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.