Special Report

Special Intervention

By Joetta L. Sack — January 08, 2004 8 min read
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The assignment looks simple for an 11th grader: Learn to use a weekly planner to write down homework assignments, with common abbreviations and teachers’ shorthand. But this special education class, dubbed “Strategies for Success,” may give the four Cabrillo High School students and their peers here the boost they need to perform well on state tests--and earn high school diplomas.

Long Beach school leaders know that to meet state and federal accountability requirements, students with disabilities must have access to the general curriculum. But rather than just plop the teenagers into regular education classes, educators here realize they must also provide extra supports and services outside those classes.

The Strategies for Success class is part of a much larger undertaking to help all students with disabilities, from mild to severe, meet state standards and perform at levels once thought to be unreachable. Last school year, the district began trying out an intensive intervention program for its students with mild to moderate disabilities. Already, it is seeing promising test scores.

“We want a quality inclusion program, not just saying they’re going to be included,” explains Erin Reid, the 97,000-student district’s special education curriculum leader.

Located on a former naval base in a blighted neighborhood, Cabrillo High School is a medley of contemporary buildings scattered across a pristine, 63-acre campus. It’s served this neighborhood on the west side of Long Beach for only a few years, and at first, families were reluctant to have their children attend. Now, though, Cabrillo High has attracted not only students from the neighborhood who had transferred to other schools in the district or dropped out, but also a handful of students from other schools who were attracted to its special education services. Enrollment swelled this school year to just over 3,200 students, a population that is predominantly Hispanic and African-American. About a third are English-language learners, and about two-thirds qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.

In an attempt to elevate its state test scores and meet federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act, the district has overhauled its curriculum and put in place intensive mathematics and reading classes for older students, both in specia land in general education, who have fallen far behind their peers. Several classes, for instance, are following the Lindamood Bell program’s strategies for reading intervention. That curriculum uses phonemic awareness (the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds that make up words), symbol imagery, and concept-imagery techniques to help students who are reading below a 4th grade level and have language-processing problems that interfere with their abilities to decode written material and understand what they are reading.

Strategies for Success classes were set up after district administrators looked at the state test scores of their students with disabilities and noticed that between 50 percent and 70 percent of them were failing, even though they were receiving extra instruction outside of class from special education teachers.

The problem, the administrators discerned, was that the supplemental special education instruction did not match the curriculum being taught in the general education classes. Quite simply, the special education teachers didn’t know what was being taught during regular classroom instruction, because of a lack of communication.

Now, district officials say, students with disabilities are fully included in regular classes, and special education teachers are trained to reinforce the same assignments during their time with students. All teachers, both general and special educators, attend the same professional- development seminars as well.

“This district has gone a long way in making sure we’re all sitting at the table together,” says Judy Elliott, the district’s assistant superintendent for special education. “Nowhere else I’ve ever been has special education been at the table, and in this district, special education is at the table.”

Teaching to the Test

In the Strategies for Success classroom, students’ assignments from their regular classes hang on the bulletin boards, so that special education teachers will have accurate assignments for every student.

The four students in this second-period class for juniors dutifully follow teacher Rick Lamprecht’s instructions to copy abbreviations for common terms such as “algebra” and “paragraph” into sample planners. Lamprecht stops to explain the crucial distinction between commas and dashes when using numbers. Doing problems “29, 42" is not the same as completing problems “29-42,” he notes.

“It’s the end of a class, and your teacher says, ‘Do the questions on Page 203.’ How do you write that?” Lamprecht asks. “If a teacher doesn’t say, you have to assume it’s the whole page.”

The students’ general education teachers also fill out an evaluation on each student every two weeks to alert the special education teacher to any problems.

In addition, the school offers a wide range of intensive classes to teach reading and mathematics to students who have not mastered those subjects. Elliott says the district is hoping to phase out those high school classes over time. But for now, there are too many students who did not receive enough instruction in earlier grades.

