E4E-NY teacher Kim Fox: NYC’s special education reforms: School culture is the key
Kim Fox teaches an integrated co-teaching kindergarten class in Manhattan. Kim reflects on current special education changes in New York, pointing out that the reforms' success depends on teachers who will respond to the individualized needs of each child while holding all children to high expectations.
When I talk about special education in New York City’s public schools I turn into a real firecracker. In anticipation of the new special education reforms coming to our schools this fall, though, I am feeling more puzzled than fiery, which is why I was so thrilled to participate in the teacher-led roundtable that Educators 4 Excellence hosted on this specific topic.
For the past three years, I have taught kindergarten and first grade, in a low-income community of Brooklyn, both in an ICT (Integrated Co-Teaching) and a self-contained classroom and I know these reforms will directly affect my students. There will be fewer self-contained classes, more push for inclusion of students with disabilities into the general education environment, and the elimination of current zoning policies, which essentially means that all students will need to have their needs met within their zoned school.
On one hand, I think it’s fantastic. Students should be in the least restrictive learning environment that allows them to thrive academically and socially. These reforms will challenge schools to think about students’ specific needs. Furthermore, with a disproportionate number of students being bussed to schools outside of their neighborhood, these changes will allow students to be educated closer to home and still receive the support they need. On the other hand, I am concerned that the next few months will be a logistical nightmare and my students will suffer as a result.
As this group of teachers talked about the issue over pizza, we realized we were all essentially on the same page, noting that these changes could benefit students, build morale, and allow for more community involvement. We are also all concerned with the reality of scheduling and its impact on our students, planning, and budgeting. I myself am apprehensive about the developmental appropriateness of shuffling my very young students from one class to another on a daily basis and how my expectations will transfer into another teacher’s classroom. My trepidations were echoed again and again from my fellow educators during the discussion, and others brought up issues I hadn’t even considered.
One thing that became clear through the discussion was that school culture would be a critical piece in the success or failure of the implementation of these changes. For these reforms to work, we need to develop a culture that encourages every teacher to understand the needs of each individual student. We need to develop a culture where teachers can work to develop strategies to address those needs and also maintain high expectations for students. We need to develop a culture where there are fewer conversations that isolate students with IEPs and more conversations about how to meet the needs of all students in the classroom. In order to build this kind of positive culture for our students, we need more professional development for teachers and administrators, but that’s not all. We also need to open our classroom doors and share ideas with each other so that we’re all better prepared to give our students what they need.
I genuinely believe that this reform can lead to a paradigm shift in how we think about students with disabilities and students without disabilities. These changes are happening in our schools. We need to think about how we can use our own understanding of our students to bring about changes that will strengthen our schools. As we return to our schools this fall, it is our responsibility as teachers to enter the conversation whenever we can. Talk to your colleagues, talk to your principal. Seek out development opportunities and educate yourselves on how to manage and teach all students. Most importantly, stay in the conversation!