Colo-NESCO: We Can’t Do It Without the AEA

Colo-NESCO and Heartland AEA staff and board members collaborated on a presentation at last fall’s IASB annual convention that highlighted the AEA/district partnership. Pictured, left to right, Kristi Upah, Alecia Rahn-Blakeslee, Jim Verlengia, Margaret Borgen, Joel Niemeyer, Mickolyn Clapper and Kathy Scebold.

Colo-NESCO and Heartland AEA staff and board members collaborated on a presentation at last fall’s IASB annual convention that highlighted the AEA/district partnership. Pictured, left to right, Kristi Upah, Alecia Rahn-Blakeslee, Jim Verlengia, Margaret Borgen, Joel Niemeyer, Mickolyn Clapper and Kathy Scebold.

Just a few short years ago Colo-NESCO was in trouble. The problems were many—shaky finances, a lack of leadership and lagging student achievement. On a Department of Education site visit, the district had 42 citations. As superintendent Jim Verlengia puts it, “We had massive problems.”

But today you’d never know that. And Verlengia says a considerable reason for the turnaround has been the district’s partnership with Heartland AEA.

Verlengia, an 18-year Heartland AEA employee and a former superintendent, was asked to step into an interim superintendent role at Colo-NESCO in the middle of the 2010-11 school year. Faced with the task of helping the district of 530 students get back on its feet, he knew building a stronger, more collaborative partnership with the AEA would be one of the keys to making this happen. “We had nowhere else to go,” Verlengia said. “It (Heartland AEA) was our only and our best choice.”

One of the most significant improvements Heartland AEA staff has helped the district make was the adoption of a new elementary literacy curriculum series and teacher training to accompany it. Teachers had been using varied materials and teaching strategies, and the district knew it could do better for its students.

Kathy Scebold, a Heartland AEA special education consultant and Becky Hinze, a Heartland AEA reading consultant, have provided teachers with on-going professional development around the literacy curriculum, and Alecia Rahn-Blakeslee, a Heartland AEA school psychologist, has helped facilitate “data days,” during which student data is analyzed. By examining the data, teachers are able to identify students who may be struggling and work to provide more or varied instruction to those students.

The district’s renewed focus on early literacy ties directly to the elementary being chosen as a Phase One district for the implementation of Multi-tiered System of Support (MTSS) in Iowa. MTSS is a proven practice to help schools identify and intervene with struggling readers, as well as students who are on track to read proficiently early on. This is accomplished by setting up an early warning system, adapting instruction to fit those students’ individual needs and then monitoring their progress. Colo-NESCO will have free access to the state’s MTSS data system, assessments, training, support and coaching in the area of early literacy, and AEA staff will be right there with them.

“I appreciate the fact that the people who are helping us are willing to get dirty,” Verlengia said of AEA staff. “They don’t just tell you what to do. They roll up their sleeves and are right next to you showing you what to do.”

Kristi Upah, a Heartland AEA regional director who serves Colo-NESCO, gives credit to the teachers and their collaborative nature for the relationship that now exists between the district and AEA. “(District) staff are so open, and they are wanting to be effective,” Upah said. “That’s what’s allowed us to have the momentum to continue.”

Upah is seen as an essential player who attends district leadership meetings and offers input in the decision-making process. “We believe Kristi is part of our team,” Verlengia said. “There is collaboration through the whole system.”Colo-NESCO logo

customLogo_FF143B4EA836AHeartland AEA consultants have also helped the district think differently about its special education instruction. The district is adopting a co-teaching model in which general education teachers and special education teachers teach together in the same classroom. Scebold accompanied Colo-NESCO teachers on a visit to Ankeny to see how that district was implementing co-teaching, and she will follow-up with professional development sessions for the Colo-NESCO teachers.

“The district is willing to give their teachers the time to collaborate with us,” Scebold said. “An example is co-teaching. They have a great willingness to support their teachers.”

