First Person

The Special Education Reforms From A Student’s Perspective

Growing up with a disability, I am very familiar with the term “special ed.” I am also aware that the phrase “special education” has a negative connotation.

I remember an incident in middle school where one of my math teachers wrote on the board, “All special ed students will report to room 420 for the state exam.”

Another student who was in special education screamed out, “Don’t call us special ed!”

This incident shows the struggle with identity that students who need Integrated Co-Teaching often find themselves in. (An ICT classroom contains a mixture of students with disabilities and nondisabled students. There are two teachers, one licensed in the general education content area and the other licensed in special education who is responsible for working with students with disabilities.) Many students do not want to be considered any different from our non-disabled peers, but the fact is we are different.

Citywide, the graduation rate for students with disabilities is around 30 percent while the graduation rate for nondisabled students is over 60 percent. The statistics suggest that just because I have a disability, I am half as likely to graduate.

I attend NYC Lab School, a selective high school that is located in Chelsea and was an early adopter of the inclusion model. During my freshman year at Lab, I received a letter during homeroom. The letter said that my school had been selected to participate in the Phase 1 of the Department of Education’s special education reforms. At the time, I didn’t know much about the reforms or how I would be affected.

But during my sophomore year of high school, I realized the benefits of the reforms, which aim to push schools to integrate students with disabilities more often and in more substantive ways.

In my school, only a handful special education students decide to take more than one year of foreign language because the advanced courses do not offer the same level of support, but I knew that I wanted to continue taking Spanish. Participating in the pilot of the reform caused my school to look at special education as a service and not just a place and because of this I was able to request that my Spanish class be supported with an ICT teacher. Knowing that this Spanish class would be ICT-supported allowed my classmates with disabilities and I to be comfortable with taking on the risk of continuing our Spanish studies.

This year, I was able to challenge myself in Advanced Placement U.S. history and Advanced Placement English language and composition because of the special education reforms. Before the reform, students with disabilities were often excluded from taking AP courses because these classes were not always supported with a special education teacher. Now, many schools, including mine, are starting to think flexibly about how to support students with disabilities who want to challenge themselves.

For example, this year at my school juniors who need ICT support were enrolled in an advanced English course that had a special education teacher as well as an English teacher. But any student who wanted to challenge themselves by the taking an Advanced Placement course could sign up for a weekly seminar that allowed us to go beyond the standard curriculum. The AP component was taught by the general education teacher who collaborated with the special education teacher to make sure that the AP curriculum was manageable for all students. This model was extremely successful and encouraged more students with disabilities to take the AP component. Next year, the school has decided to move the AP U.S. history classes onto this model as well. This probably would not have happened without the special education reforms.

Like any movement, the special education reform has attracted some skepticism. Some might fear that the inclusion of students with disabilities could delay the progress of nondisabled students or that teachers have not been properly trained. But as the student representative to the Citywide Council on Special Education, I know that the Department of Education has been holding workshops weekly to train teachers and principals in how the reform will work and how to support students with disabilities in their classes and schools. I also know that that training for the reform will continue throughout the summer and for years to come. The reform is constantly evolving and the city is working with advocacy groups to address their concerns.

I feel that anyone who is “putting all students first” should agree with the goal of the special education reforms, which is to “raise the bar for all students.” I applaud Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez; Lauren Katzman, the former executive director for special education; and the Department Of Education for taking the bold step of working to close the achievement gap between disabled and nondisabled students.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk