Filling needs

Experts question Detroit district chief’s wish to create new schools for kids with special needs

PHOTO: Getty Images

On the carpet inside a language arts class, three boys quietly play a word game with their teacher. In the same room, on a comfy sofa and chair, two students discuss a poem’s message.

But across the room, where the soft sunlight washes through the windows, one of their classmates sits alone, rocking to and fro in a chair, his hands covering his face.

At some schools, allowing such behavior from a student might come as a surprise. But at Aim High School in Farmington Hills, a private school where almost three out of four students have a formal diagnosis of autism, things are different.

The teacher and students realized he needed to cope with something that was troubling him that day. So they let him be.

If Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti gets his way, more schools like this one that cater to students with special needs could be coming to Detroit. Though the district already has a number of schools and programs that serve students with disabilities, Vitti has said he’d like to open two or three new specialized schools in 2019.  He is considering a school for students diagnosed with dyslexia, one serving students with autism, and potentially a third serving students who are hearing impaired.

His goal is not only to better meet the needs of students, but also to attract more families to a district that has been bleeding enrollment for years. At a time when roughly half of Detroit families are currently choosing charter and suburban schools, Vitti says he believes targeted programs can attract parents — potentially even those who live in surrounding suburbs — who haven’t been satisfied with the supports and therapies their children have been getting in traditional schools.

“Most public school systems don’t have the kinds of services that are really about meeting dyslexic learners’ individual needs,” Vitti told Chalkbeat last year. “Statistically, one in five children face dyslexia and that number can be even greater for those growing up in poverty.”

The district serves a disproportionate share of students with special needs in Detroit — 18 percent of district students compared to 12 percent in Wayne County —  but Vitti has identified this as a potential growth area.

His spokeswoman, Chrystal Wilson, noted Thursday that if Detroiters want to attend a special school for students who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, they currently have to travel to Flint.

“By opening up a school that services children with disabilities and special needs, the district can provide support for them in their community,” Wilson said. “These students shouldn’t have to drive to Flint to get an education. They should be able to get an education in their own community.”

Some parents said they welcome the additional options. But Vitti could run into opposition from advocates who believe that segregating students is not in their best interest.

”Students with autism are not going to go to the movie theater for autism,” said George Theoharis, a Syracuse University professor who researches inclusion. “They are not going to the Walmart for autism. They are not going to go to the grocery store for autism. We live in, and we have to have, a more inclusive society.”

Theoharis said he has visited and taught in schools around the country for 15 years and said he’s “never met a kid who can’t be included in a general education school and classrooms.”

Federal law requires all schools to have a written plan for every student classified with special needs. The plan spells out what extra services the child must receive at school, including physical or occupational therapy, speech therapy, or other individual attention. Some children have aides assigned to work with them throughout the day.

If a district cannot meet those needs, parents, through a process, can remove their children from the district and place them in private schools, and the district has to pay for it. But that’s a process that’s largely only available to parents who can afford lawyers or know how to navigate the complex educational bureaucracy.

Many parents of exceptional children fight within their own schools to get their children the help they need, or move them to a different school. It’s those families Vitti might be hoping to attract if he can make the case that his new schools will better serve those students.

Vitti is no stranger to creating environments for specialized learning. He started a school for children who were dyslexic and another for children with autism when he was superintendent in Jacksonville, Florida.

He believes people who think every student can succeed in a mainstream classroom are being unrealistic. Because the district is still short almost 200 teachers, some have 30 or 40 pupils in a class, making it difficult for them to address the needs of individual students.

“The regular school often is not equipped with the capacity, the resources, the training or even the focused time to get it right,” Vitti said.

The superintendent has lived through what it’s like to attend school in a place that wasn’t able to focus on his needs. He struggled because he is dyslexic, something that wasn’t diagnosed until he was an adult.

In the Detroit district, he doesn’t know for sure what focuses the new schools might have, even though he is considering  services for students diagnosed with autism and dyslexia. He wants to talk with families before making a recommendation to the board.

He said he approached the state about reinstating the Detroit Day School for the Deaf, which was closed in 2012, but the state Department of Education has not approved that request.

