This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.
In Burke County, the Exceptional Children program has its own school.
That may eventually be the case in Caldwell County, too.
In North Carolina, the Exceptional Children program serves students with disabilities and special needs – everything from ADHD to immobility.
In Caldwell County, some 1,500 students in the program are served by 121 certified teachers and 101 assistants. The program is split between 18 classes at 10 schools, and most students receive services either alongside instruction in a typical classroom, or in a dedicated Exceptional Children class.
But in Burke County, students in the program attend North Liberty School, an all-Exceptional Children institution on the campus of Liberty Middle School.
Earlier this month, Caldwell Exceptional Children leaders and Superintendent Steve Stone visited North Liberty and liked what they saw. They’re cautiously considering something similar for Caldwell County.
“What you have over there is a unique setting, which is something that we wanted to see,” Stone said at a school board work session Monday. “Everything about the school is tailored to their (students’) needs.”
But there are pros and cons to Burke’s model, said Caldwell Exceptional Children staff members and members of the school board, who will visit North Liberty in April.
One problem faced by Caldwell’s current Exceptional Children program is that its children rarely attend school in their own districts — at the elementary school level, only 15 percent of those students are in their home district. Parents have to enroll their children in the program’s classes wherever they’re available, program Director Teresa Branch said. Then, by the time the classes are offered closer to home, the students have already fallen in love with their teacher and gotten comfortable in their environment.
That leads to situations where, for example, the school system is paying to bus one child from Sawmills to Whitnel, and another from Whitnel to Sawmills, Branch said.
Having a school dedicated entirely to the Exceptional Children program also could help teachers. When you’re the only program teacher at a school, or one of a handful, “you might feel like you’re the lone ranger,” Branch said.
“Nobody really knows what it’s like in your world,” she said.
But concentrating all of the Exceptional Children students at a single school would restrict their opportunities to interact with other children, some school board members pointed out.
“For them to have an opportunity to spend time with non-disabled kids, you have to be very purposeful,” Branch said.
And Robert Semple, the assistant director of Exceptional Children in Caldwell, is concerned about parent reactions.
“The downside, for me, is what will the parents say?” Semple asked.
He’s worried parents will feel their children are being placed to the side, he said.
“We don’t want it to look like it’s that trailer out behind the building, and that’s where we put our exceptional children,” Stone said.
For now, the school board has several options. It could leave the program scattered among different schools, it could consolidate at an existing school, or it could consolidate the program at a new site — at Monday’s meeting, the old Broyhill showroom was tossed around as a possibility.
What Semple wants is an opportunity to gauge parents’ reactions first. He’ll likely have time to get them on board – this isn’t a project on any certain timeline.
But he may not have forever.
“We’d like to move as quickly as possible to see it happen,” Stone said.