Robert D’Alessio knew within the first couple of days of school that the composition of his new 4th-grade class was off.
Too many kids in his Integrated Co-Teaching class were struggling, said D’Alessio, the co-teacher for general education in the class at the Abraham Lincoln School in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. Too few students were high-achieving enough to serve as models for the others.
Integrated Co-Teaching classes are supposed to have a limited number of struggling students so that those with disabilities get the attention that they need.
D’Alessio knew this and that in this first year of the new teacher evaluation system, the evaluations for him and his co-teacher for special education, Jessica Romano, would depend in part on demonstrating student growth through assessments.
“We want to show student growth, and I’m sure that we will,” D’Alessio said. “But, without a proper class composition, it would be difficult to show what the state accepts as yearly growth.”
So, D’Alessio did research that confirmed his hunch: 17 of the 27 children in the class — 63 percent — had Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
The rules are that classes with a mix of special and general education students should have no more than 40 percent, or a maximum of 12, students with IEPs.
Another question nagged at D’Alessio. Twelve of the students with IEPs were designated to receive only pullout or support services. Did these 12 count toward the legal maximum? He found his answer on the UFT website: yes. D’Alessio contacted his chapter leader, Christina Martin, who put him in touch with Carmen Alvarez, the UFT vice president for special education.
D’Alessio drafted an email to his principal and assistant principal, who responded promptly by transferring some of the students with IEPs to other classes and bringing in other higher-performing students.
“The difference in our classroom is incredible,” D’Alessio said after the change. “The level of conversation is higher, and just the motivation of the students overall.”
D’Alessio’s co-teacher, Romano, is also grateful for his advocacy. A first-year teacher, Romano said she wouldn’t have known the class composition was so out of whack without D’Alessio doing the legwork.
He “showed me that I didn’t have to be afraid,” she said. “I definitely feel a lot more comfortable now to do the right thing in speaking up.”
Alvarez said D’Alessio showed how teachers can advocate for themselves to help create the conditions where the greatest amount of student learning can occur.
“We know that teachers will not always immediately get what they ask for,” Alvarez said. “But teachers need to speak up and try to get the cooperation and support they need. Even just the act of advocating for themselves can help them grow professionally. The UFT is always here to back them up to help fight for students’ services and staff’s rights.”