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The Special Education Reforms From A Student’s Perspective

Growing up with a disability, I am very familiar with the term “special ed.” I am also aware that the phrase “special education” has a negative connotation.

I remember an incident in middle school where one of my math teachers wrote on the board, “All special ed students will report to room 420 for the state exam.”

Another student who was in special education screamed out, “Don’t call us special ed!”

This incident shows the struggle with identity that students who need Integrated Co-Teaching often find themselves in. (An ICT classroom contains a mixture of students with disabilities and nondisabled students. There are two teachers, one licensed in the general education content area and the other licensed in special education who is responsible for working with students with disabilities.) Many students do not want to be considered any different from our non-disabled peers, but the fact is we are different.

Citywide, the graduation rate for students with disabilities is around 30 percent while the graduation rate for nondisabled students is over 60 percent. The statistics suggest that just because I have a disability, I am half as likely to graduate.

I attend NYC Lab School, a selective high school that is located in Chelsea and was an early adopter of the inclusion model. During my freshman year at Lab, I received a letter during homeroom. The letter said that my school had been selected to participate in the Phase 1 of the Department of Education’s special education reforms. At the time, I didn’t know much about the reforms or how I would be affected.

But during my sophomore year of high school, I realized the benefits of the reforms, which aim to push schools to integrate students with disabilities more often and in more substantive ways.

In my school, only a handful special education students decide to take more than one year of foreign language because the advanced courses do not offer the same level of support, but I knew that I wanted to continue taking Spanish. Participating in the pilot of the reform caused my school to look at special education as a service and not just a place and because of this I was able to request that my Spanish class be supported with an ICT teacher. Knowing that this Spanish class would be ICT-supported allowed my classmates with disabilities and I to be comfortable with taking on the risk of continuing our Spanish studies.

This year, I was able to challenge myself in Advanced Placement U.S. history and Advanced Placement English language and composition because of the special education reforms. Before the reform, students with disabilities were often excluded from taking AP courses because these classes were not always supported with a special education teacher. Now, many schools, including mine, are starting to think flexibly about how to support students with disabilities who want to challenge themselves.

For example, this year at my school juniors who need ICT support were enrolled in an advanced English course that had a special education teacher as well as an English teacher. But any student who wanted to challenge themselves by the taking an Advanced Placement course could sign up for a weekly seminar that allowed us to go beyond the standard curriculum. The AP component was taught by the general education teacher who collaborated with the special education teacher to make sure that the AP curriculum was manageable for all students. This model was extremely successful and encouraged more students with disabilities to take the AP component. Next year, the school has decided to move the AP U.S. history classes onto this model as well. This probably would not have happened without the special education reforms.

Like any movement, the special education reform has attracted some skepticism. Some might fear that the inclusion of students with disabilities could delay the progress of nondisabled students or that teachers have not been properly trained. But as the student representative to the Citywide Council on Special Education, I know that the Department of Education has been holding workshops weekly to train teachers and principals in how the reform will work and how to support students with disabilities in their classes and schools. I also know that that training for the reform will continue throughout the summer and for years to come. The reform is constantly evolving and the city is working with advocacy groups to address their concerns.

I feel that anyone who is “putting all students first” should agree with the goal of the special education reforms, which is to “raise the bar for all students.” I applaud Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez; Lauren Katzman, the former executive director for special education; and the Department Of Education for taking the bold step of working to close the achievement gap between disabled and nondisabled students.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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