Time to Head Back to School and to Rethink Education

Johnny Collett and Kim Richey met with special educators and teachers at Hiawatha’s Essex Westford. Kim Richey chats with a student at Strong Foundations Charter School Kim Richey observed individualization strategies at work at Hugh Cole Elementary School. Johnny Collett and Kim Richey with students from Baxter Academy for Science and Technology Johnny Collett and Kim Richey meeting with teachers at the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science Johnny Collett and Kim Richey observe a lesson at Birch Meadow Elementary of Reading Public Schools Johnny Collett and Kim Richey visiting a classroom at Hanover Elementary School at Meriden Public Schools. Johnny Collett and Kim Richey participate in a round table discussion at St. Johnsbury Academy. Johnny Collett sat with children at Little One’s University. Johnny Collett and Kim Richey meeting with teachers, administrators, a parent and a board member at St. George Municipal School Unit. Group picture from the visit RSEC Academy in New Hampshire.

By Johnny Collett, OSERS Assistant Secretary


OSERS Deputy Assistant Secretary Kim Richey and I spent the week of September 10 traveling as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s 2018 Back-to-School Tour. During the week, ED leaders toured the country to get a closer, first-hand look at how schools are meeting the unique needs of students.

Kim and I spent the week in New England visiting traditional public, private/independent, and public charter schools to meet students and educators and to learn how these schools provide supports and services to students with disabilities.

We were encouraged by how these schools are rethinking education to ensure nothing limits their students from being prepared for what comes next in life―whether it is continuing their education, transitioning to a work environment, both, or whatever is their next right step.

We heard from diverse education stakeholders at each school. They provided us with great information, and it was incredibly helpful to benefit from their unique perspectives and experiences. We were reminded again, that those closest to the child really do know best about their education, and that the best ideas and innovations to ensure the success of children come from them, and not from Washington.

Day 1: Maine

First, we visited Maine’s St. George Municipal School Unit and the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science. They knew that science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) initiatives could help their schools better meet the needs of all children.

St. George Municipal School Unit, a public kindergarten through eighth grade school, has employed a “makerspace” for students to experience both high-tech and low-tech tools to learn, explore and share the world around them and turn their imaginations into tangible creations.

The Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, a public charter high school, exposes students to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career fields and professionals while still offering students a strong humanities curriculum to cultivate well-rounded individuals and passionate, self-directed learners.

STEAM and STEM activities at these two schools help support students with disabilities build confidence in their own abilities, be introduced to technical skills that they can apply to future career endeavors, and explore possibilities that may not have been available to them if schools did not challenge themselves to rethink how they best serve students with disabilities.

St. George Municipal School Unit and the Baxter Academy are preparing America’s students for professions not yet imagined.

Day 2: New Hampshire

We visited the Regional Services and Education Center (RSEC) and the Strong Foundation Charter School in New Hampshire Tuesday. These schools know that a one-size-fits-all or one-size-fits-most approach to educating students does not work.

The RSEC Academy’s middle and high schools specialize in the education of sixth through 12th graders with learning disabilities as well as other social, emotional and behavioral needs. RSEC Academy prepares students to transition from middle school to high school to graduation and beyond by ensuring students have access to educators and staff trained to support individual student needs. We had the opportunity to speak to students, faculty (including their Positive Approach to Learning Disabilities team), and alumni. Each person had a unique story to share, which helped to further emphasize the importance of individualized decision-making related to students’ needs.

The next school we visited in New Hampshire was the Strong Foundations Charter School, a first through eighth grade school whose history highlights the importance for families to choose a learning environment that works best for their student. Founded as a public charter school, Strong Foundations formed in order to provide comprehensive reading instruction to all students and improve student literacy and reading outcomes. New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut joined us as we observed students taking part in structured reading lessons and when we met with teachers, special educators, the school’s principal and board members.

Day 3: Vermont

We had the opportunity to visit traditional public schools, as well as private schools to see how Vermont’s public and private schools’ partnerships are helping to ensure students have opportunities in a variety of school settings.

We started at Essex Westford School District’s Hiawatha Elementary, a pre-K through third grade public school. We participated in the students’ morning routine including their interactive classroom meeting before observing direct instruction with a student using augmentative and alternative communication. Hiawatha demonstrated the importance of a customized learning experience to improve outcomes for all students. Through our interactions, observations and discussions with the Hiawatha community, we witnessed what is possible when schools work to empower students, give them their own voice and way of communicating, and support individual needs.

