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The changing world of special ed

New York Teacher

If there is one thing that is a constant in special education, it’s change.

It’s hard to believe but less than a decade ago, most students with disabilities were served in self-contained settings. Speech, occupational therapy and physical therapy were typically delivered in therapy rooms and one-to-one paraprofessionals were recommended for a limited number of students with serious health, mobility or behavioral challenges. General education teachers had little involvement with students with IEPs. Then, in 2012, the city Department of Education introduced “special education reform.”

A primary goal of the reform was to ensure that most students with disabilities are educated in their neighborhood school or school of “choice.” While the “choice” part remains a work in progress, the idea of students with disabilities going to schools in their own communities has become the new normal. But the ability of local schools to offer students with disabilities a range of services based on their individual needs has proven challenging. Schools that have solved the problem are able to provide intensive support in self-contained settings when students need it and move them to integrated co-teaching or general education classes when they have mastered the necessary skills. These schools are typically larger but, more important, they have strong cultures of collaboration and a buildingwide focus on helping students with disabilities transition to general education classes. They approach programming with a flexible mindset. Their message to families is never “we don’t offer that here” or “we don’t have the budget.”

Another notable change is the growth in the number of New York City students in special education. The vast majority of students with IEPs have been determined to have speech and language disabilities or specific learning disabilities. Often the precipitating issue is their failure to learn to read.

We understand that the DOE’s chief academic officer is taking a hard look at how reading is taught in our schools. The science is clear about what works. A promising development on the reading front is the DOE’s Early Childhood Summer Intensive Reading Pilot, which will be making its debut this summer. Ten classes in three districts will provide intensive, programmatic reading interventions to kindergarten or 1st-grade students who show signs of struggling. Lessons learned from the summer pilot will guide implementation of a new K–1 instructional model.

Another new special education initiative on the horizon is a three-part webinar series for paraprofessionals who work with students with challenging behaviors. I recently met with a small group of paraprofessionals to preview and gather their feedback on the first webinar. It was exciting for me to talk with these paras about the format and the content of the webinar as well as how they are included — or not included — in professional development in their schools. A key piece of feedback I shared with the DOE was the need for in-person, school-based follow-up after the webinar to discuss how the ideas and strategies would be implemented in their schools.

Paraprofessionals often tell me they do not feel they are part of the team. I would like to see if we could encourage some reflection on the value of strong teacher-paraprofessional partnerships by highlighting success stories. Please let me know if you are in such a partnership and would like me to come to your school to see your teamwork firsthand.

Having worked in New York City public schools for 22 years, I understand the demanding nature of the work done by UFT members who serve students with disabilities and the challenges they face. I want to help you use the many problem-solving mechanisms in the new DOE-UFT contract to improve your working conditions.

I am committed to helping you navigate the changes in special education as we work together to ensure that our students with disabilities are getting the best possible instruction, therapy and support.