The Brookings-Harbor School District is looking to reverse years of high dropout rates and low test scores among its 176 special education students with new employees and new programs.

The school district has hired new special education teachers at all school levels, as well as a behavior specialist and a district nurse and psychologist. Many programs and services the district used to contract out to the South Coast Educational Service District will now be handled in-house by the new employees.

"Due to our location, we are trying to become as self-sufficient as possible," said Brian Hodges, superintendent of Brookings-Harbor School District. "We are assessing our needs on how we can be more efficient, and in order to meet the needs of students."

In the past, the district contracted many special education programs with the South Coast Educational Service District. But many of these services were only available once or twice a week as staff needed to drive from Coos Bay to Brookings. The district took back certain programs and hopes this will help improve the quality of education received by students.

Students are considered special education students if they have individualized education plan, or IEP. Students with IEPs range from those with minor learning disabilities, to those with mobility or more severe cognitive disabilities. IEPs are created by teachers and parents in order to best meet the needs of students and schools are required by federal law to follow the IEP and its directives.

According to a 2011-2012 special education report from the Oregon Department of Education, the Brookings-Harbor School District has a 7.8 percent dropout rate among students who have an IEP.

This is well above a state average for dropout rate of 3.3 percent, and the district's overall dropout rate of 3.5 percent. Students with IEPs also struggle meeting or exceeding grade level standards, with only 20 percent in the district doing so in math, compared with 32 percent of IEP students statewide.

Baron Guido, director of special education, says the program has moved in a different direction. Guido took over as special education director a year ago, after working for more than a decade in education in Las Vegas, Nev.

"We are working on a more collaborative approach, working together instead of in isolation," Guido said.

Guido says he is not happy with the numbers of students not graduating or meeting state standards, but he is optimistic of the changes being made.

Special education students will also be helped more in the classroom instead of being pulled out of the classroom. According to the 2011-2012 report, only 58.6 percent of students in the district spent 80 percent or more of their day in a regular classroom. This is below the state target of 70 percent or more of students.

"I've made some drastic changes in the district but it will take time for the to take effect," Guido said.

New programs, new hires

Nicole Medrano is among several new special education hires at Azalea Middle School. Azalea has around 50 special education students. In addition to children at Azalea, Medrano will work with students at the high school.

"I teach kids behavior strategies to give them access to core work with teachers and parents," Medrano said.

Medrano teaches students a variety of strategies, social and study skills to help them learn better in the classroom.

"We mitigate the behavior so they can be fully present to learn, and give them tools to be successful," Medrano said.

Special education students at Azalea are taught by pulling them out of class and by bringing help to students in class.

"Some students don't get pulled out at all," said Sheryl Lipski, principal of Azalea Middle School, "They get all the support they need in the classroom."

Most special education students are in regular classes, with two or three of them together along with an aide to support them.

"We're well supported in the district from what we've seen from the district bringing on so many people," Medrano said.

The high school is also implementing a new life-skills course to help students become independent adults.

The Introduction to Hospitality and Tourism class provides students with a broad introduction to various aspects of the industry, from hotel management to ecotourism.

Students are taught in the classroom three days a week and then spend two days in the community job shadowing.

Michelle Prudden, the youth transition coordinator for the Youth Transition Program at Brookings-Harbor High School, said the program will be good for students because it gives them professional employment foundations and they will have some things to put on a resume.

"We looked at the local labor market and carved a niche for students," Prudden said.

As far as how the district is doing addressing the problem in its special education program, Prudden says it is moving in the right direction.

"I think we've come along way," Prudden said. "Programs change as goals and focus change, but it's absolutely going in the right direction."

Hodge says the district has been able to increase both the size of the special education staff and its quality.

"We need to design the program that best meets the student's IEP," Hodge said. "We need to give students the best options to be successful."