expert advice

Students with disabilities to advise state on special education policies

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Leslie Aranjo a Jeffco parent and teacher prepares a protest sign Friday morning. A small group of teachers and parents met at the corner of Kipling Street and Bowles Avenue to raise awareness of their concerns about the school district's board majority.

In high school, Ketrina Hazell often felt forgotten.

Several times, she had to stay behind during class trips because school buses could not accommodate her wheelchair, said Hazell, who has cerebral palsy. The school had no room for her occupational therapist, so they often met in the parent coordinator’s office, which was not outfitted with the necessary equipment, Hazell added. And she spent most days confined to a small, windowless special education classroom.

Eventually, she began to blog, post on social media, and even write letters to lawmakers and the mayor about the struggles of students with disabilities at her Brooklyn school, Teachers Preparatory High School. The advocacy netted some improvements, she said.

“We had to fight for everything we needed,” said Hazell, 19, now a first-year student at Kingsborough Community College. “It was never just given to us.”

Hazell could soon share her story with top state officials, as she is one of several students nominated to join a new panel that will advise the State Education Department’s special education office. The 10 to 15 current or recent high school students will discuss state policies relating to students with disabilities, and also share their recommendations and concerns.

The panelists, who will serve for two years, will be chosen from nominees submitted by advocacy groups and parent centers from around the state. Beginning this spring, they are expected to meet about three times per year, either in Albany or via videoconferencing.

The education department is convening the panel at a time of broad statewide policy changes that families and advocates say have been particularly burdensome for students with disabilities. The changes include schools’ shift to the Common Core learning standards and the transition to tougher high school graduation requirements.

“It’s an important contribution to our policy development and often the way we implement policies to have the perspective of students with disabilities,” said James DeLorenzo, the department’s assistant commissioner for special education. He said panel members would have the added benefit of honing their self-advocacy and leadership skills.

Students on the panel will get to advise education officials as the officials consider tweaking graduation rules for students with disabilities. In recent years, the state overhauled its graduation requirements, which included abolishing a special diploma for students with disabilities while still allowing them to earn lower scores on their exit exams. Advocates say that arrangement creates a two-tiered system and have called for diploma options for all students that require fewer state tests, which state officials are now considering.

Meanwhile, the state is continuing to roll out the more rigorous learning standards and accompanying exams, which many teachers and parents say have been especially challenging for students with disabilities. The state has said it will improve training for special education teachers and apply for a federal waiver that would allow some students with disabilities to take tests matched to their instructional level rather than their age.

Many families have heard about the new standards but are still struggling to understand what they mean for students with disabilities, said Revere Joyce, project coordinator of the parent center within the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled.

“That really hasn’t been fleshed out,” she said. “The Department of Education has a response, but it hasn’t really cut through to their understanding.”

Kathleen Boatwright, who nominated her son, Walter Douglas, for the advisory panel, said parents’ confusion stems from a communication breakdown between the state, city, individual schools, and families.

“There is such a communication lapse,” she said, adding that the panel could be one way to improve relations.

Walter, who is a freshman at Brooklyn’s Transit Tech High School, said that students with disabilities at his school often do not receive all the services stipulated by their learning plans, must attend unproductive group-counseling sessions due a lack of counselors, and sometimes endure bullying. He would like to share these concerns with the state, he said.

“I’m not looking for any award,” said Walter, 14, who has a learning disability. “I’m looking to help kids with disabilities who need help, just like I do, to be treated fair.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”