Opinion
Special Education Commentary

Learning Disabilities Exist, Just Not in Summer School

By Adam Feinberg — June 15, 2017 5 min read

There is a fragile calm in my afternoon, two-hour-long summer school class. I’m talking to a 19-year-old senior. She has been absent for 12 straight days. “I’ve been having lots of family problems,” she explains, along with a brief remark about her struggles with a mental-health issue. While I bring her up to date on the assignment, a student across the room translates work for three recently immigrated Dominican students who have been confused every day of summer school so far. A student with autism plays a math game on a laptop (a solution endorsed by his principal) because he does not understand the assignment about figurative language. In the front, seven students work diligently despite having a 50 percent attendance rate.

Suddenly, a 15-year-old girl stands up, slams her chair onto the floor, and screams at another girl, who reciprocates with insults. I lunge over to hold her back, while a dozen students yell about the almost-fight. Moments later, a dean and the principal burst into the classroom to grab the two students. They pull them out of the room and later decide that they will not be allowed back into summer school this year.

Learning Disabilites Exist, Just Not in Summer School: ELLs and students with disabilities need year-round support

Those five scenarios all happened in my 10 years teaching summer school classes, just not at the same time. A majority of the students in these scenarios show symptoms and evidence of trauma, neglect, literacy struggles, and academic deficiencies that limit their learning. I’ve taught English, U.S. history, and global history at 15 different high schools, as schools often combine for summer classes. At most, 30 percent of the students on my original roster earn a credit, as too many students stop attending class regularly, give up before completing assignments, and ultimately fail to earn credits.

I’ve noticed three structural problems that cause students to fail in the summer. The first is class size and period length. In my experience, summer school rosters begin with 50 to 80 students, way above the average class during the regular school year in New York City, where I teach. These numbers are based on the fact that many students never show up, an assumption that is usually true. However, when 35 to 50 students do show up, and we don’t have enough chairs, a frantic reshuffling ensues. Even with 30 students in attendance, it frustrates those who know they need individual support. These classes are also longer than they are during the school year, in order to give students the necessary seat time for a credit.

In a two-hour class, with 30 students, I can give four minutes of individual attention to each student; but when students wait dozens of minutes for a teacher’s help, they feel lost, discouraged, and frustrated. Consequently, many students slowly stop attending class, don’t work as diligently, and ultimately fail to earn the credits they need. During the regular school year, these problems are mitigated by co-teachers. Which connects to the second problem.

During the summer, we are not required to provide the same services for students with disabilities or English-language learners as we are during the school year. Sometimes, over half my summer school students have individualized education programs requiring two teachers, extended time on assignments, and other supports. On each student’s IEP, there is the option, though, for the student to receive services for 10 months or 12 months. Every single one of my students’ IEPs that I’ve seen has “10 months” checked. This inexplicably assumes that their learning disability is not a hindrance to learning in summer school. And this is just for students at my home school—if we are combining with another high school for the summer, it is rare that I have access to a student’s IEP. Beyond learning issues, students who suffer from emotional disturbance cannot receive mandated counseling. Which is the third problem.

We don’t have guidance counselors or social workers at summer school. Emotional disturbances can be caused by genetics, brain disorders, diet, stressors, abuse, neglect, and much more. Behaviors including hyperactivity, aggression, withdrawal, immaturity, and post-traumatic stress disorder are by no means limited to the months between September and June. Teachers, deans, and administrators cannot provide adequate counseling to prevent or mitigate a student’s emotional outburst, breakdown, or conflict.

Despite our greatest efforts, counseling works best with someone who establishes near unconditional trust. Teachers have to give uncomfortable and sometimes critical feedback, while deans and principals—the first and last lines of defense for student discipline, respectively—have to punish students. So how can we also gain students’ trust to help them deal with their emotions? You can’t make a person feel uncomfortable and then expect unconditional trust—that would be role confusion.

Teachers, deans, and administrators cannot provide adequate counseling to prevent or mitigate a student’s emotional outburst, break down, or conflict."

Social workers and guidance counselors are specifically trained to give these students the right kinds of supports. Without a trusted counselor, students can feel rejected, which results in their shutting down and not learning.

I’m shocked that parents of English-learners or students with IEPs haven’t complained loudly or litigously, because there is clearly evidence that it might be illegal under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to deny students these services during the summer. The result is a lack of learning, roadblocks to accumulating credits, and a failure to graduate in four years.

There’s got to be a better way to make summer school worthwhile for teachers and students. If only a third of the students scheduled for my classes earn passing grades, this is a terrible return on investment for paying teachers and deans to work during the summer. Moreover, when students fall behind and have emotional or social problems, they often don’t finish high school.

If we invested in more teachers and a few counselors year round, I predict more students would attend classes, complete assignments, develop skills, and accrue credits, thus improving the graduation rate. There are many ideas out there for how to improve the pedagogy of summer school, but first we need to replicate those supports that exist during the regular year.

In New York City, schools are legally required to have guidance counselors, social workers, special education teachers, English-as-a-second-language teachers, and paraprofessionals. Those jobs and roles matter. It is unethical, counterproductive, and possibly illegal for students with special learning needs to lack these services. Would you send your own child to a school without guidance counselors, social workers, special education teachers, ESL teachers, or paraprofessionals? If you answered no, then why do we deny these supports during summer school?

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2017 edition of Education Week as Learning Disabilities Exist, Just Not at Summer School

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