Special Education

Team Teaching Key to Turnaround

By Christina A. Samuels — June 19, 2007 5 min read
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If student data guide the ship at the North East Independent School District here, teachers are the invaluable crew.

In just five years, the district’s percentage of students in special education has plunged, the number of students spending time in restrictive settings has dropped dramatically, and academic performance among special education students has risen.

Administrators say the improvement could not have happened without the professional partnerships teachers have forged.

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For instance, at the 830-student Nimitz Middle School, 87 percent of the students are Hispanic, 86 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, 13 percent are eligible for special education services—and none spends the full school day in a special education classroom.

“This is really a passion of mine,” Principal Thalia B. Chaney said. The special education students “are getting the same instructon as all kids,” she said. “They’re not isolated.”

One of the support programs at the school is Redirection, which the district started four years ago in its middle schools. It has since spread to elementary and high schools, and was honored in 2005 as a “promising practice” by the state.

Designed for special education students who need behavioral support, it assigns a teacher to check in with them each day as they move from class to class.

If a behavior issue starts to bubble up that the classroom teacher cannot handle, she can page the Redirection teacher and a paraeducator who works with the program. Often, the pair can short-circuit a problem and get a child back in class. If not, the child can spend the class period in the Redirection classroom.

Ivette Calzada is the Redirection teacher at Nimitz. The walls of her cozy classroom are covered with information, from behavior expectations on one large sheet of paper to a grid showing every class the 11 students in the program were attending. An “exchange store” in one corner allows students to exchange points they earn for good behavior for items such as free computer time, and coupons for free pizza and McDonald’s meals.

Ms. Calzada keeps track of all her students’ homework assignments and maintains a spreadsheet of every contact she has that involves her charges, from a parent conference to a 15-minute chat with a teacher in the hall.

“Even though I have a room here,” she said, “we’re very involved with what they’re doing out there.”

Initial Fears

When Paula Durocher, a special education teacher, and Julie Funk, a regular education teacher, started working together in a 1st grade classroom, both admit they had fears.

Ms. Funk had never worked extensively with special education students; she was used to a teacher picking them up and taking them for part of the day to special “resource” classes. Ms. Durocher, accustomed to working with students in a special education setting, was worried that she might not be able to teach the lessons in a regular 1st grade class.

But their co-teaching has worked out so well that it’s now the model used throughout their 810-student school, Woodstone Elementary. And along the way, Ms. Funk and Ms. Durocher say, they’ve learned something about their special education students, who have achieved at unexpectedly high levels.

About a quarter of the 20 or so 1st graders in their classroom have special needs, such as those arising from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and behavioral disorders. One of the keys to success, the teachers have found, is carefully selecting the other students. They need to be excellent role models, both in behavior and in speech, since many of the students with special needs have speech deficits, Ms. Durocher said.

The two teachers work together closely on lessons, often dividing the classroom and the special education students into two small groups that each teacher can lead. The approach helps them catch any general education students who might be slipping behind. During the time they have been co-teaching, test scores of regular education children have increased, and several of the students in special education have ended the year reading on grade level, they say.

Another major ingredient of their success is administrative support, both teachers say. They were allowed to build the program in “baby steps,” as Ms. Funk puts it.

“There are still a lot of districts that are isolating special education students,” she said. “I would never, ever feel right about going back to that.”

Whole-School Approach

Victoria Martinez, a special education teacher, also is part of a co-teaching model at 640-student Olmos Elementary. Unlike the teachers at Woodstone Elementary, she moves among three 5th grade classrooms every day, providing support to teachers and bolstering lessons for students in special education classrooms.

During the 2006-07 school year, she worked with 12 students with special needs, about five of whom she called “high need.”

Before she worked in a co-teaching capacity, Ms. Martinez said, she worked in a self-contained classroom of middle school students who all had special needs. “They fed off each other’s behavior,” she said. “I was babysitting more than I taught.”

Now, she feels that she is helping students with their academic work, as well as providing support. And a behavioral program she introduced this school year has caught on schoolwide.

It began when a teacher came to her last October about three students with behavioral problems.

“It was defiant behavior, talking back—a little bit of attitude,” Ms. Martinez said. Ms. Martinez drew up a contract with the boys, saying that in return for better behavior, they would get a chance to tutor a younger student and certain treats.

Now, 39 children, including many who don’t have disabilities, have contracts through the Owl Pals program. It’s an example of how a program for students in special education can enrich the entire school, Ms. Martinez said. Some asked for treats as varied as eating lunch with the teacher or working with the school janitor as rewards for their good behavior.

Ms. Martinez expanded the program to include lessons on bullying prevention and personal leadership. And, the original students, who at one time might have been referred for special education evaluation, ended up staying in the general education classroom.

“It’s amazing. It gave [students] a purpose,” Ms. Martinez said. “It’s all about expectations.”

Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Education Week as Charting Improvement

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