Elementary principal Mickolyn Clapper has been impressed by Travis Wilkins, a Heartland AEA instructional technology consultant, who has been instrumental this school year in helping teachers purposefully integrate technology into their classrooms. Since Wilkins was hired by the AEA straight from the classroom, Clapper says he is popular with her teachers since he understands their perspective.

Clapper also notes that professional development for elementary teachers is now very specific. Instead of all teachers attending the same session, they are broken into small groups, and the training is delivered in a more personal way that allows teachers to immediately take strategies back to their classrooms.

This year Colo-NESCO made the decision to hire its own instructional coach. Heartland AEA has stepped up to provide training and assistance for this new staff member who works closely with fellow district teachers to help them incorporate best practices in the classroom.

Another important service the AEA recently provided to the district was helping preschool teachers prepare for an Iowa Quality Preschool Program Standards site visit, which assesses the district’s preschool program. AEA early childhood consultants provide on-going professional development to preschool teachers and paraeducators as well.

Verlengia and Clapper are quick to point out that all Heartland AEA staff who serve the district—from the regional director, to consultants, to special education practitioners—are helping the district improve learning outcomes for students. “You don’t see this (type of collaboration) everywhere,” Verlengia noted. “This is a holistic package of services. We see a sustained difference, and we just can’t do it without Heartland.” Verlengia said.

When the time eventually comes for Verlengia to bid the district farewell, he believes his greatest legacy will be helping to incorporate AEA services throughout the entire district. “It’s a cultural shift,” he said. “Having the AEA as a partner is how we do business. It truly is systemic now.”

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Parents in the driver’s seat of their child’s growth: How a coaching model of service delivery is making a difference for one family

Mother works with son in new service delivery method

Mother works with son in new service delivery model

Rebecca Johnson* knows the value of Area Education Agency (AEA) services. As a stay-at-home mother of five children, four of whom receive services from Area Education Agency 267 (AEA 267), Johnson has had plenty of experience with staff from the agency coming into her home to provide direct service to her children. Over the past five years, Rebecca’s children have received services ranging from speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, early intervention support and service coordination.

“The AEA has really been there for us,” said Johnson. “I don’t know where our kids would be without their help over the years.”

Currently, the agency is serving Johnson’s son, Jeffery*, who is just under two-years-old and has developmental delays. Pat Stenzel, an AEA 267 special education early childhood educator, has been coming into Johnson’s home every other week to provide services. But something is different this time. Rather than Johnson just observing, she is the one working with Stenzel, who in turn is teaching her how to help Jeffery. The approach represents a major shift in philosophy regarding the delivery of AEA services. Rather than the AEA consultant providing services directly to the child in the home on bi-weekly basis or through another set schedule, the parent is given instruction and strategies to use with the child daily. And studies prove that it works.

“This model holds a lot of promise for the families and children that we serve,” said Dr. Mary Stevens, AEA 267 Director of Special Education. “Intuitively, we know that the parent or caregiver has many more opportunities than we do to interact with the child receiving services. If we can provide them with the tools and strategies to help, we can expect much more rapid growth and change.”

Putting parents and caregivers in the role of active participants, rather than an as observers, has other benefits as well. “I understand more at IEP [Individualized Education Plan] meetings now. It’s all just easier. I feel more like an expert,” said Johnson. She’s also seen rapid improvement with Jeffery. “I just repeat, repeat, repeat with him the things that I’ve learned from Pat…and he’s doing much better.”

Stenzel, who is part of a cadre of AEA 267 staff who received specialized training in the coaching approach over the summer, said the model will be used with all new families entering the special education system in early childhood and will be expanded to teachers and caregivers as well. “The research and our experience tells us that this works,” said Stenzel. “We have an obligation to keep going.”

In the meantime, Johnson can’t say enough positive things about the arrangement. “Pat and I have gotten to know each other better in the last six months than ever before.”

