Words Fail: Tactics

Nothing is permanent, everything changes.

No decision, strategic choice or tactic is forever.

Growing, learning and changing cannot exist without one another.

Case in point, our plan is to deliver special education services.

This is at the core of our strategy for integrating students with emotional and other challenges with their non-diagnosed peers.

Students with special needs do need teachers who have the training and skills to adapt instruction to their unique needs. Traditionally, and perhaps financially to some extent, this has led to segregation.

Highly trained special education teachers should cost more. Certainly, the smaller classes in which they are taught cost more. Therefore, only special students get special teachers and smaller class sizes, which can be as little as six students compared to the average 35. Saving money may not be the reason. Perhaps the goal all along was to separate those who are different. Either way, special students are isolated from their peers in their own classes.

Imagine how much it would cost to give all students smaller classes. We set out to level the playing field for our students with an innovative model of small class sizes as well as a dual-certified special education teacher and aide in each room. That is our strategy. How do we execute it?

While it may seem unfair, charter schools must outperform regular public schools. It is in the language and regulations of the authorizing New York State legislation. Additionally, the requirement to excel is based on a very narrow set of criteria. In grades 3-8, the focus is on statewide tests in subjects such as English or math. There is not much interest in the concerns of parents. Are their children safe? Do they feel cared for at school? Are they happy to attend?

We have been lucky throughout our first ten years. Although the legislation has always been threatening, we have lived in a relatively supportive political climate. Under Bloomberg, New York City was an encouraging authorizer. When he left office, there were significant changes. Luckily, since the merger in 2017, all of our schools have been authorized by the State Board of Regents. Governor Cuomo and the Republican State Senate approved of charter schools. With the Blue Wave of 2018 and now Democratic State Senate, we are now living in a hostile environment that charters in other states have always endured. The pressure is intensifying on charters in New York State to justify our existence.

Regular public schools do not face this pressure. For charter schools, almost everything seems like a threat.

One of the biggest challenges facing us this year is to bring our Special Education services in close alignment with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

We remain committed to our original instructional model. Our goal is that all of our teachers will eventually be dually certified in special education as well as highly qualified (if not certified) in the content area that they are teaching. Before we even started recruiting for our founding members, Michael Duffy, then head of the NYC Charter School Office, asked what we would do if we were unable to find enough dually certified teachers. Good question.

Our alternative planned to have two teachers in the room: one with content expertise and the other with a special education certification. In our first year, we implemented this idea in one of two ways.

At first, dually certified teachers were pushed in with content specialists during their prep periods, ultimately sharing the responsibility. Because they were doing more prep on their own time at home, the push-ins received extra compensation.

When we still didn’t have enough special education teachers to meet our needs, we hired retired special education teachers as push-in specialists.

What began as a short-term solution to an emergency has morphed throughout the years. The gap persisted although we provided support and financial benefits as an incentive for our content specialists to add the special education certification. We began to hire teaching assistants with SPED certifications to act as second supervision in the room. For a number of years, many elementary teachers couldn’t find jobs on Staten Island. They were teachers who lacked the qualifications to be the lead teacher in middle or high school. They were people who studied to be a teacher in college but when faced with children, found the role of lead teacher to be unsuitable for them. They were teachers whose skills had not been honed sufficiently to take the lead and were able to benefit from some experience in the classroom at a lower level of responsibility.

Many of the people who began at ICS as teacher’s assistants are now teachers and leaders in our school.

But without realizing it, we lost something in the process.

Although a SPED certified person was in the classroom for a minimum of 60% of the regular school week, they were not always co-teaching.

Though it may not have been obvious to us at the time, our students were not necessarily getting the quality of instruction that they deserved. Having recognized the drift, we now need to rectify it.

It is absolutely the right thing to do, the goal we have been committed to from the outset- to level the playing field for students living with emotional and other challenges. But it is something that we must do quickly. In the current political state, failing to rapidly actualize the spirit of IDEA is to put all of our good work in jeopardy.

We owe it to ourselves and, above all, our students.

Even while we take these steps, we continue to work toward the 100% dual-certified faculty that we have always envisioned. But we are still very far from achieving that goal, and in the interim, we need to strengthen the alternative.

Attachment to tactics leads to disaster. We had a creative and effective solution to opening our first school. Times have changed and new tactics are required. We are examining several potential approaches, including changes in staffing and salary structures. Nothing is off the table.

We will learn as we go. Whatever tactics we choose, no matter how effective, we have a limited life span.

Everything changes.