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Specialists for special education 

If the Rochester City School District is to have any chance of significantly increasing its graduation rate, it must improve outcomes for special-education students. To that end, the district is expanding its use of consultant teaching, which provides specialized help for students when needed.

Roughly 17.1 percent of city school students have some type of special-education classification — a wide-ranging label that includes students with severe disabilities to those with mild learning difficulties.

And a report released late last year by Metro Justice shows that special-education students in city schools have among the highest suspension rates, greatly encumbering their chances of graduating. The majority of those students, according to the report, are black and Hispanic.

Critics have also accused the district of over-classification: placing students in special ed. who might not need to be there.

Consultant teaching allows the district to individualize interventions, says Christopher Suriano, the district's executive director of specialized services. You target a student's specific need, instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach.

"You could have a child that's very strong, doing just fine in seventh-grade math," says Superintendent Bolgen Vargas. "But that same child could have dyslexia — a writing and reading challenge. That child will do well with a consultant for some intensive services."

The approach gives students the temporary help they need from a specialist, but allows them to stay with their peers in their regular classes. That appeals to many students and parents who fear the stigma of special-education classifications, which sometimes causes them to refuse services.

Consultant teaching is also more flexible and uses teachers who are specialized in the subject matter in which the student needs help.

The consultant teacher approach has been used in the Syracuse school district and is showing positive results, Suriano says. Graduation rates for special-education students increased from 34.7 percent in August 2012 to 41 percent in August 2014, he says.

During that same period, Rochester's grad rate for special-education students climbed from 18.7 percent to 27 percent using some consultant teachers.

Over-classification is a completely different problem, Vargas says. It happens when intervention doesn't start soon enough, he says. Prekindergarten is the time to work on language delays, speech impediments, and hurdles to reading so that the child can be declassified by the time he or she reaches third or fourth grade, he says.

"The goal is always to be moving toward declassification," Suriano says.

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