Madeline Way tapped on an iPad in her Project Headway classroom at the West Tisbury School.

“The kids who use this program cannot talk,” she explained. “But they can go like this in a fury.”

Tap, tap, tap. The iPad speaks: “I — want — puzzles.”

Ms. Way and teacher Jenny Royal use the computer program for preschool students with speech impairments. Right now Ms. Way has one iPad for the class, but she will need three more to accommodate the needs of incoming children in the classroom this winter. It is one example of the expanding needs of Project Headway, an Islandwide public pre-school program that serves children aged three to five with and without special needs. There are currently 10 students in the pre-school class with special needs, and beginning in January three more will join. The majority of the students have significant special needs, including vision, hearing and motor skills impairment.

As a result, teachers and administrators alike are focusing on how to retool special education services to meet changing needs while remaining accountable to Island taxpayers who fund public school budgets. Two months ago Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss had to defend a sharp increase in his budget for the coming year before the all-Island school committee; much of the increase, he said, could be tracked to changing patterns in special needs education.

Project Headway teachers this week talked about the shifting patterns.

“In the last several years there have been trends of kids coming through,” said Mrs. Royal, who has been a teacher at Project Headway for 10 years. “There was a large group of kids with social communication needs. Then we had a group of kids with Down’s syndrome. Now we have a population of pretty impaired, delayed kids with multiple disabilities.”

A grade school program called the Bridge Program was created a few years ago to address the needs of a group of students with autism, but Mrs. Royal said the current group of children will have dramatically different needs when they reach grade school.

James Weiss, Donna Lowell Bettencourt and Robyn Gurney. — Katie Ruppel

“The Bridge programming and criteria doesn’t make sense for these kids,” said Mrs. Royal. “Some kids need more structure, some need more space, no two kids are alike.”

“One size does not fit all,” added Ms.Way.

In an interview with the Gazette, Mr. Weiss, interim director of student support services Donna Lowell-Bettencourt and early childhood coordinator Robyn Gurney said they are exploring alternative programming for the Project Headway students when they enter kindergarten in the fall of 2014. Mr. Weiss said it has not been decided whether to have the students attend town schools with extra support or to develop an independent program to meet their needs. “The number of autism-spectrum kids is low, but the number of kids with other issues, whether it’s developmental delays, vision problems, mobility problems, have peaked,” Mr. Weiss said. “We don’t have a critical mass of any one kind of kid like we did when we started the Bridge program . . . so we are not sure how to program for it. That is what we are struggling with,” he added.

“But it’s not necessarily knowing how to service them, we know what they need,” Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt said.

“It’s how best to provide it,” Mrs. Gurney said.

“For each individual student, for the entire group, for all the schools, all while trying to be fiscally responsible at the same time,” added Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt. “It’s combining all of those things that makes it a complex decision of how best to design that programming.”

The number of students in Vineyard public schools receiving special education is higher than in the commonwealth. In 2008, about 450 students, or 20 per cent of Island school children, received special education. Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt said. Today 446, or 21 per cent of students Islandwide receive special education. Statewide, 17 per cent of students receive special education.

“But that’s full-range,” Mr. Weiss said. “It could mean 20 minutes of speech therapy a week to a kid in Project Headway.”

He noted the challenge of being on an Island.

“If this were over on the mainland, we would have a whole range of options available to us,” he said, citing an array of regional and specialized programs.

“We don’t have those options without sending the kid off every day,” said Mrs. Royal. “It’s our job to create those programs.”

Twenty-one per cent of students receive special education education services. — Katie Ruppel

Mrs. Royal said the larger the school system, the higher the incidence of specific disabilities.

“We could have more specialized teachers for different learning disabilities with a bigger population,” said Ms. Way. “But we don’t have that. So it’s us.”

The superintendent’s shared services budget for the coming year includes money for another assistant for Project Headway and two for the Bridge program, as well as a half-time speech and language therapist.

Mrs. Royal said the assistants and related service providers, including psychologists and physical therapists, are vital.

“If you can’t move your arm or you can’t navigate a communication system, you need support,” she said. “The lead teacher in any classroom isn’t going to have the ability to meet those needs and the classroom’s needs at the same time. You need a staff to support the kids.

“Year by year it varies on how many kids need that support. We happen to be in a little window right now where we have a lot of kids who need support. In a few years that may diminish or increase, it just fluctuates.”

“These kids grow up, that’s what happens,” said Mr. Weiss, whose budget also introduced funding for substitutes in the special education programs and additional funding for transportation services. “We are struggling with how we will provide service going forward.”

Educators and administrators could only speculate on why the Vineyard has a higher number of students with special needs.

Mr. Weiss said it may be in part because diagnostics have improved. “We seem to have more kids who are identified and I wish I knew why,” he said. “Every now and then you’ll hear somebody say students are coming here because we have good programming. I got to tell you, moving to the Island and all that it includes just because your kid is going to get a better special education is quite a commitment.”

Mrs. Royal said regardless of why or how kids end up in the special education programs, her mission remains the same. “As far as I’m concerned, whoever comes across the door, we meet their needs,” she said. “Whether it be vision, social or communication needs, when a kid comes in, that is our job.”