The American education system has a long list of programs intended to serve students who need something more from teachers than standard instruction. There are trained special educators for students whose disabilities get in the way of their learning. There are special programs for English-language learners, gifted-education services for academically talented children, and targeted funds to support schools educating high numbers of children living in poverty.
But what about the homeless child who also needs special education services? The student caught in the juvenile justice system? The immigrant child living in fear of deportation?
These are arguably among the school system’s most vulnerable students.
In this special report, Education Week takes a close look at these students, their needs, and the challenges schools face in engaging them in learning.
Take, for example, the young woman whose expressive face graces the cover of this report. Willow, whose last name is being withheld in this report, attended—and cut class—in five different regular, alternative, and online schools in her freshman year. She eventually landed in the Wyoming Girls School, a juvenile justice facility in Sheridan, Wyo. Now with a high school equivalency certificate in hand and a scheduled release later this spring, Willow credits the teachers in her prison school with providing the encouragement she never got in the regular school system.
Education Week visited Willow’s school to examine the state of education—and teaching—for the nation’s 50,000 students living behind bars, a population that experts say is often “invisible” in national discussions about improving education.
Indeed, many of the populations examined in this report are hidden—sometimes intentionally so. Students whose families face deportation may not want to share their fears or discuss their home situations with their teachers. And, even though 18 percent of the nation’s homeless students also have disabilities, their learning needs often get lost, disrupted, or postponed as they shuffle from school to school. For similar reasons, the college potential of students in the foster-care system is often unrecognized by both educators and the students themselves.
As Jean Peterson, a Purdue University researcher who studies gifted children who have been through trauma, put it: “A lot of kids in the system don’t see themselves as ‘bright.’ Their intelligence might be put to surviving—getting groceries, taking care of younger siblings.
“Educators need to point out to them, ‘You have not had the easiest life, but look at all you’ve done.’”
For the educators working with student groups profiled in this report, that advice might have wide application.
A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Educating Students Who Are ‘Invisible’