Reflections of a Career in Special Education

LDA-IA Board Member Helen Beneke shares how her experiences in special education have evolved over the years.

In the mid-1960s, I was fortunate to have been hired by the Sioux Falls School District, South Dakota, following the completion of a two-year elementary education program at Augustana College (the last year that South Dakota certified educators with this training). The first day of school, I noticed that two of my students were taller than the rest of the kids. I remembered what one of my professors instructed us: “Review each of the cumulative records before the start of each school year.” Although I was a day late, I read through the files of my first graders. I was surprised to discover that these two tall students were entering their fourth year of public school. Each student had been retained in kindergarten and this was their second year of first grade. Neither student achieved “grade level” status at the end of the corresponding year.

Following completion of my BA degree in education, I signed on with the Sioux City, Iowa, school system, assigned to teach the “slow learner” first grade. This was a combination of kindergarten and first-grade curriculum. By the end of the first quarter, I was required to decide which of these first graders (typically one-third of the class) would take two years to complete the first-grade curriculum. In addition to developing the kindergarten curriculum for these seven students, I needed to explain this recommendation to each set of seven parents. No diagnosis, no formal evaluation, but an informal plan was set in motion for each of these seven students. Two sets of parents begged to push their child through the readiness and the first-grade curriculum. So, with the promise of a team approach, and with the parents nightly working on assignments that I designed for their child, one of the two students did achieve the skills needed to enter second grade the next year.

My next professional transition took place in the Anoka, Minnesota, school district, where I was hired to tutor children with learning problems and behavioral difficulties. Children were referred by the classroom teacher and the principal notified the parents that this service would begin. Tutors were hired based on their experience working with troubled students and upon the recommendation of their former administrator. Little accountability was required, just the tutor’s quarterly reports to the classroom teacher and to the parents.

Returning to Iowa to become a special education teacher of the mildly handicapped (then generally referred to as the “mentally retarded”), I completed the required special education provisional certification with two post-graduate special education classes. When I entered the classroom, I was faced with boxes of supplies, as the class had previously been in a local church basement. Neither the principal nor the classroom teachers felt comfortable with this new set of twelve students. Looking back, I can now see that I had a mixture of students with various disabilities: “mentally retarded”, learning disabled, behavior disordered, and slow learners (who after PL-149, would not have qualified for this type of services). As the three years passed, I completed my master’s degree and I learned about the emerging disability category of “learning disability.”

In 1973, I was selected for a two-year federal grant. Twenty candidates were selected from the surrounding states. This was a six-state collaborative grant with the purpose of creating and researching an innovative special education delivery system. After an eight-week, seven hour a day intensive training program, we were assigned to a school district to implement this program: diagnosing learning and behavior problems, designing an individual education plan and materials, trying out this plan with the student, training a teacher to use the materials and strategies, and documenting the system. Ongoing in-service training was provided by the educational strategist, and the educators met with joint county professionals to implement individualized programs that the special education resource personnel teamed with the classroom teacher (when needed). The educational strategist training curriculum became the state consultant certification requirement at the University of Northern Iowa. During these years, 1973-75, the data submitted by the six regional strategists was used to develop the criteria to identify learning disabled and behavior disordered students. Also, during those two years, the Department of Education defined these two disabilities and developed teacher certification requirements.

Having completed the certification program for learning disabilities and behavior disabilities, along with my previous certification in mental disabilities, I was hired as a multi-disabilities AEA consultant with the Arrowhead Area Education Agency (AEA 5). My responsibilities as a consultant during the first year of this new era included working with administrators to implement the federal and state special education laws, handling in-service and coordinating the existing special education programs that existed before 1975. As the AEA continued to work with the Department of Education and the local schools over the next 25 years of my employment, disabilities categories became less important and the individualized education programs became more pronounced. By the end of the century, students qualified for special education using a “discrepancy model” and specific labels were deleted. As the new millennium emerged and I ended my AEA position, the term, “learning disabilities” was not assigned to students. Instead, “eligible individual” became the qualifying term.

My understanding of services for the learning disabled student continued while I served as supervisor for special education graduate interns, Morningside University (2000 – 2019). During those years, I observed and worked with teachers who taught resource rooms, self-contained classrooms, or served as itinerant resource educators. Every semester I met with each intern five times: first to review the syllabus and requirements, twice to observe in their classroom, and twice to meet with the interns in geographic areas to review semester requirements and discuss challenges in their classroom. These group meetings provided the opportunity to not merely share their struggles but for the other teachers to brainstorm and explore ways to deal with these difficulties. The seminars also set the stage for the educators to share curriculum, materials, and methods. During each semester, I gathered ideas as I observed these interns and then passed along observed techniques to the other interns. It certainly broadened my understanding of the struggles of the learning disabled student and how a corresponding special educator managed the individualized education plans. I commend Morningside University for designing this comprehensive graduate internship and I’ve appreciated this experience as I traveled throughout our state.

During the years of my professional career, I’ve experienced the special education services pendulum swing from almost no services to some services without due process, to disability-specific services, to simply being eligible referencing a discrepancy model. It’s been gratifying to me that the Heartland AEA (Central Iowa) has implemented the strategist model with the special education consultant serving as a diagnostician, teacher trainer/support representative, and data collector. But I am concerned that this educational pendulum will swing to the era without services for the mildly handicapped to only servicing the moderate to severely disabled. We need to be ever vigilant to protect the rights of our special needs students.