clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

At the Queens High School of Teaching, a model of inclusion

Like most seniors at the Queens High School of Teaching, Sabrina Alphonse takes a range of academic classes, had a blast on her senior trip, and is starting to plan her future.

But Alphonse is different in one key way: She is not technically a student at the school. Instead, Alphonse, who is wheelchair-bound, attends Q811, the District 75 school for severely disabled students sited on QHST’s campus.

All city schools include students with special needs in some way. Many have self-contained classes that serve only students with disabilities. Others operate some classes where special education and general education teachers work together to serve both kinds of students. But few are “fully inclusive,” as QHST is.

Full inclusion means that every student with special needs who is admitted to QHST is educated in the same classroom as general education students. There are no self-contained classes.

It also means that students such as Alphonse, whose disabilities are so severe that they are enrolled in District 75, taking classes alongside general education students and joining in with all of the QHST’s day-to-day activities, clubs, and programs. About three dozen Q811 students are enrolled in QHST classes, but all of the District 75 school’s students can participate in the high school’s extracurricular activities, and many do.

QHST is not just different because of how it has included students with special needs. Its success with them is also substantially different. Across the city, only a little more than one in four students with special needs graduates from high school in four years. At QHST, it’s well over 70 percent — not far off the school’s overall 88 percent graduation rate.

Laura Rodriguez, the Department of Education’s outgoing deputy chancellor for special education, has hailed the school’s graduation rate, and Nigel Pugh, the former principal, says the school has been singled out for having the smallest graduation rate gap between general education and special education students.

QHST administrators are baffled when they hear school communities sometimes point to oversized special education population as a reason for lagging performance.

“Given what they’re saying, the demographic we have should lead us in one direction, but it’s not,” said Jae Cho, the school’s interim acting principal.

Soon, all schools will look a little more like QHST. The department is in the middle of introducing special education reforms aimed at distributing students with special needs equitably among schools — and encouraging schools to place those students in the “least restrictive environment” they can handle. For many students, that means being included in general education classes for at least some of the school day.

“Their stated goal is not about inclusion, but it is about educating more and more students with disabilities in community schools,” Maggie Moroff, coordinator of the ARISE Coalition of special education advocacy groups, said about the Department of Education. “The way it’s playing out, it looks like there will be less self-contained [classes] and more inclusion for greater access to the academic curriculum.”

The shift is likely to be challenging for schools that are used to handing off disabled students after explaining that they can’t meet the students’ needs. Some educators and parents are complaining that the shift is motivated by finances — it costs less to include students than keep them in self-contained classes — rather than by what’s best for students or schools.

“For schools that don’t have structures in place, it’s a shift in thinking,” said Cho.

Moroff said inclusion can’t succeed unless schools have extra resources, administrative support, and “continuing, ongoing, at-the-elbow professional development.”

But she said it is worthy work. “Life is inclusive,” she said. “Or should be.”

This was the belief Pugh emphasized when he founded QHST in 2003. “The question is: Do you value these kids?” he said recently, speaking from his new office at the Department of Education’s central administration, where he is helping roll out the new special education reforms.

In addition partnering with Q811, the District 75 school, from its opening day, QHST made it a custom to recruit eighth-graders with special needs.

And even after a large number were admitted through the regular high school admissions process, Pugh sought out more. The first time Pugh called the department’s central enrollment office, the person who answered the phone thought he was calling to complain about how many special education students he was assigned. He was so used to hearing principals resist that he just assumed Pugh was doing the same, Pugh recalled.

But Pugh had realized that more students with Individualized Education Plans could be a boon to his fledging school: They brought with them additional funds. About 10 students with IEPs would buy a special education teacher, Pugh calculated. Then he set out to play the numbers game.

“If I want to fund a robust program, I need more students,” he said. “The more kids you have, the bigger the budget will be for special education and the better services you’ll be able to offer.”

Now, the school maintains a special education enrollment rate of about 20 percent — with about 16 percent of students on QHST’s roll and the balance Q811 students who are included. The consistency allows the school to maintain a structure to absorb the students without scrambling for services for them.

That means flooding the school with a stable team of adults. Some classes have two teachers — one with special education certification — for Integrated Co-Teaching, and others have paraprofessionals on hand to support inclusion students from the District 75 school. Teachers work together each week to brainstorm ways to serve students.

It also means being able to sustain a consistent spread of students by past academic performance. The school uses the “educational option” approach to make sure about two-thirds of each entering class performed close to average on middle school exams, and the rest of the students are evenly divided among high and low performers.

Once accepted, students are divvied up into three “small learning communities,” with the District 75 school making up an unofficial fourth SLC. Each community includes an even proportion of students by past performance, and each has three classes of 34 students.

In each community, the three classes offer different services. In integrated co-teaching classes, about 10 of the 34 students has special needs and many of them were in self-contained special education classes at their past schools. A second class offers Special Education Teacher Support Services, a type of small-group support that happens multiple periods a week for the eight or so students whose IEP mandates it. And a third class boasts inclusion for a handful of District 75 students such as Alphonse. (QHST shares the costs of serving the District 75 students, but their performance counts only for Q811.)

That means there’s not a single classroom at QHST that doesn’t have students with special needs. Every student and teacher is involved in inclusion.

Parents say the effect is positive for all students. Sandra Dastagirzada, the PTA president, is gearing up to send her third child to the school. She said that her older son, a strong student now pursuing medicine, benefitted from working with mixed-ability classmates.

“He was helping other kids who were not doing as well and he was still being enriched by the students he was helping,” she said.

But inclusion doesn’t always mean everyone always feels included. Even with intentional structures, staff, and leadership, the school’s arrangement can still be an adjustment for students — in both general and special education — who have never been mixed before.

That became clear to Alphonse as she tackled a project in her senior seminar this year. The assignment was to make a presentation about a day in the life of a QHST student, and while putting hers together, Alphonse realized that her day was not quite typical. She added pictures to her presentation of District 75 students sitting separately in the cafeteria and walking alone in the hallways and juxtaposed them with photographs of general education students eating in groups and chattering together. She was making the case that inclusion is more than just being educated side-by-side — it should also mean being treated like a regular kid by other kids.

After Alphonse delivered her presentation the first time, teachers started bringing their advisory groups for encore presentations. Now, Alphonse is making weekly presentations within the school. Over the summer, Cho plans to have incoming ninth-graders watch the presentation, too.

The presentation kicks off with a warning: “This film may cause your heart to overflow.” Pictures illustrate Alphonse and other District 75 students doing things that all students do: playing video games, dining out, shopping.

“So, tell me why can’t we be friends?” the presentation asks.

On a Thursday in late March, Alphonse posed that question to a few dozen QHST juniors. When the powerpoint finished, Alphonse addressed her audience. “So can you guys try to make a change?”

When her classmates’ response was a quiet “yes” in unison, Alphonse pressed on. “And what are those types of changes?”

An Adidas-clad junior said, “I promise to start talking to people in wheelchairs.”

“But we’re not all in wheelchairs, you know,” Alphonse replied. She said other students’ simple efforts “really would make the world a better place.”

That’s a message that underlies the school as it pushes students to grow academically and interpersonally — and aims to lift the stigma of disability.

“All students benefit from learning how to respect, understand and accept all students, regardless of ability or disability,” Cho said.

Help Chalkbeat raise $80k by Dec 31

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom filling a vital community need. We could not do this without you, and we need your support to keep going in 2022.

Sign up for the newsletter Chalkbeat New York

Sign up for our newsletter.