With Repetition and Consistency, This Special Education Teacher Is Keeping Her Students on Track

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As New Jersey enters its fourth month of school closures due to COVID-19, students on the margins are predictably suffering the most, especially those with disabilities. 

The learning loss is often exacerbated if a special needs student’s family is poor.

“Special education looks so different for a privileged family than it does in other places,” said Jessica Bacon, a professor of teaching and learning at Montclair State University. “I think this is going to reveal some of those deeper issues within our systems around equity. There’s some basic things, therapies that can’t be done.” 

For example, in Prospect Park where 65% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, Angel Martinez receives packets of work at home like puzzles and coloring books in lieu of therapies to treat his autism. But in South Orange-Maplewood where only 16% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, Ethan Raab receives more appropriate services, (plus his family is paying $200 a week for private therapy). 

That’s New Jersey for you, a tale of two cities with a pandemic exacerbating inequities and (right now) a Department of Education providing little support. After all, we’re in the midst of a pandemic and bureaucracies are, by their nature, inert. But what about public charter schools, with the autonomy to pivot more quickly? 

So I spoke to India Goode, a special education teacher at KIPP Lanning Square Middle School, a renaissance charter school in Camden where 100% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. With New Jersey struggling to provide needier children with digital access and special education students struggling even more, how is it working for her 14 students with a wide range of disabilities?

This is what I learned.

At KIPP Lanning Square, which serves 427 students in fifth through eighth grade, 22% of children are classified as eligible for special education, way above the state average. This has required a speedy pivot for all teachers, especially ones like Goode and her co-teacher, Tyler Witcraft. When school was in session, Good and Witcraft, along with several aides, worked as a team because needs among the students vary widely. While one student is quite disabled (severe autism and a paralyzed voice box, although Goode says “he doesn’t speak the way others expect him to but he speaks to us”), others have milder cognitive and behavioral disabilities. Differentiation is key and it works, Goode says, “because I have the best team in the building.” 

How does this work without a building?

It helps that the digital divide doesn’t exist for KIPP charter school students because the non-profit ensures that all students have laptops and wifi. But Goode’s students require “repetition and consistency” — “It’s key,” she said —and so she and Witcraft are trying, as best they can, to adhere to a typical class day using Google Classroom and Zoom. 

The day begins for the children with a video (Goode typically tapes it the previous night)  in which she tells the students what they are going to do that day “to give them a schedule and a sense of order.” Students have to watch it by 10 am, which is how she takes attendance. (The video remains available all day.) She doesn’t just give them a schedule but shows them pictures of her plants, her garden, her surroundings. “This keeps them engaged,” she says.” Her goal is for the students to be attentive until 2 pm, with a break for lunch and because their attention wanders easily, no activity lasts longer than 30 minutes. This works for some students but not for others so she stays online and in contact until 4 pm. This two-hour block –she calls it her “wiggle room” —also serves as a prep period and an opportunity to contact parents.

After the video, students respond to the “question of the day,” which is often something like “what are you going to do first when the world opens back up” or “what will you be able to see?”

Witcraft does math lessons on Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Goode does ELA on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For both subjects they use a program called mobymax (not the program they use when school is in session but this one works better on students’ laptops). As students work on their assignments, their teachers are able to monitor their work in real-time. How is that working, I asked? “Well,” said Goode, “It does allow me to see whether they’re meeting their IEP goals but remote instruction doesn’t tell me what I really need to know, which is where a particular child ran into trouble. But I’ll make a note of it so we can revisit it in September.”

“My goal for them is to struggle a little bit,” she said. “I can tell when they’re starting to get frustrated. Then I’ll hold a Zoom meeting for the kids who need that extra help. I”ll have them share their screen and we go over everything.” Witcraft does the same with math. 

Each day students have a “read-aloud,” with one of the teachers who alternate days. Goode is  currently reading them  “EllRay Jakes Is a Rock Star.” “I’m super-goofy,” she laughs. “The kids love the read-alouds. I ask them questions, make them feel like we’re in the classroom. I’m super-animated.” She even brings in her seven-year-old, Elijah. “They love to see him with me so I’ll have him in the room. This is not a normal time, but it is normal for us.” After she reads, students answer four or five questions on Google Classroom, all multiple choice (usually just two choices) or questions that require one-word answers. The rest  of the “school day” is taken up with a variety of online games and instruction.

I asked her how parents were responding. “Most parents are engaged,” she says, “because I make it a point to build relationships with parents, especially when students enter my class in 5th grade. By sixth grade we’re BFF’s.” She reminds them to have their children log on by 10 by sending them text messages and making phone calls. “I speak to or facetime with parents almost every day. I’m always talking to parents, they call me if there’s a problem. If someone hasn’t been online for two days I’ll call and give the parent a deadline if necessary.”

I commented that she seemed to be working very hard. “Oh,” she laughs, “in the beginning I felt like I was working harder than ever. But now I’ve got it down. We can’t do it the way it’s supposed to be done” — the focus is on remediation, not new instruction — “but we’re doing everything we can.”

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