ROCHESTER, Minn. — Tammy French, an autism special education teacher at Bishop Elementary School, put blue filters on the overhead fluorescent lights in her classroom.

Her students are sensitive to light, she said.

A small table is placed to discourage running in the space. Everything in the classroom is curated to help her teach her class of six kindergarteners through second-grade students with severe autism.

"There's a reason for everything being where it is," French said to the Post-Bulletin.

Half of French's students are nonverbal. Each has different needs and goals in class.

Some of her students don't respond well to too much verbal direction and prefer visual cues for lessons and behavioral feedback.

French recently checked with paraprofessional Marion Fosdick on how a particular student responded during the day.

"He really needs that visual," Fosdick said of a planned activity.

Each intensive special education classroom has at least one paraprofessional assisting the teachers and working directly with students.

"They're my hands and feet," French said.

French and Fosdick have worked together in the classroom for about five years. They have gotten good at accommodating students overwhelmed by too many words. The two communicate with nods and glances.

"We try to do it with as little language as possible," Fosdick said.

Each of the students' abilities are different.

"The ultimate goal is to get them as far as we can get them," French said. "My program changes year to year."

For some, that might mean working on communication with peers and increasing time they spend with them in standard classrooms. For others it could be simply acknowledging other people around them.

"It just depends on what students need," French said.

In order to push students to learn something new, French said she must earn the students' — and parents' — trust. Some kids are nonverbal and are nervous being away from home. Parents are also apprehensive placing the care of their children in someone else's hands, French said.

That's why French works hard to make the classroom feel like a safe place.

"They live there six hours a day," French said.

Ultimately, progress wins trust, she said.

"You get to see them maybe talk for the first time or do something for the first time," French said.

Students with such intensive needs spend 60 percent or more of their school day in a special education setting. Minnesota guidelines mandate a maximum class size of six students, which means a higher cost per pupil for such special education classes.

"Any time you drop capacity, it increases cost," said John Carlson, Rochester Public Schools executive director of finance.

Special education services are mandated and school districts receive funding specifically for special education programs. However, that funding has fallen short of actual district costs. As special education services grow, the gap has widened.

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