Vitti believes he can attract more students to the district with these specialized schools. Farmington Hills’ Aim High School is in such high demand that some students commute up to 90 minutes to attend, even though this year’s tuition is $22,000.

Although Detroiter Donna Seay would consider sending her twin 13-year-old boys to a small school like Aim, which accepts students from 6th through 12th grade, she’s not sure she would send her sons to a specialized school in the Detroit district.

Currently, one attends Bates Academy, a district school for gifted children. He is high functioning on the autism spectrum and she wants a small environment that offers one-on-one teaching, an in-classroom tutor who is always available, and typical children with whom to socialize.

“I’ve thought about it, and my idea of a school for autism is not to group them together because the spectrum is awfully long and I don’t want him to be around bad behavior,” she said.

“It can be a separate school, but you’re still going to have the same problems. If they can talk, they are going to bully.”

She said her other son, who has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, lost social skills and mimicked bad behavior when he was in a specialized classroom from kindergarten through fifth grade. Now an eighth-grader, he attends a Cornerstone charter school.

Theoharis agrees with her. He said schools that categorize children in schools for autism, for example, don’t offer them peer models. He said he’s witnessed some “really negative behavior” in them.

The co-founder and head of Aim High School, Michael Earls, has also seen some negative behavior, but for different reasons.  

“These are kids that did not fit into a traditional school model. They need a very personal model,” he said, adding that he has seen students “kicking and screaming because they’ve had such traumatizing experiences at school” before arriving at Aim.

“Our mission, first of all, is to get them to feel safe in school again, connect with their teachers and start to have some success.”

But Theoharis believes children can get the same attention in a mainstream environment that they would get in a specialized school like Aim.

“The kinds of services and support kids need can happen in typical elementary, middle and high schools,” he added. “They do, in fact.”

Vitti said offering only one option does not address the reality of what resources are available in a struggling school district.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said. “I don’t believe in saying ‘You have to go to this school if you’re dyslexic.’”

One researcher says both methods have some validity if used thoughtfully.

“There’s really no research that would say that either approach on its own is better,” said Allison Gandhi, managing researcher at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit that helps states and school districts implement best practices.

Gandhi said that ideally all children would attend mainstream schools that are equipped with all the resources they need. But students often are moved to segregated environments because traditional schools can’t always provide adequate specialized services and teachers may not be prepared to teach those students.

She agrees it’s a difficult situation for students who need extra support. But she said both methods can work if attention is given to the instruction itself.

“It’s not really about where the kids are placed,” Gandhi said. “It’s really about what’s being done with the kids where they are.” 

Parent voices

A parent hotline is among fixes promised for special education in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Hero Images
A program for students with special needs is moving to out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, one of several issues parents raised at a school board forum Wednesday night.

It is a stunning number: roughly one-sixth of students in Detroit’s main school district have learning disabilities or other special needs, compared with one-eighth of students statewide.

So it was no surprise that special education was a recurring theme at a sometimes boisterous community forum with parents in the Detroit Public School Community District.

Patricia Thornton enrolls her youngest son, who has autism, in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary.

She said teachers at the school were welcoming, but she worries they haven’t been adequately supported by the district to teach students with disabilities.

“They need some training,” she said.

The district on Monday will receive the results of an audit of its programs for children with special needs (as of last month, the district refers to “special education” as “exceptional student education”). Vitti invited Thornton to the event, promising that an improvement plan will be outlined.

“That will show you our plan of attack to improve systems across the system,” he said, adding that past administrations haven’t done much more for special education than keep up with federal requirements. “We haven’t had a vision beyond compliance,” he said.

An anonymous complaint hotline for teachers and parents is among the proposed solutions, Vitti said. As the district works to assign every classroom in the district by the fall a certified teacher, it will also focus on hiring adequate staff for special needs programs, he added.

Detroit is not alone in its struggle to provide adequate special education. A report issued by the lieutenant governor’s office last year said the state’s current funding formula shortchanges schools by almost $700 million a year.

