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.”

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.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.