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School Climate & Safety Opinion

How Our District Reimagined Special Education

By Steve Sandoval — September 16, 2019 4 min read
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It is often said that fixing special education starts with fixing general education. I appreciate the sentiment. However, this kind of language makes it sound as if special education were separate and apart from general education. It demonstrates how deeply rooted we are in our current paradigms and how far we are from making any kind of meaningful change across the K-12 landscape. The truth is the line drawn between special and general education is already blurred. Just consider the variety of approaches used to educate students with disabilities when they are in the same classroom as their non-disabled peers.

Ideally, we would have one nimble education system equipped to naturally serve all students, be they impoverished, English-learners, disabled, average, or on an accelerated learning plan. But sometimes we educators make schooling so complicated without considering the welfare of our children. Students just want to go to school to learn from high-quality teachers, to feel safe, and to make friends. Parents want this, too. Why shouldn’t this—a nimble education system that serves all our students—be our goal, too?

At Westminster public schools in Colorado, where I serve as the executive director of Special Services for 19 schools and nearly 10,000 students, we are attempting to do just that. In 2008, the district began its transformation into a competency-based system—a system instrumental for moving us up two levels on the state’s five-level performance scale, from the lowest designation of “turnaround” in 2008 to “priority improvement” in 2011, and now to “improvement” since 2018. We are energized to dedicate the hard work needed to become a “performance” and then “distinguished” district next.

Our system applies the many positive tenets of special and gifted education to all students."

We became a competency-based system by removing grade levels and traditional letter grades, replacing them with performance levels and performance scores. This enables our students to move to the next performance level once they demonstrate competency. And it also means that our students—be they high-ability or learning disabled—can progress naturally at their own pace with the right learning supports from classroom teachers and interventionists. Our system applies the many positive tenets of special and gifted education to all students, effectively making the line between these traditionally rigid and siloed systems less discernible. Our instructional model is based on the same research-based practices for all students, regardless of their performance level.

We have also relied on proven and widely accepted strategies to ensure that we are setting our students up for success. Here are a few examples:

High-quality instruction. We can all agree that high-quality teaching matters most, whether our educators are specialists, interventionists, or classroom teachers. As our district challenged the distinction between special and general education, we set a districtwide tone that we need to be supporting students’ needs, not the labels attached to them. We see our young people as individuals, not slow, gifted, disabled, low income, or English-language learners.

The school experience is normalized for our students through assistive technology, such as text readers and word-prediction writing programs, that allow them to access core content in the classroom. Most students with disabilities advance in the same manner as their non-disabled peers, and we have removed the stigmatizing experience that learning in isolation has for them. No student, regardless of disability status, is removed from regular core-content instruction. Instead, most struggling learners receive a double-dose of core content through intervention support, mostly inside their regular classroom or during a 45-minute intervention block. Our interventionists, including special educators, language specialists, and Title I teachers, use both precision teaching and data monitoring methods to close performance gaps.

School safety. A core tenet of our approach to competency-based education requires schools to have at least one mental-health interventionist on staff responsible for addressing the range of mild to severe trauma that can impede student functioning. These interventionists also lead schoolwide behavioral initiatives, including bullying reduction and positive behavior supports. And since each of our schools has different community priorities and needs, bullying reduction initiatives don’t always look the same from school to school. But each must address bullying at three levels: school culture and climate, prevention, and remediation.

We also collaborate with the Community Reach Center, our local counseling agency, which places several school-based therapists to help address the most significant mental-health needs of our students.

Social-emotional learning. Over the last two years, all teachers and interventionists in our district have begun using Kagan Structures—a cooperative learning system that seeks to improve classroom climate and student engagement. These “structures” involve all students in the classroom lesson, not just the few students who tend to monopolize class participation. This gives every student the opportunity to practice essential communication skills with each other every day. These structures work together with the district’s creation of a set of social-emotional-learning skills expected of all students, which provides an overview of the key ingredients necessary for students to build successful relationships and lifelong success. These expectations—codified as the “Habits for a Successful Personalized Learner"—help develop self-management skills, reflective learning, team work, effective participation, and setting future goals.

We should not be thinking in terms of “fixing” special education or even general education. The single most powerful and effective practice we can pursue is to see each child as an individual and to serve them accordingly. As long as this happens, we can do little wrong by our students.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2019 edition of Education Week as Special and General Education Should Be One Nimble System

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