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Omaha Magazine

Making the Grade

Sep 22, 2023 04:21PM ● By Kara Schweiss
making the grade feature october 2023

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

Fundamentally, special education as defined by the U.S. Department of Education is instruction specially designed to meet the unique needs of a student with a disability. Federal law—primarily the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—and the state’s special education standards (Rule 51) are in place to ensure that special education and related services are provided. Around 15% of American public-school students ages 3 to 21 receive such services, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education. 

Nebraska’s State Department of Education requires educators to obtain specific credentials to be endorsed to teach students with disabilities. As the most recent fall term began, the state’s and city’s largest school district, Omaha Public Schools, announced that three of its elementary schools would be without special education teachers. Amy Rhone, administrator/state director for Nebraska Department of Education’s Office of Special Education, said staffing for special education needs can be challenging for school districts. 

“Being a special educator is a very specific desire that individuals have to be drawn to. As our society has evolved and really embraced the notion of inclusion—which we should be doing— disabilities have also become a lot more visible,” Rhone said. “The world of education has seen a significant decrease in staffing options; special education in particular feels these decreases even more as many do not believe they are skilled enough to educate students with different learning needs. Oftentimes, teaching students with disabilities gets perceived as teaching students with high medical needs or behavior needs, requiring skills that individuals don’t always feel the most comfortable in attaining or maintaining.” 

Linda Safranek is a speech-language pathologist working exclusively with literacy both privately and in a local public school district. The former member of the Nebraska Department of Education’s Special Education Advisory Council is not only an educator, she’s also the parent of an adult son with autism and an intellectual disability who received special education services throughout his school years. 

“Any educator’s role is demanding, so special education is no exception. A student with an IEP (Individualized Education Program or Plan) requires specialized instruction, so a SPED teacher needs to have knowledge of the general core curriculum as well as specialized knowledge to meet the needs of the students,” she said. “This is time-intensive and requires collaboration with many professionals and parents in order for it to work well. I know that turnover is higher in special education when compared to general education teachers.” 

Safranek said that her family’s experience with special education teachers was generally positive. 
“Personally, my son’s special education teachers knew him well and made every effort to listen to my husband and me. We were part of a team, and while his teachers made instructional decisions hundreds of times each day that needed not involve us, we were included in making the larger decisions,” she said. “It was certainly not a perfect system but when we voiced some very big concerns, the district worked with us to find solutions.” 

Like Safranek, Lisa Moody has a dual perspective on special education. She’s a special education teacher at Omaha Public Schools’ Jefferson Elementary and from a family of educators, but she’s also a person with cerebral palsy who received special education services through the school districts of the public schools she attended. Early in 2023, Moody was honored with a Milken Educator Award, which honors top educators around the country and targets early-to-mid career education professionals for both their past achievements and promising futures in the field. Milken Educators also receive access to networking and development tools throughout their careers. 

“I feel like it pushes me to continue to grow as an educator, and to continue to try and advance the field of special education,” Moody said. “Being a part of that network and winning that award has been so incredible in that it’s opened my eyes to the amazing things that are happening in education. And it gives you the opportunity to collaborate with advocates for education, warriors who are out there on the forefront coming up with just incredible things for students and school communities.” 

Moody said she grew up seeing her mother’s passion for her work in the field of special education. 

“I knew that was something that I wanted to do, and then being born with cerebral palsy, I naturally gravitated towards working with students with disabilities because I had a unique understanding of what that was like,” she said. “I knew that I could provide understanding, support, and a mindset that not everybody has. And I knew that I wanted to be an example for my students and for their families; just because you have a disability, or you don’t always navigate through life as easily as your peers, doesn’t mean that has to define who you are.”

Special education was in the spotlight in the Nebraska Legislature and across the state when LB 583 was introduced during the last legislative session. Approved by Governor Jim Pillen on May 31, 2023, LB 583 increases state funding for individual students and provides more reimbursement for special education expenses. Starting with the current school year, Nebraska school districts will receive additional aid equal to $1,500 per student and state reimbursement for 80% of their expenses to provide special education services.

“It is exciting that the state is prioritizing students with disabilities with this allocation. It will be important for school districts to be very well-informed regarding the increase in state reimbursement and how this can support our students with disabilities,” Rhone said. “I think that is going to require a lot of work on the State Department of Education to really think through how we best use these opportunities for funding, as well as school districts, because we don’t want school districts to see special education as just a funding source. We’re working hard to make sure that people embrace this exciting opportunity without abusing it.”