We followed our visit to Hiawatha Elementary with a tour of Vermont’s Little One’s University, a private preschool that has partnered with its local school district, Essex Westford. Their focus on early childhood education showed how providing early learners, including young learners with disabilities, with the proper educational foundation can set them on a path for success. As part of a private/public partnership, we toured the school and interacted with preschool learners in an inclusive setting with and without disabilities. We were thrilled to have Vermont’s Secretary of Education Daniel M. French join us as we met with a diverse group of stakeholders that included parents, teachers, special education directors and school administrators.

While in Vermont, we also visited the St. Johnsbury Academy, an independent coed day and boarding school that, in partnership with public schools, provides public school students with an education that best meets their individual needs. The academy offers a variety of educational experiences such as bio-medical and health services certificate, culinary arts, fashion design, and pre-university engineering and robotics. The academy also has on-site adult education courses, including training certificate programs, through a partnership with Vermont Technical College and the Vermont Department of Labor. We met with parents and students to hear why they chose an independent school, and we spoke with representatives from local education agencies in Vermont regarding the public/private partnerships with St. Johnsbury Academy. The insight provided by these parents, students, educators and LEAs offered valuable information on the importance of educational options for students with disabilities and their families.

Vermont offered us a wonderful opportunity for a listening session with administrators, educators, families, students and other special education stakeholders to discuss what excites them and what challenges them about the education of students with disabilities. It was evident that each person was committed to high expectations and improved outcomes for people with disabilities.

Day 4: Connecticut

We spent Thursday morning at the Meriden Public Schools system in Connecticut. Meriden Public Schools offered us a view of services and supports from early childhood education through post-secondary activities.

At Meriden’s Hanover Elementary School we saw the early learning wing, discussed ways they support students with disabilities, and visited their inclusive playground.

We also had the opportunity to hear presentations from students and learn more about Platt High School’s college and career readiness initiatives, which include working with select ninth grade students requiring additional support of the basis of grades, attendance or behaviors to plan their paths for success as a way of helping them set and achieve goals.

In addition to Meriden’s high school initiatives, we learned about their school’s Community Classroom Collaborative (CCC), a community based program that serves student with vary disabilities ages 18 through 21 in an age appropriate and natural environment, and the Success Academy, a program that provides individualized support and student-centered options for students in the district as they work toward their goal of graduating to receive a high school diploma . We learned how they chose to implement these programs, heard the reasoning behind establishing these programs, and listened to success stories of equipping students with the tools they need for the future. Programs like those in Meriden show there are many avenues for students to find success.

The district’s focus on the individual helps to prepare students for success, no matter what that version of success might look like.

Day 4: Rhode Island

We visited Rhode Island’s Hugh Cole Elementary school Thursday afternoon. This public elementary school uses data-based individualization within a multi-tiered system of support framework to meet particular intervention needs of its students. While at Hugh Cole Elementary, we observed their individualization strategies, heard about the school’s teacher development/support efforts throughout the years, and how the school makes its practices sustainable and replicable.

Day 5: Massachusetts

Our New England Back to School Tour concluded Friday in Massachusetts. The Reading Public School District showed how their district works with students with disabilities from early childhood through high school.

We had the opportunity to meet with staff from their Respect, Inclusion, Safety, Effort (RISE) Preschool, which emphasizes the needs of individual students. About half of RISE Preschool’s classroom students receive extra support to help them grow and develop based on their needs.

At the elementary school level, we observed co-teaching in kindergarten and fourth grade classrooms in Reading’s Birch Meadow Elementary School. We also spent time at Reading Memorial High School to round out the full picture of the supports and services provided to the district’s students with disabilities. Throughout the day, discussions with various staff including teachers, administrators, the district’s data and behavioral health coaches, and students demonstrated what it looks like when a district thinks holistically about the education of students with disabilities.

Rethink school. Question everything. Challenge the status quo.

Kim and I traveled to six states in five days and loved the opportunity to visit schools and meet many new people who are committed to doing what is right for each student. Students, parents and school personnel were eager to share their programs and stories with us. What we saw at the schools excites us about the possibilities of what can happen when people challenge the status quo of special education.

This week’s Back-to-School Tour further demonstrated that we must collectively continue to have the courage and perseverance necessary to make needed changes to our systems at the federal, state, and local levels if we are to achieve the goals that we, and most importantly the individuals we serve, envision.

Systems change is not easy, does not happen quickly and is not accomplished by a few. However, it’s worth it because at the heart of the system are the individuals we serve and their futures. The work is too important, the need is too urgent, and the stakes are too high for us to settle for anything less than whatever it takes to deliver on the promises made to students and families.

I’ve been asking people to join me in rethinking special education and in asking difficult questions that challenge the status quo of special education in our country. “Tinkering around the edges” is not going to get us to the goals that we envision.

I look forward to future visits to other states to see and highlight important work being done by states and schools to raise expectations and improve outcomes for children with disabilities.

