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Art, music and library services will be more readily available to students with severe behavioral problems this year, the latest revision to a program Lincoln Public Schools embarked on five years ago.

LPS earmarked nearly $200,000 in next year’s budget, expected to be approved in two weeks, to add music and art teachers as well as a librarian to work at the three behavioral skills programs.

The reason: students are staying in the program longer than officials originally anticipated, with just a small number transitioning back to their home schools each year.

“It’s for equity purposes, so students have the same type of curriculum and opportunities students have in the general education classroom or school,” said Special Education Director Jenny Fundus.

It's the latest change in a program that's been a work in progress for five years, one that officials say has made big strides to help students control their behavior so they can spend more time learning, but that needs to better help students successfully transition back to their home schools.

"We're still working on that," Fundus said.

In 2014, the district abandoned a longtime half-day program and has invested more than $11 million in consulting fees and building renovations to more effectively deal with what they say has become an increasingly prevalent problem: students whose behavior is too disruptive for them to be successful in regular classrooms.

LPS used a program created by a Pennsylvania company called Specialized Education Services, later bought by Catapult Learning, that is highly structured: students wear uniforms, follow strict behavior rules and focus on student leadership.

They paid $1.2 million to the company over the past five years to train teachers and help them implement the program at all grade levels, but the district made some modifications. LPS uses its own teachers and curriculum, and has kept therapists to work with students to address underlying problems. The Pennsylvania program is based solely on behavior modification.

By 2016, LPS had created separate programs for elementary, middle and high school students. The district spent $4.4 million to remodel the Donald D. Sherrill Education Center, 7401 Jacobs Creek Drive, for elementary school students, and in 2016 spent $6.7 million to rebuild a school at 1801 S. 40th St. called the Nuernberger Education Center for middle school students. Renovation of the building that houses the high school program at 865 W. Burnham is on a long-term building plan.

About 300 students have attended the programs in each of the last three years. The majority of those students are identified as having an emotional disturbance — a special education category that has increased 62% in the last decade, from 425 students to 690.

School board member Barb Baier initially had concerns about the program's focus on what appeared to be strict "rules for rules' sake," but said LPS has modified it to work better for its students.

“I think it’s greatly improved,” said Baier, who advocated for opening a middle school program and adding music and art classes to all of the programs. “When I walk into our behavioral skills program things are manageable, quiet and there’s little use of isolation rooms or anything like that.”

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As the program has developed, the focus has shifted solely from behavior to academics, Fundus said. Baier said the rules make sense to students.

“They’re working toward things,” she said. “Those rewards are very immediate and they start to feel that sense of pride, being able to control their behaviors. ... Kids do feel like they can succeed.”

The programs have made less progress successfully transitioning students back to their home schools — an average of just 9% of the students in the programs transition back to their home schools in any given year. 

“Taxpayers of this district are not an unlimited resource,” Baier said, adding that if the program is successful the changes students are making should be of such a magnitude that they can be mainstreamed back to their home schools, and ultimately be successful as adults.

Some of the students who do return struggle and end up back at the behavior skills program.

That's part of the reason they've slowed down the transition, Fundus said. Students spend an average of two to three semesters in the programs, then another one to two semesters spending half days at their home schools.

“It takes a while to learn (new) behaviors,” she said. “We were moving too quickly at the beginning.”

Students set goals when they come to the program and work toward them, earning more privileges as they progress, ultimately spending half days at their home schools. At the end of the year, anywhere from 9 to 26 students are at their home schools half-time — between 10% and 27% of the students in any of the three schools.

Another change: the district has begun in-school programming at East High, Lux Middle and Humann Elementary for students across the district who have both behavior problems and intellectual disabilities.Those students used to attend the behavioral skills programs but needed more specific services.

The enrollment at the three behavior skills programs is fluid. Some students move out of the district and others land in a more restrictive environment, such as Boys Town or incarceration. That’s particularly true in the high school program, where between 28% and 39% of the students left the program each year for a more restrictive environment.

Before the latest change, some of the programs had some art or music, but not both. But for students in the programs they can be especially important.

For one thing, it helps with the transition back to their home schools, Fundus said. Often students transition back to such classes, so having been in an art or music class and understanding the behavior expectations is helpful.

They are also often the subjects students are most connected to, and passionate about, Baier said, so all students should have access to them.

“One of the best things for kids with special needs is to learn how to play an instrument, so why would you take that away from them? We need to encourage self-expression.“

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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