By: Genevieve Thomas, Rocketship’s Director of Integrated Special Education. She’ll be speaking on this topic at the California Charter Schools conference in 2014.
A school’s community values become clear by how it decides to educate its students with special needs. It’s far too easy to move students who need extra help into a separate space. But little good comes from keeping students apart. For students who have special needs, simply being included in a traditional classroom could be the key to academic success.
Traditionally, public schools have placed children with special learning or behavioral needs in separate classrooms first and then looked for opportunities to include them in the general education program later. At Rocketship Education, our approach is the opposite. We start with the assumption that all of our kids can be in their general education classroom for the entire day. Then, students are brought out for specialized instruction when their unique learning needs require it. Technology, specifically used in our widely-recognized blended learning model, helps make this possible. Based on a student’s individual needs, we may pull them out for targeted support for short periods of time or use a special app on an iPad to address a specific Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goal. This means each student’s day is customized to fit their needs and abilities.
This approach to inclusion is why a growing number of families with special needs children have chosen a Rocketship school.
I started my teaching career as a very traditional special education high school teacher in Los Angeles. Many of my students had been isolated in special day classes from their typically-developing peers since third or fourth grade. By the time they were in high school, they were so ill-prepared to tackle the social and academic challenges of the general education classroom that, even if there had been opportunities to include them in the traditional school day, the actual act would have been difficult. At that point, there was little I could do to change the trajectory of their post-secondary outcomes, which was incredibly frustrating.
This is typical of many special education programs. Right now, over 35 percent of special education students nationwide spend less than 20 percent of their school day in the same classroom as their peers.
Don’t get me wrong, inclusion is complex. However, it’s important to me to be working in a model where inclusion is non-negotiable. At Rocketship, we roll our sleeves up and do the work to get it done. There isn’t another option.
Welcoming students with special needs into a traditional classroom starts with offering specific tools each student needs to access and benefit from instruction. For example, students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may be given an active seat cushion to help regulate their sensory needs. A student with weak fine motor skills could benefit from having his own Chromebook to use for writing assignments. Students with autism may function better by having an augmentative communication app on a personal iPad, to be used to support functional communication in the classroom.
This year, as part of our blended learning platform, we are implementing a program called eSpark. Each of our schools has iPads that are assigned to students with IEPs in kindergarten through third grade. The iPads are programmed with a suite of apps that are customized based on the student’s unique needs. Individual playlists are automatically created for students, so they go into different apps every day based on their playlist. While eSpark wasn’t designed specifically for special education students, we’re finding that it works well with this student population.
We’re also finding students who enter our inclusion program are making significant academic gains. When Indy enrolled at Rocketship Discovery Prep in third grade, for example, he struggled. Indy is on the autism spectrum and had spent most of his day in his previous school separated from his typically-developing classmates. At the time, Indy was just starting to read basic books and adding numbers to 5. He was far below basic. Today, with the help of our inclusion and blended learning programs, Indy is nearly at grade level in both math and English. He has also become a more confident student who can stay in his seat during class.
Inclusion benefits all students, not just those with special needs. This year, we started a buddy program to foster 1:1 friendships between students with and without developmental disabilities. In one class, two students with special needs have helped the larger group understand how to interact safely and respectfully with others. In December, one of the special needs students, Alan, presented his poetry project from his iPad in front of the whole grade. As a result of the inclusion program, the fellow students were respectful and patient – a heartwarming testament to the influence of the peer buddy program.
In the real world, our children will continuously experience and need to work with people different from themselves. It’s our obligation as educators to prepare all students not only academically but also socially. That work starts through creating a culture and opportunities in which all are welcome.
Genevieve is Rocketship’s Director of Integrated Special Education. Since graduating from the University of Washington, she’s held various roles within special education over almost a decade, including as a school psychologist for Aspire Public Schools and Green Dot Public Schools, and as a special education teacher in Los Angeles. Genevieve has many passions, but when forced to choose, she is caught between finding new ways to be active in the outdoors and finding ways to improve educational opportunities for students with disabilities.