Special education can begin at any age and PTI Nebraska, a statewide resource for families of children with disabilities and special health care needs, can provide initial guidance whether a pediatrician makes recommendations for evaluation after a toddler misses developmental milestones or whether a parent is concerned about an older child’s challenges in school. Special education begins with an Individualized Family Service Program or Plan (IFSP) for a child from birth to age 3 and an IEP or 504 Plan for a child from preschool through age 21. These written plans outline an individual child’s special education, services and supports but do not necessarily address the child’s general education if special education support or accommodation is not needed for all activities throughout the school day; so, even with a written plan in place, the child may access some general curriculum instruction with no additional special education services. Parents are involved in the development of these plans regardless of the child’s age and the students themselves participate more as they mature.   

“Parents are equal members of the team and their voices are essential. Educators know their curriculum and they do their very best to get to know their students, but parents most often know their children best. All voices are important on this team,” Safranek said. “Beginning in late elementary, but especially at the middle school level and beyond, the student should always be involved in the meetings. It’s important that they voice their own goals for their futures and that they understand how their IEP goals are working toward these.”

A parent may have to advocate for their child—sometimes assertively—if they believe the IEP is not being properly executed, or if they suspect there are problems in the classroom, said Michele Zephier, coordinator with The Arc of Nebraska, an organization which provides services, training and resources for people with intellectual, physical and developmental disabilities. Zephier’s position also stems from personal experience as she’s the parent of a teen with a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism. 

“When it comes to special education in Nebraska, every child who has an IEP is entitled by IDEA or Rule 51 or the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). All of these ensure that every student has the right to an individual education plan,” she said. “It’s been a challenge to provide an equitable education for my son.” 

Zephier’s expertise as an advocate has grown over time—often out of necessity—and she has particular compassion for those who are new to the process of special education. She remembers early IEP meetings to be “overwhelming,” she said. “I’ve felt very frustrated, discouraged.”

She said she advises parents to “be the squeaky wheel” when a child’s special education needs are not being met, and to bring a trusted friend—or even include a child’s pediatrician, therapist, or specialist (in person or via documentation) if possible, especially when the parent expects that an IEP meeting may become contentious. “The student with a disability deserves an education just as much as any other student,” she said.

Zephier said parents can also find resources online. 

“Of course, The Arc of Nebraska (; we have a resource map on our website,” she said. 

Some additional resources for information on situations from navigating an IEP meeting to filing a grievance include Educational Service Units (ESUs), and

It’s not always easy, but special education in general has improved, Safranek noted. 

“Special education has evolved over time and for those of us from a different generation, it does not carry the stigma it once did. Thankfully, many districts are using inclusive practices so that learning differences are more widely accepted,” she said. “I believe there’s always room for improvement and we should always be striving to make things better… but we’re moving in the right direction.”

Rhone said she would like to see special education across the state evolve into a fully inclusive model, and that some communities and school systems need more support to get there. 

“When I say ‘inclusion,’ that doesn’t mean every single kid is in the general education environment… I’m saying we provide the best educational opportunity for each student that meets their individual needs. That requires us to have specialized schools that provide support to kids,” she said. “We have a lot of schools that still don’t believe they can serve a kid in a wheelchair, regardless of their IQ or their intellectual capabilities. Sometimes the physical disability overtakes the expectation of an individual students… It’s really breaking down those barriers and the governance system within schools that will allow for us to truly be an inclusive model in providing support to all students.” 

While there’s still progress to be made in special education in Nebraska, Rhone said there’s also much to be proud of.

“Over the last few years, the Nebraska Department of Education has rolled out our journey to inclusion really trying to encourage that we support each student where they’re at, rather than having low expectations and thinking students with disabilities can’t achieve flipping that script. And we haven’t seen resistance at all, whereas other states see quite a bit of resistance,” Rhone said. “And an amazing thing about Nebraska is that we provide support through our educational approach to students birth to 21. And we have a very seamless transition from early intervention into special education…. Early intervention is free, and there are very few states that actually have free services for the birth-to-3 population.”

“A person with a disability wants to feel like they belong and they have purpose… I think that if we want to create an inclusive community outside of the walls of the school, that it has to start with looking at the person. Find the commonalities, take the disability out of it, and look at the person first,” Moody said. “I’m very fortunate in that I’ve got a tremendous toolbox of interventions and supports that I can grab from, that will help me with some of those pieces that will help close those gaps for my students academically and with their communication and with their behavior… Understanding and knowledge and information has grown the field of special education and the opportunities that we provide for students with disabilities. I think with technology and advancement and understanding and growth, it has changed the field for the better.” 

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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