special education

At the Queens High School of Teaching, a model of inclusion

Like most seniors at the Queens High School of Teaching, Sabrina Alphonse takes a range of academic classes, had a blast on her senior trip, and is starting to plan her future.

But Alphonse is different in one key way: She is not technically a student at the school. Instead, Alphonse, who is wheelchair-bound, attends Q811, the District 75 school for severely disabled students sited on QHST’s campus.

All city schools include students with special needs in some way. Many have self-contained classes that serve only students with disabilities. Others operate some classes where special education and general education teachers work together to serve both kinds of students. But few are “fully inclusive,” as QHST is.

Full inclusion means that every student with special needs who is admitted to QHST is educated in the same classroom as general education students. There are no self-contained classes.

It also means that students such as Alphonse, whose disabilities are so severe that they are enrolled in District 75, taking classes alongside general education students and joining in with all of the QHST’s day-to-day activities, clubs, and programs. About three dozen Q811 students are enrolled in QHST classes, but all of the District 75 school’s students can participate in the high school’s extracurricular activities, and many do.

QHST is not just different because of how it has included students with special needs. Its success with them is also substantially different. Across the city, only a little more than one in four students with special needs graduates from high school in four years. At QHST, it’s well over 70 percent — not far off the school’s overall 88 percent graduation rate.

Laura Rodriguez, the Department of Education’s outgoing deputy chancellor for special education, has hailed the school’s graduation rate, and Nigel Pugh, the former principal, says the school has been singled out for having the smallest graduation rate gap between general education and special education students.

QHST administrators are baffled when they hear school communities sometimes point to oversized special education population as a reason for lagging performance.

“Given what they’re saying, the demographic we have should lead us in one direction, but it’s not,” said Jae Cho, the school’s interim acting principal.

Soon, all schools will look a little more like QHST. The department is in the middle of introducing special education reforms aimed at distributing students with special needs equitably among schools — and encouraging schools to place those students in the “least restrictive environment” they can handle. For many students, that means being included in general education classes for at least some of the school day.

“Their stated goal is not about inclusion, but it is about educating more and more students with disabilities in community schools,” Maggie Moroff, coordinator of the ARISE Coalition of special education advocacy groups, said about the Department of Education. “The way it’s playing out, it looks like there will be less self-contained [classes] and more inclusion for greater access to the academic curriculum.”

The shift is likely to be challenging for schools that are used to handing off disabled students after explaining that they can’t meet the students’ needs. Some educators and parents are complaining that the shift is motivated by finances — it costs less to include students than keep them in self-contained classes — rather than by what’s best for students or schools.

“For schools that don’t have structures in place, it’s a shift in thinking,” said Cho.

Moroff said inclusion can’t succeed unless schools have extra resources, administrative support, and “continuing, ongoing, at-the-elbow professional development.”

But she said it is worthy work. “Life is inclusive,” she said. “Or should be.”

This was the belief Pugh emphasized when he founded QHST in 2003. “The question is: Do you value these kids?” he said recently, speaking from his new office at the Department of Education’s central administration, where he is helping roll out the new special education reforms.

In addition partnering with Q811, the District 75 school, from its opening day, QHST made it a custom to recruit eighth-graders with special needs.

And even after a large number were admitted through the regular high school admissions process, Pugh sought out more. The first time Pugh called the department’s central enrollment office, the person who answered the phone thought he was calling to complain about how many special education students he was assigned. He was so used to hearing principals resist that he just assumed Pugh was doing the same, Pugh recalled.

But Pugh had realized that more students with Individualized Education Plans could be a boon to his fledging school: They brought with them additional funds. About 10 students with IEPs would buy a special education teacher, Pugh calculated. Then he set out to play the numbers game.

“If I want to fund a robust program, I need more students,” he said. “The more kids you have, the bigger the budget will be for special education and the better services you’ll be able to offer.”

Now, the school maintains a special education enrollment rate of about 20 percent — with about 16 percent of students on QHST’s roll and the balance Q811 students who are included. The consistency allows the school to maintain a structure to absorb the students without scrambling for services for them.

That means flooding the school with a stable team of adults. Some classes have two teachers — one with special education certification — for Integrated Co-Teaching, and others have paraprofessionals on hand to support inclusion students from the District 75 school. Teachers work together each week to brainstorm ways to serve students.

It also means being able to sustain a consistent spread of students by past academic performance. The school uses the “educational option” approach to make sure about two-thirds of each entering class performed close to average on middle school exams, and the rest of the students are evenly divided among high and low performers.

Once accepted, students are divvied up into three “small learning communities,” with the District 75 school making up an unofficial fourth SLC. Each community includes an even proportion of students by past performance, and each has three classes of 34 students.

In each community, the three classes offer different services. In integrated co-teaching classes, about 10 of the 34 students has special needs and many of them were in self-contained special education classes at their past schools. A second class offers Special Education Teacher Support Services, a type of small-group support that happens multiple periods a week for the eight or so students whose IEP mandates it. And a third class boasts inclusion for a handful of District 75 students such as Alphonse. (QHST shares the costs of serving the District 75 students, but their performance counts only for Q811.)

That means there’s not a single classroom at QHST that doesn’t have students with special needs. Every student and teacher is involved in inclusion.

Parents say the effect is positive for all students. Sandra Dastagirzada, the PTA president, is gearing up to send her third child to the school. She said that her older son, a strong student now pursuing medicine, benefitted from working with mixed-ability classmates.

“He was helping other kids who were not doing as well and he was still being enriched by the students he was helping,” she said.

But inclusion doesn’t always mean everyone always feels included. Even with intentional structures, staff, and leadership, the school’s arrangement can still be an adjustment for students — in both general and special education — who have never been mixed before.

That became clear to Alphonse as she tackled a project in her senior seminar this year. The assignment was to make a presentation about a day in the life of a QHST student, and while putting hers together, Alphonse realized that her day was not quite typical. She added pictures to her presentation of District 75 students sitting separately in the cafeteria and walking alone in the hallways and juxtaposed them with photographs of general education students eating in groups and chattering together. She was making the case that inclusion is more than just being educated side-by-side — it should also mean being treated like a regular kid by other kids.

After Alphonse delivered her presentation the first time, teachers started bringing their advisory groups for encore presentations. Now, Alphonse is making weekly presentations within the school. Over the summer, Cho plans to have incoming ninth-graders watch the presentation, too.

The presentation kicks off with a warning: “This film may cause your heart to overflow.” Pictures illustrate Alphonse and other District 75 students doing things that all students do: playing video games, dining out, shopping.

“So, tell me why can’t we be friends?” the presentation asks.

On a Thursday in late March, Alphonse posed that question to a few dozen QHST juniors. When the powerpoint finished, Alphonse addressed her audience. “So can you guys try to make a change?”

When her classmates’ response was a quiet “yes” in unison, Alphonse pressed on. “And what are those types of changes?”

An Adidas-clad junior said, “I promise to start talking to people in wheelchairs.”

“But we’re not all in wheelchairs, you know,” Alphonse replied. She said other students’ simple efforts “really would make the world a better place.”

That’s a message that underlies the school as it pushes students to grow academically and interpersonally — and aims to lift the stigma of disability.

“All students benefit from learning how to respect, understand and accept all students, regardless of ability or disability,” Cho said.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.