“It’s tough,” said Katie Hegar is the elementary principal for Underwood Public Schools.

She says the number of students requiring service and support plans has definitely increased.

According to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, there are a variety of support plans offered to students, such as behavior intervention plans, focused on teaching alternative behaviors to meet a child’s needs.

There is also the 504 plan, providing free, appropriate public education to students with disabilities, but it does not require schools to develop an Individualized Education Program, or IEP.

Danica Nelson is the director of Bismarck Public School’s student services.

She explains, an IEP is often the highest level of service for a student in need.

“Is there a higher level of specially designed instruction needed for the student,” Nelson asked. “If eligibility is obtained and students qualify for an IEP through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And so you can have a behavior plan on an IEP, you also can have a behavior plan on a 504. But you usually have a behavior plan before you start the evaluation process for either of those.”

Hegar says student’s needs in Underwood have also changed over the past five years.

“It’s not just behavior, it’s not just academic needs. There’s a lot of mental health components that play into that also,” Hegar said.

And the same can be said for students in larger school districts, such as Bismarck.

“We also have seen more intensive behavioral support plans needed or behavioral supports embedded into either of those plans,” Nelson explained.

What, exactly, are staff seeing in the classroom?

“We’re seeing that self-regulation concern increasing and how does that impact the regular education classroom,” Hegar asked. “How do we provide small groups or different structured settings in order to help those students focus and maintain the appropriate level so that they can learn because they’re great, they’re smart kids, they just needed a different environment, sometimes in order to show us what they know.”

This challenge is amplified in small, rural communities like Underwood.

Right now, they’re short one licensed, special education teacher and one to one-and-a-half paraprofessionals.

Solutions they’ve tried in the past are no longer an option.

“In the past, we have utilized teachers from the Philippines in order to fill our positions,” Hegar explained. “We have not found a great deal of success, utilizing the J-1 Visa program. And just the investment that it takes to train and retrain. It’s hard. Underwood is a fantastic community, but we don’t have all the amenities that larger communities or cities have.”

Fewer students are on IEPs at Underwood Public School this year compared to last, but when it comes to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals needed, it’s not always a numbers game.

” It’s a dynamics game, you know, what does each child need,” asked Hegar. “And how do we support that someone that needs modifications on a test or to have material read has a whole different need level than a student that is physically disabled? Or needs a one-on-one pair in order to be successful in the classroom.”

As student’s needs continue to evolve, so too do the challenges facing schools across the state.

We will continue to explore those challenges, as well solutions being implemented to ensure student’s needs are being met.