Posted by
Assistant Secretary Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services U.S. Department of Education

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Briana Harris, Tennessee Early Educator

Briana Harris

Briana Harris, lead teacher at the Cambridge Early Learning Center

Briana Harris is from Henderson, Tennessee, and currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a lead teacher at Cambridge Early Learning Center, which is part of the Metro Nashville Public Schools system. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Tennessee at Martin. She began her early learning career in Nashville as an educational assistant and interim teacher at the Martha O’Bryan Center. She is passionate about early childhood education, her family, and her three dogs!


ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and development?

BH: I’ve known since I was in kindergarten that I wanted to work in early childhood education. I had a difficult childhood. My experiences caused me to be a fragile child and I didn’t trust new people and was afraid of new situations. My kindergarten experience was critical for me. Was school going to be okay? Was it a safe place? I didn’t attend preschool, so kindergarten was my first school experience. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Emily Brown, was everything I needed her to be for me as a child. She and her classroom were my safe place when I really needed one. I so clearly remember the love, grace, patience, and kindness I experienced that first year in school. She gave me a sense of belonging in a world that terrified me and I knew that I wanted to be just like her. I wanted to be a teacher and wanted to do for other children what she had done for me. She had the power to help me love school or hate school and I knew I wanted the opportunity to make children’s first year of school positive and meaningful.

My high school offered a program where students could spend time as a teacher’s aide, which was great for those of us interested in an education career. I worked in a first grade class for an hour every day. Then, when I went to college, I went into an elementary education program so I could become certified to teach PreK through third grade. Many people asked me why I was limiting myself, since I could get a degree in teaching kindergarten through 12th grade. This didn’t impact me because I knew that I was passionate about teaching young children. After graduation, I started working at the Martha O’Bryan Center in Nashville, Tennessee, which focuses on serving children living in poverty. It was a great experience and I eventually became a lead early childhood teacher. Then I began teaching at the Cambridge Early Learning Center, a center with only preschool classrooms that is part of the Metro Nashville Public Schools system. This is my third year teaching at Cambridge. I love being in an exclusively early childhood center — there is a lot of singing in the hallways! The downside is my students are only here for a year and I don’t have the opportunity to see them grow as they progress in older grades.

ED: What is your favorite thing about the beginning of the school year and what do you do to prepare for the first day?

BH: Getting to meet the new children and families. For the most part, the children are so excited. Some of them have been in child care or Head Start, but for many of them, it is their first time being in school. I take it very seriously that they enjoy their first school experience from the beginning. After looking at the names on my enrollment list, it really is fun to meet them in person.

In terms of preparation, I remind myself to be patient and go with the flow; having strict educational expectations for the first few days is unrealistic. It is often very hectic with parents and children crying and parents trying to take pictures, and I have to remind myself to be flexible.

Children's cubby cabinet

Children’s cubby cabinet

I want the kids to have a sense of belonging immediately. So, before the first day, I work hard to make sure the kids’ names are on their cubbies and in other places in the classroom. I also work to put pictures of the kids up within the first couple of days since many students don’t yet recognize their written name. We also get their artwork posted in the classroom early. It is really powerful for them to feel like they belong.

The first day can be hard on families, especially if it is their first or only child. The week before school we host Meet the Teacher Night, where families can bring their child in to meet me and see their classroom. This also gives families the chance to speak with me so we can begin to build trust. It is really important to give families the opportunity to ask me questions and see what I’m like. This event has been very successful. I can really tell the difference on the first day of school with children whose families were able to take advantage of coming in before the first day. The children usually settle in much easier.

Some parents have a hard time saying goodbye to their child, particularly on that first day. One of the things I tried to do this year was to have a place outside the classroom where they could take their first day of preschool photo so that after the photo was taken they could say goodbye and their child could enter the class on their own. In our school, we have an archway near the entrance and we really encourage families to say goodbye there. We try to foster independence at the beginning of the year with the kids and work with families to help them understand that this is a good thing!

ED: How do you know if the first day was a success?

BH: I like to think of it as a success if the children leave with smiles on their faces. We often have tears at the beginning of that first day, but if they leave school with smiles and say they want to come back by the end of the day then I think it was a success. We might have tears again on the second morning, but again, if they leave happy by the end of the day then I think it was a success. It might still be scary to get dropped off, but those smiles show me that they did have fun and enjoy school, which is my goal for those first few days.

ED: What advice do you have for other early learning teachers on strategies to use at the beginning of the school year, to make the rest of the year a success?

