This year, my little school is educating our first significant-sized population of students with special needs, in the form of a CTT – collaborative team teaching – class in the sixth grade. The class, once it fills completely, will have 22 students, 10 of whom have IEPs that place them in the CTT setting. We have a brand-new and completely awesome teacher who stays with their class throughout the day, at the moment floating and assisting, but perhaps eventually collaborating in more sophisticated ways as we all get used to this model. We are all wholly on-board this new direction for our school, as part of a commitment to equity. I’m also glad that the DOE gave us a few years to get things up and running and to build a larger, more experienced staff before adding this new dimension.
The past week or two has been a scramble to find the students’ IEPs and a world of tough decisions. For example, one of our students who is not classified for the CTT setting – his/her IEP specifies general education with a few specific additional supports – seems to have far greater needs than any of the students with the CTT classification. Why? And what to do? Do we add this student to that class, knowing that s/he will benefit from the extra attention provided by two teachers, even though that elevates the numbers of students with special needs and begins to tilt the delicate balance in that class? In the end, we did. And overall, our new special education teacher is in shock at the poor quality of the IEPs she’s reading and the sheer amount of work she will have to do to rewrite them to include appropriate academic goals and benchmarks. Another teacher, new to our school but with experience in a suburban district elsewhere, is in shock because of the overall restrictiveness and segregation that she perceives in the NYC special education system. So we are all going to learn a lot this year.
One struggle so far is that while all the sixth graders are moving far more slowly than I anticipated, the CTT class is moving even more slowly because of a greater frequency of disruptions. They’re a full period behind the other classes and that’s after only three science lessons! This is not okay, not for anyone in the class. At the same time, they do some stuff better than the other classes, so I’m trying to keep their attention on that. Still, Friday afternoon featured 1 accidental cut and blood gushing everywhere, 1 cellphone removed from a student and subsequent shouting, and dozens of completely inappropriate wanderings-around, callings-out, and arguings-with-the-teacher. It was sort of a vision of how a small incident or two can snowball into an avalanche, and only served to underline the importance of preventing the small incidents. We need better work habits and solutions for those who will struggle to sit still or stay on task, and we need them right away. Already, we have some ideas for Monday… a stress ball for one child to squeeze to keep his hands busy, a prepared notebook to scaffold writing for another with poor fine motor skills.
Note that in two years in my first school in the Bronx, I never once saw or discussed any specific modifications or IEPs with any teacher. We had a wing dedicated to small 12:1:1 classes, and if inclusion was taking place in other classes, we sure weren’t talking about it. I was new and just keeping my head above water and not completely sure who I’d even talk to about any special needs my students might have. Nevertheless, I had kids who’d come in from lunch and hide in the closet, kids with hair-trigger rage, and one student who sat under a desk and banged his head repeatedly against the underside of it (that one did eventually get evaluated and sent elsewhere, I couldn’t tell you where). Nearly all of them had first-hand experiences with trauma of some sort – a parent in prison, witnessing violence and even death, you name it. Clearly, needs were not being met, services were not being provided. And it was so many kids…