Still, not every parent left the forum satisfied, although some of the concerns they raised had roots before Vitti started in Detroit over a year ago. Pansy Foster-Coleman’s lengthy experience with special education in Detroit began when she brought a federal lawsuit against the district in 1996, resulting in Cass Tech and other application-only high schools being opened to students with special needs, she told board members. As a parent, she said she saw the benefits of ATTIC, a program run by the countywide agency Wayne RESA,  that provides technology like speech aids and hearing devices to students with disabilities. Before Vitti’s arrival , the program was slated to be moved out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, whose school district also enrolls a high proportion of special needs students.

The prospect outraged Foster-Coleman, even after Vitti offered to meet with her and Wayne RESA officials.

Addressing parents at the meeting, she said, “You folks need to get together and sue somebody.”

Her comments were typical of a meeting that became raucous at times. Board members stood up several times to ask for calm after attendees raised their voices and talked over others in the room.

Partway through the meeting, an explanation for the fervor floated up from the back row.

“We are here for these kids, and we want to be acknowledged.”


Classroom Lessons

They saw life inside Detroit classrooms — and now some of them want to teach

PHOTO: Geneva Simons Photography
City Year Americorp members close their graduation ceremony with a spirited celebration.

For the 71 young adults who just finished 10 months of service in Detroit district schools, this past academic year was, essentially, a trial by fire.

The City Year Americorps members worked with some of Detroit’s neediest children — tutoring and mentoring them, and assisting their teachers in the classroom. It wasn’t easy. Many rose at 5:30 a.m. and reported working up to 12-hour days for a modest stipend. For many volunteers, the rigor of it all was clarifying: It inspired some to pursue teaching and pointed others toward different career paths.

City Year does not yet have comprehensive data about what percentage of its corps members are interested in going into teaching, or working as counselors or social workers in a Detroit school setting. But the program is beginning to track its alumni; what it finds out could prove instructive for the district, which is still struggling to fill nearly 200 teacher vacancies.

Americorps is a federal volunteer program, whose participants get a $1,000 a month stipend, a $5,800 post-service award. Some also have a chance to be awarded a $5,000 college scholarship. In return, the 18- to 25-year-olds commit to year of full-time service with the goal of keeping public school students on track to graduate.

Chalkbeat caught up with six recent Americorps alumni to discuss what they learned about the challenges and rewards of serving in Detroit schools, and how those lessons shape what they want to do next.

Bryan Aaron, 23, Detroit

Bryan Aaron

When he started tutoring in a class of 5th graders at Noble Elementary-Middle School, Bryan Aaron knew students’ English and math scores were shockingly low, with fewer than 10 percent passing the MSTEP in both subjects. But he was surprised to learn just how much factors outside of the classroom — food and housing insecurities, lack of transportation — affect students’ grades and attendance. In some cases students would be living with a parent one day, and an aunt or grandparent the next.

“It’s a huge factor in their ability to learn,” he said, noting that standardized tests don’t account for these issues. “What is not being taken into consideration is they haven’t had any sleep because they had to move in the middle of the night, and they haven’t had adequate nutrition.”

That helped him understand how much consistency matters for students. In one case, he helped a student with poor attendance figure out how to get to school since his father was using the family car at that time. Aaron arranged for him to ride the bus with an older sibling.

Now, Aaron, a recent college grad, is planning to apply to medical school. As he is working on his application, he’s considering conducting pediatric research on bioethics or the post-operative effects of opiates. He’s hoping to be accepted by a medical school in the region, and aspires to form a partnership between the district and the medical school to expose Noble students to the health sciences.

Blake Wilkes, 23, Detroit

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Blake Wilkes

After spending a school year working in an 8th grade classroom at J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, Wilkes has decided he’s not suited for a career as a classroom teacher in the long-term because he said he doesn’t “have the patience to deal with what [students] go through.” But he’s not leaving education altogether: The recent college graduate will return to do a second year of service, which corps members have an option to do, then he plans to pursue a graduate degree in psychology, with the goal of becoming a school guidance counselor for the Detroit district.

