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Building bridges for educators and students

New York Teacher

Let me introduce myself. I’m MaryJo Ginese, the union’s new vice president for special education. I’m an occupational therapist and thus hail from the ranks of the more than 10,000 related-service providers who support students with disabilities in New York City public schools.

As I assume my new role, a key question will be driving the work I hope to do with you: How can we best help students with disabilities reach their full potential?

The 1975 federal law that later became know as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guaranteed access to a free, appropriate, public education in the least restrictive environment to every child with a disability.

This landmark law still holds much promise, but how effectively has it been implemented in New York City? Our students with disabilities score significantly lower than other students on state standardized tests. While tests are only one measure of student achievement, the evidence that we must do better is all around us.

What is the solution? Is it more targeted professional development and coaching? Is it smaller classes and groups? Is it more time to plan and collaborate? Or is it a different model of service delivery? I look to you to help me identify what you need to do to help our students with disabilities succeed.

Another important question driving my work: Do our students with disabilities have enough say in the development of their education program and goals? Student voices must resonate in the education process, especially for young people preparing to make the transition to independent living, college, career and technical training and employment.

Ideally, the school experience should impart a sense of empowerment and prepare young adults for self-advocacy and civic activism. Among the most rewarding experiences in my 20-plus years as a related-service provider was seeing my students independently navigate and use city services that enabled them to surmount physical barriers and gain access to businesses in their own neighborhoods.

I spent the majority of my career working in public schools in the Bronx. I saw up close the challenges these students and their schools faced, including high staff turnover, families struggling to make ends meet and lack of access to medical and mental health services. For these reasons, I am particularly proud of the union’s success in negotiating the Bronx Plan in the new contract. Access to these new tools and resources to attract and retain qualified staff can bring hope to these schools and their communities and has the potential to transform school culture and improve student achievement.

Unlike many workers in this country and around the world, we UFT members are fortunate to have a voice in our workplace environment. The new contract expands the authority of UFT committees so related-service providers will now have a meaningful mechanism to raise and address issues of space, workload and lack of basic instructional supplies.

Special education teachers, through the expanded school chapter consultation process, have a new avenue to tackle issues of professional development, supplies and curriculum. To ensure that we are protected in exercising these and other rights, the union negotiated new protections against retaliation that can be enforced through the grievance process.

The vice presidenct for special education has an amazing but daunting responsibility. Tens of thousands of UFT members — teachers, paraprofessionals, related-service providers, assessment professionals — directly support students with disabilities in our public schools. Most students receive services from school staff in multiple disciplines, yet communication among school staff and between staff and parents is often limited due to workload demands.

As a therapist, I know firsthand that students improve more rapidly when the classroom teacher and the parent understand and reinforce the skills being taught in the therapy room. I look forward to working with you to make this part of the service delivery model.

While my frame of reference comes through a related-service lens, I look forward to visiting schools across the city and helping empower teachers and support staff to resolve their issues with the help of the new mechanisms in the contract.