In recent years, our school has been receiving more students with more severe disabilities, in particular students with Autism and Intellectual Disabilities (previously Mental Retardation). Our special education team and instructional staff are unaccustomed to servicing students whose academic and social needs are so different than the already diverse and disparate needs of our population.
There are policy explanations for this shift in our school’s population. In the Fall of 2012, New York City began implementing a new policy called “A Shared Path to Success” that requires all community schools to service incoming students with IEPs, regardless of what services were previously available. In the past, if we had an incoming 9th grader with a “special class” or “self-contained” mandate, we could transfer them to a school that offers that setting and explain that we do not offer it. Now we must use flexible programming to provide our students the services they require regardless of what we did before. Philosophically this seems like the right solution – students with more severe disabilities were being excluded from community schools and their least restrictive environment; now community schools must include them. Logistically, this presents a challenge for Essex – as a small school with small class sizes and lots of individual attention our programming is not as flexible as a large school’s.
Our solution to this problem plays out on a case by case basis. Often we end up negotiating with parents and moving students’ mandates from SC: Special Class to ICT: Integrated Co-Teaching and SETSS: Special Education Teacher Support Services. This only seems like an ethical move if parents and students are on board, which they often are. Their choices are limited: they could settle for lesser services at a school where their child will find a loving and caring community or full services at a large school with archaic models of “inclusion” that rely mostly on separation, or send their student to District 75, which is made up entirely of students with severe special education needs. If our students want to be at our school and our families believe this is the least restrictive environment for their children, then we are legally and ethically obligated to find ways to authentically include those students into our community and instruction. Additionally, these students bring a unique perspective to share with our community that may otherwise not be present. They are bringing the value of their own experiences and they are sweet, thoughtful and lovable people.
This authentic inclusion of our most severely disabled students is our focus as a special education department for this year’s PD. The standard we chose is “How am I supporting students to ‘play the whole game’ (at the junior level)?.” We chose this because we think our role as special educators is to facilitate our students’ participation in the general education curriculum. Usually this means identifying barriers, developing accommodations and occasionally modifying assessments. If we do our jobs well, our students with learning disabilities will play the game at the junior level, alongside their non-disabled peers. Our students with severe disabilities, however, may need some reimagining of (what the whole game is for them). We must do this in a way that is specific to the disability and the individual, to think about their present needs and their post-secondary needs and how their skills will grow through their time at our school. Our Problem of Practice is: How might we authentically include students with severe disabilities so they are academically engaged in their classes and socially engaged in the school community?