Serving Students with Special Needs and Gifted and Talented
According to Wilton (Conn.) School District Superintendent Gary G. Richards, most people who move to Wilton do so for its high-quality schools, which has struck a successful balance between educating its most advanced learners and ones who need more help.
The affluent, suburban district in Fairfield County, 50 miles northeast of New York City, is known as a high-quality district with modest class sizes (22 students or fewer in all grades); expansive Advanced Placement courses in English, music, mathematics, world languages, social studies, science and visual arts; and a nearly nonexistent dropout rate (less than .5 percent each year since 2009).
And the district meets the needs of all students through its differentiated instruction and developmentally-appropriate instructional strategies for Wilton’s diverse learners, including the 10 percent of students who receive special education services and 8 percent who are considered talented and gifted.
In 2011-2012, Wilton High School had the Highest Performing Subgroup for students with disabilities (84 percent) on the state-mandated Connecticut Academic Performance Test, the accountability test given statewide each year in March to grade 10 students. The Connecticut Department of Education also recognized Wilton High as a School Of Distinction, based on its “Highest Performing Subgroup” data.
Last November, Richards was named the Superintendent of the Year for 2013 by the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. Richards stood out among 154 superintendents for what CAPSS representatives say is his leadership in Wilton’s strategic plan; cutting-edge practices in curriculum, instruction, and assessment; use of technology; ability to garner support for the district from local town government and the community; and his special needs program, which focuses on students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“He is a very authentic person. I think that’s a striking quality about him,” says Ann Paul, Wilton’s director of special services who oversees the district’s special education programming. “He really sees himself as superintendent of all children. And I think that philosophy really permeates the whole district.”
Programs for all students include before-school childcare and extended-day kindergarten, Alternative Night School for students who have to work during the day, Summer School, an extensive Adult Education program that serves about 5,300 town residents interested in classes on art to electronics, and after-school extra-help sessions.
In the 2004-2005 school year, Paul says there was an increase in Wilton’s students with ASD, following the national trend. Richards commissioned an independent study, conducted by two psychologists in the area that had experience with ASD students and with consulting districts, who investigated the needs and services required by ASD students and their families.
In 2007, based on the study’s findings, the district developed multidisciplinary teams to deliver coordinated services for ASD students’ academic, behavioral, and functional growth. Teams comprise a student’s classroom and special education teachers, occupational, physical, behavioral, and speech therapists, and their parents.
“When services are well coordinated and focused, we’ve found it’s much more effective in helping [students’] progress,” says Paul, adding that this can be especially true for Wilton’s autistic students who can often have difficulty generalizing their instruction. “An ASD student might be able to learn a skill with one teacher but may have a hard time executing that skill with another teacher, or at home,” she says.
The district also developed a training program that helps parents learn to help their children apply the social and behavioral skills that they’re learning in school to their home setting.
Special Attention to Other Needs
Wilton restructured and expanded its special needs preschool to meet the complexity of disabilities in younger students. Some have multiple disabilities, hearing impairments, and genetic and other developmental disabilities, and the district employs what Richards calls a “team approach” with classrooms that mix students with special needs and their typical peers.
“Special ed students often model the behavior they observe around them, so they benefit from watching appropriate social interactions from their peers,” Paul says. And because special ed students are entitled to resources typical students may not be, they might have access to state-of-the art electronics like sound fields, which amplify speaking in a classroom so they can hear what’s going on in class.
The district has also expanded training for special ed and general ed teachers in assistive technology and better meeting the needs of students with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.
A Special Education Parent Advisory Board works to promote constructive dialogue with parents of children with special needs. The board was responsible for developing Top Inclusion Models, a program in which some 75 Wilton High students act as big brothers and big sisters to special needs children so they can attend community events like field days and middle school dances. The high school students might help them on the field, or help them to appropriately interact with students on a dance floor.
Aside from the special education component, the district’s “cutting-edge curriculum” is aligned with Common Core State Standards to provide a foundation for effective literacy and math instruction. Wilton’s “Math in Focus-Singapore Mathematics” program, known for problem solving and for simple math concept explanations used in Singapore, is used in select K5 and middle school courses to help break math learning into bite-size, manageable pieces.
And Wilton’s “Vision of Teaching and Learning” incorporates instructional designs for teachers to help students be creative and collaborate with one another, as well as think critically, problem solve, enhance their global awareness, and enhance their awareness of what it means to be a good citizen.
Tim Canty, Wilton’s assistant superintendent, worked closely with Richards on the 2010-2013 Wilton Public Schools Strategic Plan that is used to drive the district’s decision-making. After collaborating with faculty, students, parents, administrators, and board of education and community members, Canty says they devised six areas or “strands” that have become the overarching focus:
Maximizing community involvement in schools; maintaining high-quality faculty and staff; implementing curriculum and instruction best practices; ensuring the academic and social/emotional growth of students; using technology-based digital tools to support teaching and learning; and developing appropriate school budgets.
School-based Strategic Plan Progress Review Teams (comprising community members, board members, parents, administrators, teachers, and middle and high school students) have met regularly for the past two years to evaluate the plan’s progress, Richards says. This spring, the plan will be reviewed, refreshed, and renewed according to Wilton’s changing needs.
Canty says all of the work on Richards’ strategic plan has been designed to be an effective approach to help Wilton leaders and staff teach and direct students to possess the knowledge and values they will need to be successful learners and community members.
Wilton (Conn.) Public Schools
- Schools: 4
- Students: 4,239
- Staff and faculty: 647
- Per child expenditure: $17,141
- Dropout rate: 0.2%
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 1.6%
- Website: www.wilton.k12.ct.us/pages/Wilton_School_District