Initially, teachers had to persuade students they needed the remedial classes. Lamprecht notes that the threat of the California exit exam--which was scheduled to go into effect this school year but has been postponed until 2006--proved to many that they needed the extra help.

Teachers regularly remind students that they will be tested. In one remedial-algebra class, teacher Tanya Boulton reviews word problems that her students missed on the last quiz. As her class struggles to figure out which numbers to add in a basic multiple-choice question, she realizes they’ve added the wrong numbers and chosen the wrong answer. She methodically explains why their answer was incorrect.

“They’ll do that on the test, to try to throw you off,” Boulton warns.

It’s a huge challenge, she says later, to teach a class in which students have so many different skill levels. Often, she divides the class into small groups and focuses on teaching basic concepts that students may be able to apply on the state assessments.

“If we prepare enough, they’ll be OK with it,” she says.

The district is intent on teaching to high standards, says Reid, the district’s special education curriculum leader. Administrators have posted copies of the state academic-content standards in each class, even in the self-contained classes for students with severe disabilities.

“Everything here is based on assessments,” Reid says. “If it’s not in the standards, we don’t teach it.”

The district achieved its goal of “adequate yearly progress,” as required under the No Child Left Behind law, for special education this year. None of its high schools met that mark, however, because of low test-participation rates.

While some students express trepidation about annual testing and having those tests count toward the school’s progress under the No Child Left Behind law, others say they can see the benefits.

“Testing makes you smarter,” says Walter Williams, a senior who is taking the Strategies for Success class. “If you take a test, and it’s real hard, it makes you achieve more.” Yet while school and district administrators believe the program is working, some wrinkles still must be ironed out.

Cynthia Terry, Cabrillo High’s co-principal, says she’s had a tough time persuading some general education teachers to embrace the effort. The school has used state money for underperforming schools to provide intensive professional development so that teachers work together better, she adds.

It’s also been tough getting some parents involved. Terry says the school rarely has contact with the parents of about one-third of its special education students, even though parents’ voices are crucial in crafting their children’s individualized education plans, or IEPs.

Testing makes you smarter. If you take a test, and it’s real hard, it makes you achieve more.

“The IEP at the high school level is very difficult,” says the administrator, who wants teachers to forge good relationships with parents early, so that families will seek out the school even when their children aren’t having problems.

But one parent, Luz Guzman, whose daughter is in a self-contained classroom, says through an interpreter that she sometimes has a tough time getting in touch with school administrators because the front-office employees do not speak Spanish.

Parent Satisfaction

Cabrillo High officials still try to include special education students in regular classes for as much of the day as possible. Andrew Gilman, who has autism, is among them. On a sunny fall morning here, he sits in a crowded geometry classroom and sketches out a crossword puzzle to learn some of the basic vocabulary and definitions.

As he carefully traces the lines on grid paper, his teacher, Charma Adams, says he has a hard time keeping up with his classmates. She doubts that he’ll be able to pass the state math exam, but she thinks he’ll be able to grasp at least some of the foundations of the subject.

His mother, Ginny Gilman, says she believes Andrew is learning more at Cabrillo than when he was in fully inclusive classes in elementary and middle schools. “The atmosphere here is, the teachers are willing to modify assignments and assist the kids,” she says. “I’m very impressed with the attitude of the school and its willingness to adapt.”

Other parents also talk enthusiastically about the program. Linda Martinez thought her son, who’s now in 12th grade at Cabrillo, was falling through the cracks at his middle school. “Once he got to Cabrillo, they really worked with me and my son,” she says.

Guzman says her daughter, Johanna, also has progressed, because the school has set high standards and allowed her to interact with some higher-level students. Johanna used to attend a self-contained school that did not allow her those opportunities, Guzman explains.

“Now, everything is different,” she says. “Over there, she didn’t want to get better because everyone was lower than her. Now, she’s sociable, and has friends who she can talk to and laugh with.”

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See also: Visions of the Possible

No Separate Room

Teaching in Tandem
A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2004 edition of Education Week


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