During his first year in the program, the night owl pushed himself to rise by 5:30 a.m. for the 12-hour workday ahead. He tutored students in core subjects, helped the classroom teacher with lesson plans, and coordinated after-school activities. He said that his work taught him what difficult home lives some students endure, and how much the resulting social-emotional issues  impact their attitude and academic performance. He recalls a once-happy, high-achieving student who started having anger and behavioral issues after her mother died in the middle of the school year. He said he talked it through with her as best he could, and shed empathetic tears for the grieving student.

He also cried on the last day of school, recognizing how transformational the year had been, and how much he had grown and developed on a personal level.

“Seeing the kinds of stuff that the kids have to deal with everyday and how nobody’s on their side, it motivates me to work hard for them,” Wilkes said.

Brea Liggons, 25, Detroit

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Brea Liggons

Working inside a 4th grade classroom at Gompers Elementary-Middle School, a pre-K–8 school in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, showed Liggons the staggering amount teachers have on their plates.

“Sometimes, it looks like teachers don’t care about their students, but they have one title and multiple roles they have to play everyday,” she said. “They don’t have the capacity to sit down with the students one-on-one, but I did.”

Her Americorps year recalled her own challenging middle school experience, and that increased her resolve to help students with their grades, attendance, and social-emotional skill set.

“Everyday, we had to talk about their struggles, their improvement, and we really needed to pay close attention if they acted out of the ordinary,” she said. “That’s how we knew if they were having a problem like a parent passing away.”

Liggons, who plans to return to her graduate studies at Wayne State University before becoming a counselor of some kind in a district school, taught students how to set goals, and about the power of optimistic thinking.  

“After awhile, they were begging to set their own goals. They were excited,” she said of their goals, such as deciding to let others go first, remembering to raise hands in class, and giving compliments to others and to themselves. “Just by doing that, we were literally able to watch some of our students grow immensely.”

Yazmin Gerardo, 22, Farmington Hills

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Yazmin Gerardo

A self-described introvert, Gerardo found it overwhelming to work with 4th grade students at the Brenda Scott Academy because it was so large. The school in northeast Detroit, which serves pre-K to 8th graders, has more than 700 students. But she stretched, in an effort to understand and assist students.

“It wasn’t about me,” the native Detroit, who attended Detroit public schools, said. “At the end of the day, we were doing this, working with kids, and for good reason.”

Her year of service inspired her to pursue a career in teaching in the Detroit district.

“Having someone to constantly show up and root for them is what I want to do,” she said.

“…They would come to me and say, ‘I wasn’t going to come to school today, but you promised me we would eat together at lunch, we could play a game or you would give me stickers.’”

Daniel Finegan, 25, Sterling Heights

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Daniel Finegan

By the end of the school year, which he spent tutoring, mentoring and assisting the classroom teacher with 7th and 8th graders at Bethune Elementary-Middle School, Finegan was so set on teaching in a Detroit public school, he was already looking for a rental home in the Bagley neighborhood in northwest Detroit. Not only that, he’s had interviews with principals at four schools and has a contingency offer in hand.

“City Year has been my student teaching experience,” Finegan, who has a degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh, said. His Americorps year solidified his decision to teach.

He is working toward his teacher’s certification, and if all goes according to plan, he’ll be ready to start teaching in the district when the 2018–2019 school year begins.

Parker Schimler, 23, Royal Oak

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Parker Schimler

After his year of service in 7th and 8th grade classrooms at Gompers, Schimler understands exactly what it can be like when a school district struggles with teacher vacancies. One teacher he worked with had hip surgery, and substitute teachers were in and out of the classroom for most of the school year. It left students discombobulated and unfocused.

But that gave him an opportunity to take a deep dive into the lives of the students, discovering their strengths and helping them work on their weaker areas. He said he became particularly good at getting shy students to open up to him, and the ones who appreciated him most sometimes drew pictures for him. He was left with a strong appreciation for one student in particular, who set a goal to be a NBA player and an athletic shoe designer. That student made Schimler an origami athletic shoe.

“Without a teacher in the classroom, they weren’t getting the education I did and the education they deserve,” he said. “I worked with them in small groups and gave them worksheets to help them out the best I could.”