A day without barriers

To promote a video call center for people with hearing problems, Samsung Turkey trained people in sign language to set up a “day without barriers” for a young, deaf man named Muharrem. (His sister was in on it.) It’s a lovely ad.

Can’t learn or don’t care?

David Rose founded CAST (Center for Applied Technology) to help learning disabled students understand their lessons. The most pervasive learning disability is emotional, the neuropsychologist tells Hechinger’s Chris Berdik. “We’ve seen that technology can do a lot of stuff to support students, but the real driver is do they actually want to learn something,” says Rose.

CAST has developed Udio, an online reading curriculum aimed at middle-school students who read poorly — and hate doing it.

Rather than the usual “See Spot run” fare of remedial reading, Udio starts by finding kids something they really want to read. Students choose from tons of online articles donated by Sports Illustrated for Kids, NASA, and Yahoo News, among many others, organized by topic. Some articles simply inform, such as a story on bat research or a profile of an extreme athlete, while others cover controversial issues, such as genetically modified food or doctor-assisted suicide. Every article is presented with supports that students can use if they need them, including text-to-speech that will read the article out loud (the kids wear headphones) while highlighting each word, and audible, one-click word translations for English-language learners.

. . . The program prompts students to display what they felt about each article by clicking words like annoying, calming, sad or curious, and then it shows them what their classmates thought about the same articles. Students also make Web-based presentations about the topics that most interest them, using a mix of writing, recorded speech, images and design elements to summarize, draw inferences and make arguments supported by evidence from the reading. They can visit each other’s projects to comment and debate, which they eagerly do.

The goal is to persuade students that reading is something they might want to do, something that is meaningful to them.

In pilots, remedial readers panicked at multiple-choice quizzes to test comprehension.  “These kids have had trouble with tests all through school,” Rose says. “It made the reading feel more like, ‘Oh, this is something I have to do. The teacher gave me this test that, once again, will show that I couldn’t learn anything.’ ”

So Udio tests comprehension by asking readers to solve a puzzle. “Passages from the text appear with blanks and a choice of key words students can choose to make the passage whole again.”

‘Accountability’ proposal is anti-choice

The Charter School Accountability Agenda is a “front” for opponents of school choice and reform, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. The authors, Center for Popular Democracy and In the Public Interest, have union backing, he writes.

The agenda includes requiring an “impact analysis” on how new charters would affect district-run schools. It’s “absurd” to let existing schools keep out the competition, Biddle writes. That’s especially true in cities: Urban charters improve achievement — and raise the odds students will earn a diploma and go to college — according to Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes and Rand studies.

KIPP charter students in Manhattan. Photo: Beth Fertig, WNYC.

KIPP charter students in Manhattan. Photo: Beth Fertig, WNYC.

The agenda would let district schools keep per-pupil funding when students transfer to charters. “Why should any district be entitled to receive dollars for kids they are no longer serving?” asks Biddle.

It also calls for charters to enroll as many special-needs students as traditional schools.

Charters have fewer special-ed students because they’re less likely to put a disability label on students with learning problems, Biddle writes. They focus on teaching struggling students instead of sticking them in a “special ed ghetto.”

The American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed the agenda, ran a very low-performing charter school in New York City, notes Biddle. The school met just one of 38 goals set by its authorizer and was “rated a failure mill” by the city’s education department. The school had little tolerance for special ed students.

UFT Charter meted out-of-school suspensions to 17.8 percent of special ed students in 2011-2012 and in-school suspensions to another 20 percent of them, according to data submitted by the school to the U.S. Department of Education. This is higher than the out-of-school and in-school suspension rates of  1.5 percent and 6.5 percent for kids in regular classrooms.

United Federation of Teachers, the New York City local, will close the K-8 school, but hopes to keep the high school going.

NYC union’s failing K-8 charter will close

Running a charter school is harder than the United Federation of Teachers thought. The New York City union will close its failing charter school’s elementary and middle school, but ask for authority to continue its high school.

