The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Our Special Education Program, Part Two

on September 8, 2016

When I decided to describe the special education program we created in our schools in a small Oregon school district it was because it was so different—and far better for the children involved—than what exists in Georgia today. I was appalled by what was described about Georgia’s segregated schools for disabled students, and so proud of the program we created, that I wanted to shout about it from the housetops. However, over the past couple of days I realized that I was giving much more information about our program than most readers would need or want to know. But, since it was too late to cut off my story in the middle, I finished it here, below. I hope that among my readers there are still some people who are interested in programs for disabled children in our public schools.

 From the beginning, our special Needs Program was supported by the structures and practices that already existed in our schools. Our elementary classrooms were mixed-grade, and classrooms at all levels included children of varied abilities and interests. The K-8 curriculum we developed was flexible and project-centered. To teach it we used tradebooks and reference books at various reading levels–no textbooks. Inside classrooms the furniture arrangements were informal and inviting, and the restrictions on student time and movement were few.

For the most part teachers taught small groups of students, brought together for a specific purpose and dissolved after the goals were reached. Large group instruction was used mainly for modeling new assignments or strategies that everyone needed to know or making changes in classroom rules or procedures.

All students—including special needs children– were expected to work with a partner much of the time, acting as collaborators, reciprocal tutors and critics. Everyone was evaluated on his or her own progress, effort, and ingenuity. When some students had difficulties that got in the way of learning, teachers worked out individual plans to help them succeed.

Rarely did we retain any students in grade. It seemed better to promote them and arrange to teach what they needed over the next year in a mixed grade classroom. For us “standards” meant that we expected the best from each student within the range of their abilities and experiences, not a fixed quantity or quality of work

Using this foundation we designed appropriate programs for each special needs student. Late in each school year teachers would assign students to classrooms for the coming year. Their goal was to create good academic and social combinations everywhere, yet also to keep the total number of special needs students in any classroom manageable.

In addition to classroom teachers, who were the plan managers for special needs students, some special needs students needed an adult friend at school. We did our best to find mentors within our staff who had the time and willingness to develop a relationship with such children. In most situations it was enough for the mentor to make regular contact and show interest in the child’s life, but a few needed more in terms of time and attention. So our special education teacher took on those hard cases, doing such things as playing board games during recesses with a boy who had trouble controlling his temper on the playground or eating lunch with a girl who was ignored at home.

Since children with disabilities often have trouble making and keeping friends, mentors also spent time talking about, modeling, and rehearsing social skills. In addition we adopted a device called “A circle of Friends” to help children enlarge and strengthen their social world.

Because we never had the time or the skills to do a formal study of our program, we based our evaluations on what we could see in the actions of students, teachers, and parents. What was clear after the first year of operation was that the people affected liked the new program better than the old traditional system. Our only “hard data” were records of detentions, suspensions, and expulsions. Over the first three years of program operation those records showed dramatic improvements. In the first year only three students received severe disciplinary actions, and over the following two years no one needed such actions.

One thing was certain—though it may be indelicate to say so—we saved a significant amount of school funds by using the new program. Educational assistants came cheaper than special education teachers, and having only regular classrooms was cheaper than also providing special education classrooms. Although economy was never one of our goals, we were pleased to have more money to spend on enriching the new program and expanding the school library, art classes, and extracurricular opportunities for all students.


One response to “Our Special Education Program, Part Two

  1. sallythomas4 says:

    Love this Joanne. It is everything I believe in. I taught in a school with an approach much like this, multi age, workshop approaches to reading and writing, projects based work. assessment was the Learning Record and/or much like that, collections of observations, authentic student work, student goals setting and self assessment, strengths as well as needs. It was successful with all students.


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