Stenzel agrees. “This a partnership. We are in it together. When we work together, we can do amazing things for these kiddos.”

*names have been changed

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Increasing Independence – Patrick’s Story

You often hear the adage, “It takes a village…” Hear from Patrick and his mother about how a team of Keystone AEA professionals helped Patrick find independence using structured teaching strategies.

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Northwest AEA/Bryant school success: Reading assistance made the difference for this family

Reprinted with permission by the family. The photo was also submitted by the family. This letter was sent to Molly Twohig, regional facilitator at Northwest AEA.

Halbur Family

Dear Mrs. Twohig,

I have been meaning to write you regarding my interactions with the AEA team and Bryant Elementary. I am very grateful for the help I have received with my two sons. My 5 children have attended Holy Cross School for 11 years. In October of 2010, we enrolled our son, John, at Bryant School. He was in 1st grade.

We knew that he needed extra support in reading and, man, did he get it! The title I reading program and his classroom teachers, Mrs. Oakley and Mrs. O’Connor, changed his life.

Our older son, Joe, has struggled with a reading and spelling disability his whole life. He had never qualified for AEA support in the past, despite my repeated requests and deep concerns.

Last year, Kari Rhea made her assessment and found that he was having a very difficult time in these areas. She and Amy Konda worked out a system so that he could receive extra support in these areas after Holy Cross let out. He was “tutored” once a day for the remainder of the school year. His success was unbelievable. The kindness, professionalism,and deep concern that we experienced from the entire Bryant and Holy Cross faculty, administration and staff, and AEA will never be forgotten.

Sincerely,
Johanna Halbur

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Teachers Receive Hands-on Autism Learning Experience

All of Iowa’s AEAs employ staff who work collaboratively with school districts to design interventions that address the needs of students with autism spectrum disorders. This video highlights Keystone AEA’s Summer Autism Training program which is an intensive, week-long training that provides hands-on experience for teachers – just one example of services that are provided.

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ISU Students Make Communication Easier for Sam

By Claire Sowder, Heartland AEA Communications Specialist and Lauri Pyatt, WDMCS School/Community Relations Specialist

Team Sam poses for a picture. Back row: Henry Kelley, Josh Pedersen and Spencer Johnson. Front row: Erik Olson, Sam Wedig and Tyler Kramer

Team Sam poses for a picture. Back row: Henry Kelley, Josh Pedersen and Spencer Johnson. Front row: Erik Olson, Sam Wedig and Tyler Kramer

Smiles were contagious at Crossroads Park Elementary when fourth grader Sam Wedig received a very special gift from five Iowa State engineering students.

Sam has cerebral palsy and has difficulty communicating on his own. His classroom teacher, Lindsey Frandsen, and Heartland AEA speech-language pathologist, Andrea Richmond, had been looking for a way to help Sam be more independent with communication.

“Our team tried to find a way for Sam to communicate effectively and/or access an assistive communication device,“ Richmond said. “Unfortunately, his impaired motor skills greatly impact his ability make precise selections to use a computer or iPad independently.”

At a loss on what to do, Richmond’s brother suggested she contact the Iowa State University Engineering College to see if helping Sam would be a project any students would be interested in.

Five ISU mechanical engineering seniors – Tyler Kramer, Spencer Johnson, Erik Olson, Josh Pedersen and Henry Kelley – answered that call.

Sam Wedig testing his new equipment.

Sam Wedig testing his new equipment.

“Out of the list of senior projects, this was the only one that specifically helped someone in need,” Kelley said.

Richmond helped the ISU students learn more about Sam, the complications of his cerebral palsy, what motivated him and what devices and equipment had already been tried. The students worked during their classroom hours and in the evenings and took several trips from Ames to West Des Moines to meet with Sam and test out their ideas. Kramer calculated that they spent about 1,000 man-hours working on Sam’s communication interface.

