Fellow Executive Directors, what are we willing to change?

By Raymond Weeden

In my 20+ years in education, I’ve rarely been surprised by assessment results. Educators have a good pulse on how students are doing and where support is needed. So as we find ourselves looking at abysmal PARCC results for students with disabilities, it’s not a question of how we got here but what are we willing to change?

At Thurgood Marshall Academy (TMA), we’re changing foundational structures to put the best instructional materials and personnel in front of students with disabilities. Here’s how.

What LEA leaders focus on, improves. 

For many schools, special education exists in a silo, far from decision-making and strategic planning of leadership. It’s time for executive directors and principals (yes, me and you) to prioritize students with disabilities. We need a better understanding of what instructional and foundational shifts will serve students with disabilities well and how to ensure teachers and students get the support, time, and resources to realize strong teaching and learning. That may mean learning much more about the students with disabilities in your building and what research shows works. It also means getting uncomfortable naming what you don’t know.

TMA is planning our focus for SY23-24 now. Any change we believe is necessary to improve outcomes for next school year begins in January, as my leadership team and I look to understand our data, begin to shift adult mindsets on needed changes, and ultimately make those changes. We cannot wait until summer to make shifts. We have to do it before the budget is created and the schedule is finalized. Thinking big in January allows us to make the intentional shifts in the Fall that could change the trajectory of students’ learning. 

What LEA leaders make time for, gets done. 

This past year, in creating our master schedule, we started with our 12th graders to ensure seniors were accessing the right courses to graduate on time. Then we scheduled our students with disabilities. That wasn’t the norm before: students with disabilities (and English Language Learners) are often scheduled last. But by prioritizing students with disabilities in the schedule, we could guarantee that they get the time in the day, space in the school, and access to the right adults and resources to meet their needs. 

This is a lesson I learned the hard way. In 2020, we launched two intervention classrooms with the Co-op to ensure students (both those with IEPs and those without) could get support on missing basic reading and math skills. 

We had a hard time making it work, and the team at the Co-op told me what I already knew: We weren’t dedicating the time needed to be successful. So we pivoted: Students now get 200 minutes per week in dedicated intervention support on top of their grade-level reading and math courses and during the school day. This intervention doesn’t happen outside of school (where attendance might be low), nor at the same time as other core courses. It’s an elective, built into the day, allowing students to access this support right in school. Shifting our schedule and intentionally setting up the time at the forefront made this work for the students who needed it most.

What LEA leaders hire for, shows up in the classroom. 

Special education is one of the hardest-to-fill, school-based positions, and all LEA leaders have experienced this firsthand. At TMA, we’ve taken a “build your own” approach: We want teachers that are trained to be effective teachers, trained and certified in special education, and know the “TMA way.” In our partnership with Urban Teachers, a cohort of five teachers had residencies in our school in SY21-22 and received intentional special-education training through Johns Hopkins. We hired four of the five for this school year for co-taught self-contained classrooms and small general education classrooms (inclusive settings that include students with disabilities). This intentional strategy allowed us to increase our special education staffing without increasing the total number of teachers. 
January is just around the corner. What shifts and changes are you ready to make for your students with disabilities? Ready to make the leap? Come to my school to see what’s working here. Visit another school in this city doing the work. Connect with the Co-op.

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