Students read at UFT's charter school in 2013. Photo: Geoffrey Knox

A reading class at UFT’s charter school. Photo: Geoff Decker

“When the school opened in 2005, then-UFT President Randi Weingarten said its success would demonstrate that unions could play a starring role in efforts to improve the school system,” write Geoff Decker and Sarah Darville on Chalkbeat NY. Weingarten also hoped to show that a union contract was not an “impediment to success.”

The UFT Charter School has been one of the lowest-performing charters in the city.

“Under Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s new school-grading system, the school earned the lowest of four marks in all four categories, including the school environment and its success at closing the achievement gap,” write Decker and Darville.

Curiously, only 2 percent of the school’s students are English Learners and 10 percent –below the public-school average — have an Individual Education Plan.

Unions and charter schools don’t mix, writes Darren. Two California charters run by schools of education — UC Davis and Stanford — also closed due to poor performance, he observes.

Don’t call me a ‘retard’

It’s Time to Stop Using the Word “Retard,” writes Kasey Studdard, a professional football player. Before he had his growth spurt and became a star athlete, he was a “slow, little, fat kid” with learning disabilities. He was “teased, ridiculed, and isolated.” 

His mother, a teacher, helped him keep up in school, despite his information processing problems, he writes.

In college and the pros, he had to work much, much harder than anyone else to learn the plays. “Even after I considered them memorized, I still made sure to go back to my diagrams, to stay late to ask questions of the coaching staff, and to sit for extra video sessions.”

With his wife, Studdard is launching a foundation to “allow children to experience the joys of the outdoors . . . without fear of being singled out on account of being disabled, or slow, or poor … or different.”

Studdard is part of a Special Olympics’ campaign to stop the use of  “the r-word” (retard). It’s often used as an insult.

Here’s an argument in favor of keeping “retarded” as an acceptable term for intellectual disability.

Stacie Lewis, who has a disabled daughter, agrees that the word “retard” isn’t the issue. “Treating the disabled humanely is.”

No evidence of ‘push-out’ at NYC charters

Attrition is lower at elementary charter schools in New York City than at neighboring schools, concludes a new analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

About 64 percent of students attending charter schools in kindergarten in school year 2008-2009 remained in the same school four years later, compared with 56 percent of students attending nearby traditional public schools.

In addition, special-needs students are more likely to remain at a charter than a traditional school, the IBO reported. That’s a change from last year’s report, which looked only at students in full-time special ed classes, notes the New York Times. Most special-needs students are mainstreamed.

High-needs students are segregated in low-performing district schools in the city, charges Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter group.  Ninety-three district schools in New York City “serve less than 1% of either English Language Learner or Special Needs students.”

Is it ADHD, fetal alcohol or both?

Some children diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are “alcohol babies,” according to Ira Chasnoff, a Chicago pediatrician. Of 156 foster children referred for behavior disorders — most diagnosed with ADHD — 81 percent had fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), he found.

ADHD diagnoses have increased by 42 percent in 12 years, writes Olga Khazan in The Atlantic.

Unlike children affected by fetal alcohol syndrome, which is the most severe condition on the spectrum, those with other types of FASD may not have facial anomalies. Thus, the issue may go unnoticed by physicians for years.

“Many alcohol babies will look normal, so no one thinks of doing the toxicology,” Chasnoff said. Nationally, about 20 percent of women drink during pregnancy, but only about 3.6 percent of children have been diagnosed with FASD.

Of course, kids who’ve ended up in foster care are much more likely to have heavy-drinking mothers.

“About 74 percent of children with FASD do meet criteria for ADHD,” Chasnoff said, “but, because of all the neurochemistry changes from the alcohol, it’s a different kind of ADHD” and requires different treatment and medications.

Years ago, I visited a rehab program for drug-addicted mothers and their children. A staffer told me that “crack babies” get better. “Fetal alcohol babies” do not, she said. They suffer lifelong learning and behavioral disabilities.

