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Explaining to middle schoolers why fair isn't always equal

School districts around the country are increasingly trying to bring special education students into mainstream classrooms. The challenges this presents — and the possible benefits — were on display last week inside a summer school classroom in the Bronx.

Each summer, the South Bronx’s M.S. 223 brings in as many of its rising sixth-graders as it can find for a “summer bridges” program to smooth their transition into middle school.

This is the first year that the summer program has brought special education students and students learning English together into the mainstream classes.

The city school system as a whole is moving in this direction — this school year, about 200 schools will begin to bring special education students at all levels into regular classes. The following year, all schools will be required to do so. M.S. 223 is not a part of the pilot, but is trying to get a head start.

During the week-long summer session, each day concluded with “team and family time,” where students give thanks or shout-outs as praise to other students, and apologize or call each other out for misbehavior.

In a class taught by Ashley Downs, one girl called out another for relying too heavily during class time on the older M.S. 223 student working as the class’ counselor. “It’s like she wasn’t doing the work herself,” the girl complained.

“Well, let’s talk about this,” said Downs. The student called out has a severe learning disability, and during the school year she will work with a paraprofessional assigned exclusively to her. Without telling the students that, Downs convinced them that it’s okay for some students to receive more help sometimes.

“One of the things I like to say is, what’s fair isn’t always equal and what’s equal isn’t always fair,” Downs said.

She guided the students through a thought experiment. If she put a piece of candy on the top of a tall bookshelf and asked the tallest and shortest students in the class to get it, that would be equal but unfair. If the shorter student got a boost up, that wouldn’t be equal, but it would be fair.

So it should be in school, Downs said. “We want to make sure in all of your classrooms that everything is fair,” she said.

“There might come a time in your class when one person seems to be getting a lot of help and you might seem like you’re not getting any help at all,” Downs told the students. “And hopefully it’s because your teacher has thought about that and is doing it on purpose.”

Downs is the head of M.S. 223’s special education department, and later she said that moment in class encouraged her. The students not only seemed to accept her lesson, but several then pointed out that the disabled student had earlier in the session earned shout-outs for her creativity and perseverance.

That the disabled student was not only able to work in the larger classroom, but thrive and be accepted by her classmates — in spite of the rough patch — was a sign that the school would be able to meet the challenges of integrating its students with special needs.

“We want to make sure that it’s not a shock when we do this because it’s mandated,” Downs said. “This has shown me that we are ready for this change.”

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