common ground

To best serve their students, schools need to be realistic about their special-ed capacity

A group of eighth-grade teachers sat down to review a student’s data in preparation for an upcoming meeting. The student was reading at approximately a third-grade level. She struggled with determining the sounds and meaning of even basic words, and it was clear she could benefit from practice in phonics and fluency.

So for her Individualized Education Program, the team drafted this goal:

“Given intervention in phonics and opportunities for repeated timed readings, Zadie will be able to read a 5th grade level text at 110 words per minute with 96% accuracy as measured by running record once per quarter.”

Problem was, that middle school didn’t have a phonics program. And repeated timed readings weren’t something that occurred on a regular basis in any classroom. And fifth-grade-level texts were definitely not what was being required of Zadie to read in each of her classrooms.

So they had a great goal on paper that they couldn’t, in reality, help their student achieve.

IEPs have great potential to provide concrete, useful guidance to teachers about how to meet their students’ needs. The disconnect between a student’s goals and a school’s capacity for intervention is common, though, and is becoming more so as the city’s special education reforms force schools to confront the reality of what services and interventions they can and cannot provide.

That leaves schools trying to achieve a tricky balance: being specific about what it can provide for an individual student, while at the same time striving to transform the outcomes for every student. But to be effective, a student’s plan must connect to what a school can and will actually provide.

In a recent story on the impact of the city’s special education reforms, Chalkbeat reporter Patrick Wall noted that “a school can’t offer what it doesn’t have.” One parent describes the frustrating experience of her son not getting his needs met: “‘Let us open the door to your kid,’ Margaret said, describing the school’s response to the reform, ‘but then we don’t know what to do with him.’”

The benefit of the reform is that schools are being pushed to figure out “what to do.” Too many schools were saying, “Sorry, can’t meet that student’s needs. He can’t function in our school.” Then, the student would be sent to a more isolated District 75 program for students with severe needs.

Patrick points to the tension that can lie between the ideals laid out in a student’s plan and the reality of what schools can provide. Faced with that disparity, he writes, “Schools sometimes adjust the IEPs to match the services they can actually offer, according to parents, advocates, and educators … Other times, schools may simply fail to offer the services prescribed by an IEP.”

The more concrete and specific a school is about what it can provide to support students, the more likely it will be able to deliver those services. And the more quickly and honestly a school can assess when it fails to meet the needs of a student, the more swiftly that school can move to build its capacity. Or, as a last resort, the more quickly that student can be found a more appropriate placement.

In other words, in order for a student’s plan to have a tangible impact, it must be part of a process of continuous improvement that can be consistently delivered. In the absence of any such connection to the capacity of the school’s teachers and service providers, that student is much less likely to have any support, and the IEP will remain mere words on paper.

I want to be clear that I’m not arguing that a school should modify a student’s IEP so that the school’s needs are met, rather than the student’s. Schools can do much, much more to meet the needs of a diverse set of students.

What I’m arguing is that a school and a student both have to negotiate. A school needs to figure out exactly where it is failing to meet student needs, then develop its capacity. If a school can’t provide tangible support for a student who needs it, then that school might not be the best place for that student. This does happen, and we need to be honest about this when it does.

But we also need to be honest about when we can do better as a school to meet each of our students’ needs. And we can thank the special education reforms for pushing us to do so.

Here are some related questions I’m grappling with: How can a school systematically meet the needs of students facing great academic challenges in each classroom? How can a school help support students with special needs in accessing the same curriculum as that of their peers, while offering the individual support they may require? Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments. 

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.