Editor’s Note: Jennifer Dines, NBCT, is the Special Education and Student Services Coordinator at the Gardner Pilot Academy K-8 School, a Pilot School in the Boston Public Schools. The views expressed in this blog are her own.
The words of the panelists from The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans at last month’s Teaching & Learning conference connected deeply with my practice as the Special Education Coordinator at the Gardner Pilot Academy (GPA). GPA is an inclusive K-8 school that supports all students in mainstream classrooms; this includes students with differences in ability, home language, race and gender identification.
Despite our school’s commitment to educational equity for all students, racial bias remains a district-wide issue, particularly in the area of special education. In my district, 30 percent of black males in elementary school and 40 percent of black males in middle and high school are identified as students with disabilities, despite the fact that the average rate of special education identification for all male students enrolled in Boston Public Schools is only 25% (source). This disproportionality is in no way unique to Boston; it exists in special education across the country.
At the conference, Kent McGuire of the Southern Education Foundation, offered: “The minute [educators] decide some kids can and some kids can’t we’ve lost,” while NEA Secretary-Treasurer Becky Pringle addressed the “testing, punishing, blaming, and shaming” that occurs in our public schools. Although these words come from the context of educating students of color, they also extend to issues in special education. While inclusion is now a common practice, special education students are often placed in substantially separate classrooms with little exposure to grade-level curricula and standards.
Pringle proposed that it is a teacher’s responsibility “to be culturally competent and access the resources of the community.” I am proud to say that at GPA, our faculty has been meeting this challenge head on.
Earlier this year, I advocated to our team that Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings center around the motto: No Decision About Me Without Me. I had heard this at a district transition training, and I interpreted this to mean that students need to be present at their meetings to participate in the creation of their plans as well as to practice self-advocacy.
My colleagues came up with the idea of students making hand-written invitations for meetings to send home to their families. Later, the father of a first grade student reported that he had come to the meeting expressly because his son handed him the invitation, although he had never visited the school previously. Our school psychologist introduced a Self-Advocacy worksheet, which teachers complete with students prior to their meetings. Additionally, students and their families may invite whomever they wish to the IEP meetings. So far this year, in addition to moms and dads, we have had aunts, uncles, grandparents, community mentors and sports coaches join us at meetings.
We have also made changes to the structure of the meeting itself. As the facilitator, I welcome the students by having them sit at the head of the table. I inform that that their team members at the table are here to celebrate their achievements and make a plan for the upcoming year. Students sign their names on the attendance sheet, and then share their strengths, goals, and future plans.
While it took time for our team to become comfortable with having students at their meetings, they have transformed into a time when teachers deepen their connections with their students and gain a better understanding of students’ visions for their future selves. The practices we have developed need not apply only in special education; they could easily be applied to student-parent-teacher conferences.
Although having student-centered IEP meetings is a small step in addressing the needs of our African-American students, it is a practice that values personal identity. Through understanding an individual child’s social, emotional and academic life, educators have a lens through which to unpack their attitudes, misconceptions and stereotypes about students who they may initially perceive as “other.”