BH: My advice is to systematically focus on building strong social and emotional skills for the first month to six weeks. Our school uses the Pyramid Model for promoting social and emotional competence in young children and we start implementing this on the first day. We did home visits a couple of weeks ago and many parents wanted to know when we were going to teach letters and numbers. We share with families how important it is that we start out with a focus on social-emotional skills. Starting school is a huge transition for kids. Children need to be able to identify their emotions and develop skills for how to deal with different emotions. We start the year learning our schedule and routines, discussing what is expected of members of our classroom, exploring how to be kind to one another, and understanding that it is okay to get upset while learning skills to calm ourselves. We also spend a lot of time on problem-solving, including how to be fair with one another and how to solve problems without needing an adult. The children need to learn to function successfully as a class and by spending the time on social and emotional competencies those first several weeks of school, classroom management is easier and the entire year can be practically seamless. After that, you can easily dive into the academics.

On a last note, recently, our state recognized the importance of social-emotional development. In January 2018, they released updated Tennessee Early Learning Standards for four-year-olds in our state. I was very happy to see that the updated standards strengthened the importance of social-emotional development. This is all so important because, if children don’t feel safe and loved in their classrooms, they aren’t going to be able to learn!


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Briana Harris (thumbnail)
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Briana Harris Lead Teacher Cambridge Early Learning Center Nashville, Tennessee

Rethinking Special Education

Douglas, an 11-year-old 6th grader from Massachusetts, has dyslexia and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He struggled in school from kindergarten through 4th grade, feeling frustrated in a learning environment that did not meet his individual needs and caused him to question his ability to succeed.

Douglas recently wrote President Trump and asked, “How can you as our president help kids like me get the right tools so they don’t get left behind?”

I met with Douglas and his parents on behalf of the president and the U.S. Department of Education this spring when his family visited Washington. We discussed his previous struggles and frustrations as well as his parents’ determination to get Douglas the help he needed to succeed in school.

We must rethink special education in America for students like Douglas. “Rethink” means everyone questions everything to ensure nothing limits any student from being prepared for what comes next. That begins with acknowledging the unique needs of each child and then finding the best ways to prepare each individual for successful careers and a meaningful life.

As a former high school special education teacher and state special education director, I have learned that delivering on the promises we have made to children and parents will not be achieved by merely tinkering around the edges.

Rethinking special education will require an unwavering commitment to address barriers that stand in the way of improving opportunities and outcomes for each child, and to make needed changes at the federal, state, and local levels. We must be willing to confront anything that does not facilitate needed improvement. That includes structures that limit opportunities for children with disabilities; practices that put the needs of “the system” over the individual needs of a child; policies that, no matter how well-intentioned, do not have the impact of improving outcomes for students; or laws and regulations that constrain innovation. We cannot ignore the challenges that students, parents, teachers and schools face.

Any policy that could deny education services to a student who needs them would be a failed policy. So we must root out anything that separates students from the individualized education they deserve.

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services is committed to confronting these—and any other issues—that stand in the way of a child’s success. We will partner with parents and families, individuals with disabilities—anyone and everyone who is focused on raising expectations and improving outcomes for individuals with disabilities.

This commitment means acknowledging that states, school districts, and parents know the needs of their students better than we do. Our goal is to provide them with as much flexibility and support as possible so that they can ensure their students’ needs are being met.

Douglas’ parents told me it wasn’t until Douglas was tested, properly diagnosed, and enrolled in a school that understood his unique traits and addressed his needs that things began to get better for him. In a different school, Douglas told me he feels comfortable and confident. He said, “I’m getting the right tools I need and learning how my brain works.”

Every student deserves the same opportunity and the same individualized attention that Douglas has. To be sure, this is and will continue to be hard work. However, it’s not just about working hard. It’s about working differently and more collaboratively, because meaningful and effective collaboration with all those who have a stake in the success of individuals with disabilities is critical to improving the outcomes that we envision.

The changes we need won’t happen overnight or only through the commitment of a few; but the work is worth it, because at the heart of all our efforts are the individuals we serve and their futures.

It is unacceptable for us to watch another generation of kids fail to achieve the outcomes they could have achieved just because the adults around them would not commit to solving difficult issues. We must demonstrate the courage and persistence necessary to achieve the goals that we, and most importantly the individuals we serve, envision.

No two children are the same, so no two children’s learning experiences should look the same. A personalized, student-centered education empowers students with disabilities and gives them the hope of living successful, independent lives, while a one-size-fits-all approach to education only limits students’ potential. Each child’s education should embrace his or her diverse traits and aspirations.

As we start this school year, I ask you to join me in rethinking special education in our country. While we all have a stake in the success of children with disabilities, no one has more of a stake in their success than they do.

The work is too important, the need is too urgent, and the stakes are too high for us to settle for anything less than whatever it takes to deliver on the promises we have made to children and families in our country.


 

Posted by
Assistant Secretary Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services United States Department of Education