Special Understanding

When Rachel Kistner moved to
Red Oak 21 years ago, one of the first
actions on her agenda was to find a
teaching position. “One day, I went to
Red Oak Elementary (ROE), spoke
to the principal, and he gave me my
first teaching job,” Rachel said. Rachel
spent the next 10 years as a teacher at
ROE. Later, she served as an assistant
principal at both ROE and H.A. Wooden
Elementary. “In 2000, I became principal
at ROE until 2008, which is when I
took the position of director of special
education for Red Oak Independent
School District (ROISD).

“The services we provide in the special
education department are for students
whose disabilities impact their learning,”
Rachel explained. “Those students have a
need for specially designed instruction.”
Before a pupil is considered a specialneeds
student, they are evaluated to
see if they fit into one of more than
13 categories. “We assess and evaluate
children to find which criteria they meet
in order to [determine if they need to] be
a part of the program.

“A student with a learning disability
might be someone who simply needs
help in reading or another subject. We
try to close the gap between the subject
and their difficulty with learning it,”
Rachel explained. Other students in
the special needs category may include
those with conditions such as autism.
Therefore, there are many different
levels of diagnostics performed through
ROISD, to ensure the children’s needs are
accurately assessed and addressed.

“We test for learning disabilities and
have our own diagnosticians on staff,
along with teachers who work with the
visually and auditorily impaired. There is
also a school psychologist on staff who
evaluates and identifies students with
emotional difficulties,” Rachel said. “I
work with our staff behavioral specialists,
who assist the teachers and give them
instructions on how to cater their style
based upon the needs of each child,
especially if the child is diagnosed with
emotional issues.”

ROISD’s special education program
employs many other specialists to help
the district’s students. “We have specialists
for autistic students, speech therapists,
adaptive PE teachers and transition
specialists, who help the kids plan for
their future — for when they graduate
and transition out of high school. Every
campus has special ed. teachers to meet
the needs of our students.”

Rachel is able to work with each child,
their parents, teachers and the specialists
by being a resource tool. “I have worked
at a lot of the campuses here in Red
Oak. I have built relationships with the
administrators and staff members, and
that has helped me to provide the support
and solutions that each student needs,”
Rachel said.

Rachel does more than wear the
special education director’s hat and the
student resources hat. “I am the person
people go to when they have questions
about our special education program,”
Rachel said. Frequently people ask her
about children who are not even old
enough to attend one of the district
schools. “It is usually before a child is of
school age — such as 3, 4 or 5 years old
— when a parent notices that their child
might have developmental issues, such as
poor social, motor or speech skills,” she
said. For these younger children, Rachel
advises parents to call one of the Red
Oak schools and speak with someone
in the special education department or
a campus administrator regarding their
concerns. The sooner her department is
aware of a potential learning issue, the
sooner the parent may be able to have
their child tested.

As for school-aged children, whether
they are faced with a disability or not,
Rachel shares a few recommendations on
how to assist a student to become their
best. “One of the most important actions
a parent can do is to stay in contact
with their child’s campus, teachers and
principals,” Rachel said. The campus staff
is knowledgeable on how to intervene
when difficulties arise.

“After a potential problem with the
student has been assessed, families need
to give their child’s school time to see
if the intervention will work. This can
only be done with the cooperation of the
parents and the school,” Rachel advised.
“If an intervention does not seem to help,
then special education testing can be used,
but only as a last resort.”

“When I worked at Red Oak
Elementary, there were many special
education students who needed our
assistance,” Rachel said. “I think
immersion is how I became so involved in
assisting these kids and how I learned a lot
about special education. When you work
with both the students and their families,
you learn how to best meet each of their
needs.” When it comes to interacting
both on- and off-campus, Rachel has a
motto regarding every aspect of her life:
“Having a good relationship and positive
attitude with everyone is everything.” Her
motto encourages both the faculty and the
students for whom she cares.

Written by Diana Merrill Claussen