignments or reinforcing lessons introduced in the classroom.
Through a federal Project AWARE grant awarded to her district to improve mental health and mental health awareness, Stahlman obtained certification in children’s yoga and implemented a bi-monthly yoga program for all students during the 2020-21 school year.
“There are multiple mind and body benefits to yoga,” Stahlman says. “We’re collecting data and hoping to see behavioral and academic improvements.”
Teaching in a post-pandemic world
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, her coffee cart venture also was a big hit at Horace Mann Elementary. Stahlman’s third- and fourth-grade students took orders, collected money and delivered coffee to teachers every Monday. She also asked fellow teachers to recommend students for participation in the project, which will return in the fall.
“My students loved training other students because they don’t always get to be in a leadership position in the classroom,” she says. “The coffee cart allows them to take initiative, learn business and life skills and have a rewarding experience.”
Certainly, the pandemic has posed many unexpected obstacles for special education teachers during the past two years. While some telehealth and virtual services are effective for student therapy or teacher professional development, in-person learning has proven the most effective approach for students with disabilities. With a new school year on the horizon, teachers like Stahlman will continue to advocate for their students while navigating education in a post-pandemic world.
“I believe in my students. They are talented and smart, and I want them to feel confident in what they’re doing,” she says. “They have a lot to bring to the table and go on to do great things in life.”
Lauren Stahlman, Horace Mann Elementary in Woodward.