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Standing Up For My Special Needs Scholars

At the April 16th joint public hearing about Success Academy Bronx 3’s proposed co-location, I heard witness after witness falsely accuse Success Academy of refusing to educate special-needs children while claiming – again, falsely – that district schools do everything they can to accommodate kids who pose special challenges.

As a special ed teacher with 10 years of experience in both charter and district schools, I know this is not true – and I said so at the hearing. Many district schools do a very poor job of teaching special-needs students, and the bar for these kids is set pitifully low. But at Success Academy, we have high expectations, even for children who require different kinds of support or approaches to learning.

I have seen both situations firsthand.

My first teaching job, in a district school in Brownsville, Brooklyn, was in an integrated co-teaching classroom that had students with disabilities, general education students and two teachers.

The classroom was hidden in a corner of the school, away from the other children. Though we had a mandated special ed curriculum, it was inappropriate for the students’ needs, and we got very little support in figuring out how to adapt our lessons so the children could understand and learn.

In fact, we were told that the kids “just needed a 2,” on a proficiency scale of 1 to 4, meaning they were below grade level. Teaching these children did not seem to be the priority; they were just passed on from grade to grade.

Children waited months to be evaluated for special ed services because only one person in the entire K-8 school examined and processed the requests. Students could literally wait an entire school year, sitting in the wrong classroom setting.

These children were almost expected to fail. And it was no surprise when many did.

After three years, I moved to Success Academy, where I now work as a Special Education Teacher Support Services teacher at SA Bronx 3. I help young scholars with Individualized Education Programs meet their academic goals, provide teachers with intervention strategies in writing, math, and reading; conduct observations, and write IEP goals and progress reports.

The classroom teachers and I are a team; we meet daily to study lessons and plan, and we are held accountable for our preparedness and for our students’ results. My principal observes me regularly and gives me feedback.

The difference between how special ed is treated at Success Academy and at district schools is like night and day.

The special ed curriculum at Success is exactly the same as for general ed, just with extra supports. Special ed classrooms are in the same area as all the other classrooms, so the kids aren’t segregated, and we provide many opportunities for them to learn alongside their general-education peers.

We give extra help even to kids who don’t have IEPs; for all students who need added support, we conduct reviews every two weeks to make sure they understand the work and no one falls through the cracks.

And, we graduate kids out of their IEPs as soon as they are able, while still giving them extra help.

We graduate kids out of their IEPs as soon as they are able, while still giving them extra help.

That’s one reason why just 11 percent of our kids have IEPs – children at SA don’t need that label to get assistance. And it’s why 82 percent of our students with special needs passed the math test last year, versus 9 percent of their city peers.

At SA, we expect them to learn and give them the tools to succeed.

I’ve seen these successes with my own students.

Last October, while my other students were entering their third month of instruction, a 7-year old girl (I’ll call her Sarah) walked into Success Academy Bronx 3, fresh off the wait list. She had an IEP, and her mother had been very frustrated with her previous school. Her mom was insistent that Sarah’s teachers maintain the same high standards for her daughter as she had, and together we devised a plan for the mother to check in regularly on Sarah’s progress.

Despite some challenges in the beginning, Sarah learned our routine and the structure of our curriculum and fell in love with learning. Within months, Sarah blossomed; she went from active learner to active leader. In small groups, she facilitated discussions, explored strategies, and successfully identified the main idea of grade-level texts. Sarah and I work daily to master her goals; she is on grade level in reading and has shown growth in all academic areas.

A 6-year old girl (I’ll call her Rose) came into my classroom after spending kindergarten at a district school where she was promoted to first grade even though she was unable to read a basic picture book. With daily small group guided reading practice, I coached her on targeted skills and worked with her homeroom teacher on in-class interventions. By year’s end, Rose was reaching the grade-level benchmark.

Children respond to the expectations of the adults around them. By setting the bar high and empowering them to succeed, we are proving that disabilities do not have to be impediments to learning.

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Written by Allysa Axelband April 23, 2015

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