First Person

How my school is bringing teachers together to improve students’ IEPs

When I first wrote about special education at my school last week, I said I would describe what my colleagues and I are doing to try to make special education services better at my school, without any presumption that what we’re doing is definitive, exemplary, or even right.

Now I want to get into specifics. To start, I’ll focus on the information-gathering that happens before we develop a student’s individualized education program, or the document that identifies goals for students with special needs and lays out the support they must get to reach those goals. The IEP is typically drafted by a special education teacher assigned to a student’s case (unless the case is an initial, triennial, or reevaluation, in which case it will be drafted by the school psychologist), who then meets with the parent and modifies it with his or her input.

While gathering as much information as possible before writing an IEP seems like common sense and best practice, and many schools go through this process in some form, I have encountered IEPs seemingly written with little direct knowledge of the child.

That problem could arise because case managers have too little knowledge or training to complete the IEP process adequately. But more often, in my experience, the issue is that the traditional method of information gathering is burdensome and unlikely to yield useful results — so at my school, we have worked to revamp that process.

The conventional way of getting information for IEPs is to solicit “teacher reports” about students’ needs and performance, generally by placing a long, complicated form in teacher’s mailboxes. The teacher checks boxes, fills in academic data from tests, grades, and scribbles in anecdotes from his or her classroom, then resubmits the form to the IEP teacher, school assessment team, or whoever is ultimately responsible for drafting the student’s IEP.

As the special education coordinator, I am responsible for ensuring that an IEP accurately depicts a student’s current performance. Unfortunately, the information provided in a teacher report tends to be thin, not necessarily due to any fault on the teacher’s part, but because of the length and tediousness of the report. But teachers might not fill out the forms in a timely manner, and each teacher completing a report is working in isolation, so it is difficult to get a comprehensive picture of a student’s skills.

In addition, schools face the challenge of meeting compliance dates for a large caseload of students with only limited resources. If IEPs are not written by certain dates, the school’s special education compliance tally — which affects a principal’s rating — will fall. This bureaucratic constraint can have the effect of making teachers’ primary focus the completion of administrative tasks, rather than the creation of a high-quality and accurate IEP.

At first, in an effort to solve some of these problems, I took the simple step of digitizing the process. I created a Google form that dropped teacher information directly into a spreadsheet. While this made the process of gathering information more efficient, and hopefully less time-consuming for teachers, I continued to find the information often so generic as to be unusable. Sometimes, two teachers gave conflicting accounts of the same student and I needed to follow up with them individually.

I took this issue to my eighth-grade team last year, and they generously volunteered to put aside time on a weekly basis for us to discuss students with upcoming IEP meetings.  At first, we structured these meetings as interviews. I asked questions and recorded notes on the same teacher report form that I used to sent out individually to each teacher.

Because we were all at the same table discussing the student, I learned more about students than I would have from reading teachers’ written reports, and the information was more relevant to students’ IEPs.

However, these conversations tended to veer into general anecdotal impressions of behavior in the classroom, rather than provide insight into specific academic challenges students faced.

To make the process more concrete, we began pairing our discussion with an examination of samples of the student’s work. This grounded our conversation in more concrete academic observations, while allowing us to corroborate that information with our anecdotes and observations.

My colleagues and I continue to fine-tune the protocol, which we call our Student Work Analysis Protocol. The process now includes an initial survey of any pieces of assessment data available, such as state test scores over time, psycho-educational evaluations, social histories, reading assessment scores, benchmarks, attendance data, and so on.

We then compare any patterns and trends in the data with our observations of the child in each of our classrooms and content areas. Next, we examine samples of the student’s work. From these observations, we generate goals targeted at student challenges and align those goals to the Common Core standards. Finally, we attempt to generate a team-wide strategy to support the student across each of our classrooms.

This protocol has been implemented in all grade level teams in my school, and because I am present as the district representative at each meeting, I can attest to the positive effect this protocol has had on the quality of our conversations with parents at students’ IEP meetings.

Now, we’re able to share with parents information that has been developed by a core team of the content area teachers who work with their children. The increased accuracy of our collective investigation lends itself to more productive conversations about concrete goals and strategies that will better meet the student’s needs.

While this process is far from perfect (I’ll speak more about why in a future post), it has improved the quality of the IEPs that we develop for our students. You can view the protocol here, and a copy of the Google template here that our team completes for each child during the process of the protocol.

I would love to hear about how educators across the city develop IEPs and get feedback from teachers and parents on how I can make this process more effective at my school. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.