Educating BKW students means educating all BKW students.
That is especially true of students with disabilities.
“Our students come to us with different athletic, artistic, or learning abilities,” said Director of Pupil Services Susan Sloma.
“Our goal is to do our very best to help students achieve to their greatest potential whether on the playing field or in the classroom.”
Combating a label
A common misconception about students with disabilities is that they cannot learn or that they share the same disability.
“That is untrue,” Ms. Sloma.
“One student may have difficulty reading. The next may struggle to physically write. That doesn’t mean they cannot learn. It simply means we need to work harder to adjust how we teach to meet their needs and help them learn.”
Where to begin
Data is the starting point.
District teachers and staff looked at each individual’s attendance, behavior, and specific scores, uncovering specific areas where students struggled. They then looked for ideas to bridge the gaps in learning.
The district took several steps.
One of the most important was the district’s move to inclusive classrooms.
“Data shows that students in different settings are exposed to different materials,” said Ms. Sloma.
“As a result, students with disabilities often miss important content because they have never seen it. Over the past two years, we committed to placing all of our students on the same footing. The results are positive. We see growth in student learning.”
There are co-taught classes at all elementary grade levels K-6 and in grades 7-12. In a co-taught classroom, the special education and general education co-teachers share responsibility for all student learning in the classroom. In this setting, all students have equitable access to the same curriculum. In that past that would have left a teacher trying to find a one-size-fits-all model that would reach the majority of students. Having two teachers means they can work together to develop individualized strategies and supports to help each child learn and process information.
The district has also increased the use of assistive technology. Using Chromebooks with a testing accommodation such as speech-to-text breaks down learning barriers for many students, according to Mrs. Sloma. “This technology is the lifeline to a student who understands the content, but for some reason cannot express that understanding in writing,” she said.
Teachers now use Reading Horizons, a specialized reading instruction program for students in grades K-9 who could benefit from more intensive support in reading. Data shows that students in this program have made strong gains.
Staff development has also been key. BKW worked with Carrie Dubois, a teaching consultant with Capital Region BOCES, to strengthen specially designed instruction (SDI). SDI is basically tailoring the way a teacher teaches to match a student’s learning style, ability, and potential.
Ms. Sloma equates the idea to a calendar on a desk. Some people use a calendar to stay organized. Others use a smart phone or computer app. Others keep that information in their heads. Successful people find the method that works best for them.
In the same way, SDI looks to uncover which tool or process works best for an individual student.
A question of philosophy
Superintendent Dr. Timothy Mundell said this commitment to reach all students reflects a philosophy the district has adopted in recent years.
“Supporting ‘each’ student is a shared value,” he said.
“Kids want to succeed. We want them to succeed. Parents want their children to succeed.”
“Our commitment to students comes out of the value we have for each one. We believe education should inspire students to dream about their future, support their development as learners, and celebrate their success.”
He explained that finding the right path for each student is an individualized process.
“This is not about simply meeting a state target or achieving an end result. We know that relationships, communication, and trust are essential to success,” he said.
Is it working?
This commitment to special education is beginning to pay dividends. The district has reduced the number of out-of-school suspensions, the number of school absences, and the dropout rate. As a result a higher percentage of students with disabilities are graduating.
That does not mean the problems are solved.
“We are continually assessing our program,” Ms. Sloma said.
“The data shows our elementary and middle school special education students continue to lag behind their general education counterparts. Our goal is to eliminate that gap, one student at a time.
“It is hard work, but it is worth it. We are firm believers that ‘They are because we are.’”