Byline: Braden Harper/Reporter
JENKS, Oklahoma – Returning to school can be stressful for families starting a new school year. Students begin a new term with new teachers, classrooms, and instruction. Parents become responsible for organizing a new family routine. It can be overwhelming, to say the least, especially for families with special needs students.
In the US, 7.2 million students, or 15 percent of all public school students, receive special education services. The most common special needs category is learning disabilities. Minority groups such as Native Americans are disproportionately affected by disabilities, twice the rate of students overall.
Ramona Roberts and Brooki Fixico are Muscogee (Creek) Citizens helping ease the burden of these families by spreading awareness regarding special needs education services. Fixico is a former special education teacher and a full-time student pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma. Roberts is the Transition Coordinator at Jenks Public Schools.
Fixico has a unique perspective on special needs education. She has experience teaching on reservations in Arizona and in the public school system. Most recently, she taught at Crooked Oak Public Schools in Oklahoma City. According to Fixico, parents do not always know about special education services they can utilize.
“The Individual Education Plan (IEP) can be a very complicated form, and it is not always provided in a comprehensive manner,” Fixico said.
“Postsecondary transition planning is critical in high school for not only students with disabilities but all students. Public high schools are now required to implement ICAP plans for all students. (College and Career Readiness)”
Special needs education services can be found on the state website. Resources such as financing, staffing, and rights/laws can be accessed there. Information can also be accessed by students’ school representatives or their school’s special needs department.
According to Roberts, there are 13 different categories in Oklahoma that qualify special needs students. She focuses on students with an individualized education plan or a 504 plan.
According to Fixico, developing relationships between parents, teachers, and counselors sets the scene for a successful school year. Defining the students’ accommodations and what classes are appropriate is also essential.
“It’s always great to know your teachers, to get to know who is actually working with the child,” Fixico said. “It’s a whole team process, not just the Special Ed. Teacher”
Accommodations can offer a wide range for students. These include providing tools and technology that help students grow despite their specialized needs. It can also include the beginning of the year assessments that identify how to best personally accommodate students, such as avoiding trigger words.
The resources available for families are open to students of all ages, from early childhood to high school students preparing for college or career readiness.
Opportunities for special needs individuals beyond K-12 have also expanded in Oklahoma. New Leaf recently opened a transition academy in Owasso designed to teach special needs individuals life skills, allowing them to become more independent in adulthood.
Roberts was recently recognized as the September Innovative Teacher of the Month by KOTV News on 6 in Tulsa. She was awarded $1,000, some of which was reinvested in her classroom.
The MCN recently added a new department for developmental disability resource services. Cynthia Smith was hired as the department’s director. According to Smith, the department will be responsible for leading, developing, and implementing comprehensive services for citizens with disabilities.
“That will be a huge resource for our tribal citizens and set a good example for other tribes,” Roberts said.
This new department opens possibilities and opportunities for disability work programs and services within the tribe.
Fixico and Roberts both agree that their field harvests numerous rewards.
“When I walk into Braums or Wendys, and I see one of my kids working, it just does my heart good,” Roberts said. “You see stuff, little things that help them achieve a goal. It keeps your heart pumping.”
“You build those relationships with them,” Fixico said. “I have students that still are in contact with me, and they’re parents now being wonderful parents to kids.”
Roberts has composed a resource directory to ease the burden of connecting resources with parents. In addition to providing information on special needs education resources, it also provides resources on other issues such as mental health and alcohol abuse.