“It has been such a joy watching the Iowa State students work with Sam,” said Frandsen. “With this new technology, Sam will not only be able to grow and thrive as a learner, but in years to come be able to access so much more than he once could. With Sam it has never been will he be able to get there, it has always been when, and this ISU team has truly helped to get him to where he wants to be.”

The students started referring themselves as “Team Sam,” and it didn’t take long for them to form a great friendship with their young client. Hugs and high fives were intermixed into the training sessions as Team Sam made improvements to the device.

The ending result was remarkable. The group outfitted Sam’s wheelchair with a removable desk and rotating arm that holds an iPad. Mechanics on the back of the chair work with a headrest that controls the mouse when Sam moves his head to the left, right, up or down. Once Sam lands the mouse on the letter he wants, he clicks a mouse to type it.

Sam is pictured here with special education teacher Lindsey Frandsen, kneeling left front; Sam's associate, Cherina Root; Team Sam members and Heartland AEA speech-language pathologist Andrea Richmond, right.

Sam is pictured here with special education teacher Lindsey Frandsen, kneeling left front; Sam’s associate, Cherina Root; Team Sam members and Heartland AEA speech-language pathologist Andrea Richmond, right.

When the project started, Sam simply wanted to be able to type, but Team Sam was able to give him independence and an ongoing, endearing friendship.

“I’ve really enjoyed watching these guys grow,” Richmond said. “I can tell it’s made an impact on them and it’s made a long-lasting impact on Sam. Spending time with the guys means more to him than the equipment.”You can see how appreciative he is of his new friends by the smile that no doubt won’t fade for quite some time. When asked what he thought of the guys, through a huge smile, Sam exclaimed, “The ISU guys are really nice.”

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Northwest AEA/Schleswig school success: The Power of RTI for Preston

* Reprinted with permission from “Reading Recovery Site Report,” Aug. 2012. Written by Jess Jensen, Reading Recovery teacher, at Schleswig Community School District.

Preston_E6CC93425A330Preston began his Reading Recovery lessons with the lowest scores of all the first grade students in the fall. After the book, Dad, a level one text was read to him, he could “re-read” the story with 100% accuracy. He could write one word—Preston. Between a small guided reading group and the 1 to 1 teaching in Reading Recovery lessons, Preston was able to master voice print matching on 2 lines of text. This was a major step as he was previously “reading” a story using his own words and not noticing that what he was saying did not match the number of words on a page. To secure his use of 1 to 1 matching, I made several books for him using the book builder software from Pioneer Valley books. I also make books using pictures of Preston doing things around the school.

During the third week of Preston’s Reading Recovery intervention he started reading with a former 5th grade Reading Recovery student. The reading buddy at school was especially critical because Preston’s books would go unread at home most of the time.

Early in Preston’s series of lessons his classroom teacher started noticing a difference. On spelling tests he was able to write most of the spelling words correctly rather than writing a random string of letters to represent the spelling word. He also showed her and the class, words in his classroom books that he learned during his 1 on 1 lessons. Transferring information from one setting to another was another major milestone for Preston.

Although Preston was making gains he started to fall below the trajectory line of text level reading that was established for him on this Response to Intervention (RTI) plan. At week 12 of his lessons, Preston could read a level 6 book at 94% accuracy with a 1:4 self-correction rate. The literacy team had a conference with mom to discuss options. Preston would get glasses and continue with Reading Recovery. At the end of 20 weeks if he wasn’t reading at grade level, I would continue to work 1 on 1 with him or with a small guided reading group using Literacy Wings as his intervention.

After 20 weeks, Preston’s reading was slightly below grade level. So the next step of the RTI plan was put into action. Preston would join a small group participating in Literacy Wings taught by me. He continued to read and write with me until the end of the school year. He may still need support next year but Preston has made huge gains in literacy learning. Most important, he has gained confidence in himself as a reader. He told the classroom teacher that the two things he liked at school were “Rocket Math” and then he pointed to me with a smile. My heart melted.

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