Florida drops special-ed diploma

Florida’s special-ed students must take college-prep classes required for a standard diploma, reports The Ledger. A new state law has abolished the special diploma alternative. .

At Roosevelt Academy, a school for learning-disabled students in Lake Wales, ninth-graders were transferred from intensive math to Algebra I two months into the school year to comply with the law.

The special diploma is not accepted by state universities and may not be accepted by state colleges, technical centers, employers or the military.

But at Roosevelt Academy, teachers don’t encourage their students to go to college.

“We tell them that if you want to go to college, don’t come to our school,” said Phillip Miles, a life skills math teacher. “We’re preparing you for work, not college.”

Miles’ students are way behind in math. His class taught practical skills such as how to make a budget or calculate sales tax.

About 80 percent of Roosevelt Academy graduates have jobs by the time they collect their special diploma. That’s goal they and their parents set when creating an Individualized Education Plan.

Till now, special-ed students could earn a special diploma by mastering the “employment and community competencies” in the IEP and completing a semester of successful employment.

Now all students will have till age 22 to pursue a standard diploma — or settle for a certificate of completion.

Teachers are supposed to make college-prep courses accessible for disabled students.

In geometry, for example, a student who has trouble writing or speaking might point to an equilateral triangle rather than draw one or explain why it is equilateral.

. . . “They have to fail for four years before they even get a certificate of completion,” said Henry Smith, vocational teacher and career placement coordinator for Roosevelt. “I guarantee you the dropout rate is going to be astronomical.”

Seventeen states offer only a standard diploma, according to a 2013 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Parents choose special-ed charters

Charters designed for students with disabilities are renewing the “inclusion debate,” reports Arianna Prothero in Ed Week.

A student adds a Ninja Turtle head to his chart as a reward for completing a class activity at Arizona Autism Charter School. —Patrick Breen for Education Week
A student adds a Ninja Turtle head to his chart as a reward for completing a class activity at Arizona Autism Charter School.
—Patrick Breen for Education Week

Diana Diaz-Harrison opened a charter school in Phoenix for her son, who has autism, and similar students. The Arizona Autism Charter School, which enrolls 90 students, “is among dozens of charters nationwide that focus on serving students with disabilities,” writes Prothero.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires that students with disabilities be taught in the “least restrictive environment.” That usually means mainstreaming students.

Some parents prefer a specialized school designed for their children’s needs.

About 100 charters are designed for special-ed students, according to the  Center for Education Reform. While some are disability-specific, others “serve children with a range of disabilities as well as their typically developing peers.”

Several years ago, I visited charters designed for disabled and mainstream students in Michigan and California as a freelance writer on Unique Schools for Unique Students, a Center on Reinventing Public Education book on charters for special-needs students.

Not everyone thinks mainstreaming is the best strategy.

“A majority of kids with disabilities are performing very poorly—very, very poorly—where they receive all or most of their instruction in the mainstream classroom,” said Doug Fuchs, a special education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “Inclusion must account for whether or not students are profiting educationally from the mainstream setting.”

Many students at Arizona Autism Charter School were doing poorly in mainstream classrooms, says Diaz-Harrison.

Special-ed co-teachers may function as “very expensive finger pointers,” writes Peter DeWitt, who’s taught inclusion classes, in Ed Week. The Goldilocks quandary remains: “How do we find a balance between having higher expectations without making those expectations so high that we continue to make a marginalized population of students feel even more marginalized?”

Special ed kids sort trash, parents complain

Special ed students won’t be assigned to sort trash as part of a “life skills” class at a Southern California high school. Patriot High special-ed students were told to go through campus bins to find recyclables that had been thrown away.

Jurupa Unified Superintendent Elliot Duchon apologized to angry parents for the assignment.

“It is disgusting,” said Carmen Wells, who complained after learning her autistic son was digging through trash on his first day as a high school freshman.