This year was my first year as an education specialist for sixth and seventh graders at an Aspire School in East Oakland, California. Before becoming an Education Specialist, I was a general education teacher for elementary school students for two years.
At Aspire, students in special education are placed into the general education classroom. Aspire’s Special Education program is designed to support special education students in the Least Restrictive Environment, which means Aspire does not offer special day classes for students with special needs. As education specialists, in order to provide students with support, we either push into the classroom or we pull out of the classroom for a small group setting. The Individualized Education Program team, also known as the IEP team, includes parent/ guardian, student, education specialist, general education teachers, other providers-SLPs, OTs, Mental Health counselors, etc., and as a team, we decide whether push in or pull out option is the best for the student. In secondary school, we focus on core classes so we support students in either their English and/or Math class depending on what the student needs.
What if I suspect that my student/ child has a Learning Disability?
First and foremost, general education staff, families and non-instructional staff need to have a strong understanding of what Special Education is and the process before submitting a request for a formal evaluation. If a parent or teacher suspects that their child or student has a learning disability, the team (the General Education teacher(s), administrator and an Education Specialist, family) can meet together to review concerns. For example, let’s say that a teacher notices that the student writes sentences with large spaces, the Education Specialist can recommend certain intervention strategies to improve this student’s ability to write sentences with appropriate spacing. On a tracking spreadsheet, general education teachers list the interventions provided, length of interventions, and notes on progress. The team (administrator, General Education teachers, family) meet again, within one to two months to check in to see whether the strategies have worked and to review data, which can be student work samples. The team can then talk about whether this student should be formally evaluated or suggests additional supports or strategies. Usually, parents request for a formal assessment AFTER having this meeting to make sure that students and teachers provide the necessary support.
Parent Written Request
The written request is sent directly to the Education Specialist and the Education Specialist dates the receipt of the request to notify the Special Education team (School Psychologist, program specialist, principal and General Education teacher(s). By Day 3, the education specialist meets with general education teachers and collects data from them including work habits, work completion, behavior, attention or focus, ability to work with peers/ adults, questions that are helpful to assess where the student is struggling and sends this to the Special Education team. By Day 5, the school psychologist observes the student in the general education classroom and contacts the parent to collect additional data (what they see at home). The school psychologist reviews all data from Education Specialist, general education teacher(s) and parent to consult with the special education team. If the Special Education Team does not agree to test, a written notice is sent to the parent/guardian before Day 15. If the student DID NOT have a meeting for interventions, this is usually what we would have the team try. If the Special Education agrees to test, by day 15, the school psychologist or education specialist has the parent sign an Assessment Plan (AP), which is a form that gives us the permission to formally assess for a learning disability. A student CANNOT be placed into Special Education without the consent of the parent/ guardian. The parent/guardian will receive a copy of all assessment findings at the IEP meeting once the assessments are completed. A list of supports or services will be discussed at the initial IEP meeting.
What happens once a student is in Special Education?
Once a student is identified as having a learning disability, there is no magic wand that fixes everything within that academic year AND definitely does NOT mean that now the student exclusively belongs to the Special Education teacher. What an Individualized Education Program does is identify a student’s disability, assess weaknesses, identifies goals and accommodations/supports based on the assessment reports that the Education Specialist or School Psychologist performed. With an IEP, general education teachers are now LEGALLY OBLIGATED to implement the indicated supports and accommodations listed.
Throughout the year, the Education Specialist monitors what is listed on the student’s IEP goals and sends progress reports home. Monitoring goals COULD look like assessing student writing samples, observing students during certain class periods to assess behavior or work habits. Progress monitoring really depends on what the goal states and the area of need.
At least, once a year, the IEP team meets to discuss progress on goals, determine whether they met the goal(s) and decide on whether to keep and tweak goals OR use new goals. Each service provider (Mental Health counselor, Speech Pathologist, Occupational Therapist, etc) does the same as well, in consultation with the Education Specialist (making sure our goals are aligned.)
What do Special Education teachers need to have in place to ensure students with disabilities thrive?
1.) KNOWLEDGE OF TIMELINES
General Education teachers, non-instructional staff (office managers, office associates) and administration need to have a solid understanding at the beginning of the year to comprehend the process and timelines we need to follow. Sometimes, the request for an evaluation is sent to the Office manager, and we don’t have knowledge about it until Day 3 and this ALREADY sets us behind!
2.) CLEAR RESPONSIBILITIES FOR ALL PROVIDERS
General education and non-instructional staff need to become educated about their day-to-day responsibilities and throughout the course of the year. That means keep work samples, ask about student’s disabilities and additional strategies to use, if certain strategies or supports aren’t working, let the SpEd teacher know and problem solve together! ALSO, I send out invites for IEP meetings at the beginning of the year so if you are the teacher of record for this student, prioritize attending this student’s IEP!
Administration needs to hold all staff accountable to be present at all IEP meetings to be of service to the students and families that deserve quality education.
The most important takeaway that I learned about Special Education was the need for special education and general education to collaborate on a daily basis to maximize student achievement. Like a marriage, communication is key!
Special and General Education teachers need to have at least one regular mutual planning time. There is never enough time, but this is completely needed as special education teachers usually work across grade levels and need to walk through curriculum and modify work as needed for students. During this time, teachers can discuss any concerns regarding certain students and come up with a plan. I truly believe when there are strong partnerships between teachers, students see this and WANT to do better to meet both expectations. This way both teachers can feel equally successful in supporting students with IEPs.