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Talking about special education when words fall short

Special education. That phrase — even that very word, “special” — evokes conflicting perspectives, feelings, and experiences, aptly equating with the confounding reality in which special education services themselves often get delivered.

There’s something cloying about the designation of “special,” as if we’re trying to sell something that isn’t quite what we say it is. Like calling tract housing “Castle Cliffs” or “Sunflower Symphony.” Yet everyone accepts it, perhaps because it’s uncomfortable to delve deeper into the term’s underlying reality.

As a special education teacher in my fifth year of teaching, I’d like to tell you exactly what special education means — except I’m not precisely sure myself. In an idealistic sense, it means that the individual needs of a student who has a disability are met by the mandate of a legal document known as an Individualized Education Plan, or an IEP.

Sometimes, it does feel like that’s what we’re doing. But some days, what special education truly seems to entail are endless rounds of tinkering with slow and archaic software in an effort to meet state compliance percentages and ensure adequate funding. Other days, it seems to mean frustrating attempts to collaborate with a set of professionals with unclear roles and varying levels of expertise.

The one thing I can say for sure about special education is that it is something we can do better. Not better simply in terms of rates of compliance, or in terms of the phrasing of IEP goals, but better in terms of the quality and impact of services that we deliver every day in the classroom to students with varying levels of ability, knowledge, and skills.

So I’ll start by sharing with you what my colleagues and I are doing to try to make special education services better in my school, without any presumption that what I am presenting is definitive, exemplary, nor even right.

Over the next few posts, I’ll share some of the practices in development at my school, Jonas Bronck Academy, a public middle school in the Bronx.

I’ll begin by describing a protocol we developed to gather information about students when developing their IEP. Rather than asking each teacher to submit reports, we instead gather as a grade-level team to analyze the student’s work and develop strategies to meet his or her needs.

I’ll explain how we conduct IEP meetings, then I’ll turn my attention to the classroom and introduce a student guide I developed to help students process content and focus on activities during reading lessons. Finally, I’ll dig into a goal-setting process my school uses to address the tension between the individualized goals we set for students and the daily reality within each classroom.

In the absence of any clear guidance in the Wild West known as special education, my hope is that by putting my own travails out there, others may benefit.

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.