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NOLA Ready to Lead the Nation Special Education? Not So Fast

A recent guest column was penned in the New Orleans Advocate entitled "New Orleans has the opportunity to lead the way for students with disabilities," in which the authors take the position that because the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), who regained control of the New Orleans school district from the Louisiana Recovery School District in July 2018, took steps to address the transition, that it is positioned to serve as a model special education program for other districts across the nation. Now while the authors make some interesting points, they fail to understand New Orleans and its culture. New Orleans is not a one-size-fits-all city. It is unique in many ways, some good, some bad, but in order for any education reform initiative to work you must understand the people. These authors clearly don't.

Having spent much of my career as a special educator in public schools, from schools in the progressive Northeast to New Orleans (pre- and post-Katrina), I've been involved with implementing special education policies first hand. Unlike the authors, it isn't something I learned about in a book in order to become an authority on the subject. In fact, it takes years of study in combination with time in the classroom to see how policies unfold.

I've seen great, well thought out policies fall flat and I've seen what I believed to be complex, overly technical policies go on to become great successes. What looks good on paper may not necessarily transition well into certain schools or with certain populations of students. But regardless, for special education policies to become successes administrators need to consider, and in some instances solicit advice, from the teachers and support staff in the trenches.

A major issue I have with the opinion piece is that the authors, based in Vermont and New York, make assumptions based on OPSB plans to address special education in the district without fully understanding how New Orleans operates. While they do note that the district has significantly changed since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, they don't consider the fact that the student population has fundamentally not. Sure we've built some shiny, new school buildings, recruited nationally to staff our schools with highly educated teachers (more on this later), but that doesn't address the issues our district dealt with pre-Katrina.

A large portion of the student population is comprised of children from low-income families dealing with the realities of growing up in high-crime neighborhoods: drug dealers, gang violence, domestic violence, lack of access to nutritional food, etc. Exposure to these situations has led to behavioral problems in addition to a students underlying disability. Until we address the root causes of these behavioral issues, it will be difficult to successfully accommodate their academic needs.

For New Orleans to meet the needs of its special education students, first it needs to recruit experienced special educators. For years the city has relied on a steady stream of Teach For America graduates. While many of the graduates come with excellent academic resumes, little to none have any special education training outside of the five weeks they spend over the summer learning how to be teachers. According to many of the TFA graduates I've spoken to over the years, little if any of that time is spent on how to work with children with special needs. So now you have brand new teachers assigned to a caseload of students with disabilities who don't have the fundamental knowledge to address student specific needs. Not only are we not failing to meet students needs, but we're doing a disservice to these new teachers who are already struggling just to get through their day. This has led to a high turnover rate among teachers, resulting in no continuity for students, which for special needs students is critical. Moreover, in most school districts throughout the nation beginning teachers often turn to seasoned colleagues for guidance, but in New Orleans this frequently isn't an option as the most senior special educator on staff has only a few years under their belt.

The authors suggest that OPSB will be able to leverage reunification to build innovative systems by pooling expertise among the district, but as explained above this suggestion is fundamentally flawed. There isn't enough expertise in the district to go around. And with low wages and rising living costs, the city is struggling to recruit talent. The solution to this issue may be that OPSB hire consultants with the necessary expertise to work with existing staff through a mix of teacher training, on-site support and online tools teachers can utilize to meet student needs. While this may result in some initial costs, as staff continues to grow and gain experience, then these services (and the costs associated with them) will naturally be either reduced or discontinued.

Lastly, the authors suggest that incentivizing schools to enroll special needs students with additional funding will lead to higher rates of enrollment. However, they fail to understand how this process currently exists in New Orleans. It is well-known among the city's residents that certain charter schools avoid enrolling special needs students, while others are more accommodating. Some schools even have developed a reputation of actively seeking out special needs students in order to enroll in their program, touting their focus on working with children with disabilities. But when the students do enroll, many of these schools often don't have the resources to accommodate specific student needs. Some even convince parents that certain IEP goals from the student's previous school were unreasonable and should be eliminated. Thus, worrying more about their bottom line than student success. 

While New Orleans schools have made significant progress since Katrina, as a whole they still have a long way to go. Special education is something even blue ribbon school districts in this country struggle to deal with as costs associated with providing services continue to rise as does the population of special needs students. It is refreshing news to hear that OPSB is taking steps to improve special education in New Orleans and I look forward to watching the progress unfold over the next few years. Our special needs students deserve the same educational opportunities as students not only in other districts in Louisiana, but in other schools across the nation. I'm hoping OPSB seeks our advice from multiple sources and doesn't rely solely on policy "experts" who have never set foot inside a New Orleans school.