First Person

When teaching students with special needs, special training isn’t everything

For most of my teaching career, I have spent part of each day teaching students in a setting called 12:1, with one special education teacher and 12 students with special needs. Over time, I have lost faith in the effectiveness of this approach.

For most students with special needs, I’ve come to see integrated classes taught by two teachers as the best approach, because it gives them access to teachers with deep content knowledge and sends a clear message that all students, regardless of ability, can strive to meet high standards.

Recent special education reform efforts in New York City are a step in the right direction. Under the reforms, rolled out citywide in 2012, schools are expected to place students with special needs in the least restrictive environment possible, so that they are in classes with typically developing peers when they can be. But even two years into the reforms, too many students are still being placed in 12:1 when they could learn more in integrated classes.

The benefit of separating students with special needs in a 12:1 setting ostensibly lies in greater individualized attention, thanks to a lower teacher-student ratio. Yet this idyllic vision, in my experience, rarely matches the reality.

Here’s the vision of a self-contained classroom I once pictured:

  • The teacher quietly conferences and redirects each individual student throughout the lesson
  • Students work in a safe and supportive atmosphere where they can concentrate and focus
  • Students receive instruction catered to their individual needs

Here’s the reality:

  • The teacher puts out one social-emotional fire after another
  • Students bear the stigma of their “special” status on their shoulders every day
  • Instruction in core content areas tends towards remediation rather than challenge

Why the difference?

In my experience, students are highly aware of their status as being in a “separate” or “special” class, as are their peers. This burden, in addition to the myriad emotional and psychological burdens they may already be experiencing, can make them more volatile or even fatalistic when faced with academic challenges.

When we segregate students based on “abnormal” or “below average” functioning, we send them the message that their differences necessitate failure. When we include all students together, we send them—all of them—the message that failure is a normal function of differences and high standards.

There are, certainly, students who are better served in a smaller, self-contained setting. As the IEP teacher and district representative at my school, I have and will continue to recommend 12:1 for some students when it matches their needs, which are measured in part by school psychologist-administered tests. Cognitively and emotionally, a small percentage of children do need separate classrooms or schools.

But I don’t believe that this is true for the majority of students, even for those who may be “borderline” in cognitive functioning or who might demonstrate fairly challenging behaviors in the classroom. That’s because when students with special needs learn in a self-contained setting, they often miss the chance to work with the teachers they really need: the ones who know their content best, and who can break concepts down to their core components.

Training in how specifically to work with students with special needs—what many people think those who teach those students most need—doesn’t have a significant impact unless paired with deep content knowledge.

In my current job, I almost always teach English, the subject area I know the most about. But imagine that I were given a math class to teach next year filled with “gifted” students. Since I don’t understand math very deeply, I would probably teach them procedural math, as in, here are the steps for how to solve this type of problem.

Because this group of students would have a fairly strong base in math already, they’d be able to follow the steps just fine. Maybe they would even figure out for themselves more or less how to apply the same steps to similar types of problems. A few of them might go further and determine some underlying concepts on their own.

These students would do O.K. They would do even better with an amazing math teacher who could push them to the next level. But it’s unlikely that they would fail, or feel completely inadequate, or end up held back a grade if I were their teacher, even though I don’t thoroughly understand math.

But put me in front of students who struggle to retain information, generalize concepts, and negotiate multi-step procedures, and it’s an entirely different ball game. They don’t need me. They need the best math teacher out there, a math teacher who knows how to approach mathematical concepts from different angles. They need a teacher who can break each concept down for them, and help them to feel the first glimmers of success in gaining a real mathematical understanding.

That’s because a procedure that might seem “easy” to me, such as subtracting nine from 26, can be abstract and daunting for someone lacking a strong foundation in numeracy. A good teacher can break such a problem down by helping his or her students understand place value, then providing consistent opportunities to apply that understanding so that students begin to use the concept more fluently.

I’m not suggesting that students with special needs be tossed into general education classrooms without additional support. Even the best teachers can’t necessarily do it alone, particularly with a class that includes students with significant behavioral or academic challenges.

The idea of integrated co-teaching classes is that we support students with two teachers in the room: the general education teacher with deep subject-specific knowledge, and the special education teacher with experience in delivering individualized attention and supports. (Neither teacher need follow this archetype, of course—sometimes it ends up the other way around!)

A lot depends on those two teachers’ styles, experiences, and knowledge, and how well they work together. But generally speaking (and without any rose-tinted glasses on), two professionals working together have greater potential to meet the needs of students of students who struggle.

As teachers, you have the advantage of two sets of eyes on students throughout a lesson. You have a colleague to bounce ideas and feedback off of, someone to ease the burden of planning and grading. And students have models before them every day of the sort of collaboration that you wish them to emulate.

This approach, like many interventions, costs money. It requires commitments of funding and of leadership, as well as close attention to scheduling, hiring, and collaborative planning. But if we are truly committed to the values and benefits of inclusion, then this is what it takes.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.