March 11 — 12:00 am, 2004

Small schools hold promise for students with disabilities

Looking at Baltimore's experience

Question: Can small schools improve learning outcomes for students with disabilities?

Answer: With lots of determination and deliberate effort at the community and school level by parents, teachers, and community members, along with clear and specific support at the school district level… yes.

There is enormous potential in small schools to meet the individual learning needs of students with disabilities.

The personalized learning environment in small schools creates the possibility that teachers will discover the particular kind of mind each one of their students has, will understand the kinds of learning skills each lesson requires, and will learn to provide the accommodations and modifications in instructional practice that students need.

However, small school size alone does not assure that special education services will be delivered in compliance with legal requirements or that instructional programs will be designed for all kinds of learners.

I’ve worked on this issue in Baltimore, where there now exists a process for creating small schools that includes a strong focus on special education compliance. But we’ve had to come a long way.

Over the past decade, while some other large urban school districts like New York and Chicago had a "request for proposals" process allowing small school proposals to come from the community, Baltimore officials were not interested. It took enormous political pressure from parents, teachers, and community members to open the first parent- and teacher-run small public school in Baltimore, the Stadium School, 10 years ago.

But through an April 1995 consent order in a long-standing federal special education lawsuit, the Baltimore school system was required to issue a request for proposals that would allow community groups, universities, and other interested entities to operate schools identified as consistently "non-compliant" with special education laws.

This court agreement also led to the creation of the New Schools Advisory Board and the district’s New Schools Initiative.

A plan to start a small school through Baltimore’s New Schools Initiative must include how the new school will assure compliance with all aspects of special education laws, including the identification of students with disabilities, writing and implementing individual education plans (IEPs), and ensuring due process. School plans must describe how students with disabilities will be educated alongside their non-disabled peers.

Achieving improved learning outcomes for students with disabilities in small schools requires certain activities at both the individual school and community level and at the central office.

At the school level, the vision that is developed at the outset by teachers, parents, and community members must embrace promoting academic success for all students, including those with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency.

Schools that serve students with disabilities well have a continuing process that makes it safe for school planners to voice their biases and prejudices.

In Baltimore, we’ve found that it’s best to get these biases out in clear view as early and as honestly as possible. "Slow learners hold everybody back." "What they need is too specialized for our school." "I don’t know how to teach them." "All of our students are college-bound." There are concerns about test results and standards. Allowing this confusion and concern to be voiced from the outset and accepting that there will always be lots of it helps the process.

School planners must discuss staffing and always hire a skilled special education teacher as part of the core staff so that the school is not waiting for the district to assign staff based upon the students’ IEPs.

The district must embrace the mission of small schools to be inclusive of students with special needs, to require open admissions practices, and to support creative instructional practices and staffing models.

Ongoing support must be available from the district to address the challenges in staffing – allocating related service providers, such as psychologists, social workers, speech pathologists, OTs, and PTs, along with IEP team members who are knowledgeable and supportive of the mission of small schools.

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