Alternative Learning for Students with Special Needs

Oct 19, 2017

Children with disabilities are some of the most frequently suspended students in public schools, according to a recent report. What does that mean for the future of special education? More and more attention is given to alternative education programs. WMRA’s Marguerite Gallorini visits a special kind of school in Charlottesville.

Students with disabilities are suspended two and a half times more often as other students in Virginia, according to a recent report from The Legal Aid Justice Center. One of their recommendations is to provide Social and Emotional Learning programs (or SEL).

[Children at Park School]

BROOKE MCCOY: If students aren't socially or emotionally healthy, it's hard to expect a lot academically. So really we put a lot of emphasis on the social-emotional growth of each of our students, and academics always falls in place.

Brooke McCoy is a history teacher, and the head of Park School in Charlottesville. Created in 2009, it grew from its initial base of only two students, to up to 16 students. They have a partnership with American High School, a fully accredited, private online high school.

Kate Ciszek is now the Learning Coordinator at Park School, but she was a special education teacher in the public school system – and she is concerned by the high suspension rate for students with disabilities.

KATE CISZEK: I got so frustrated in the public school where there's so much pushing through just to get through, to get on to the next academic checkpoint, so that the behavioral teachings, and checking in with wellbeing, mental health of students, it has to fall by the wayside, just because of the sheer number of kids and the goal being primarily academic.

Suspended students then enter a spiral: they miss class, and then they fall behind, and then their whole academic achievement is at stake. Sixteen-year-old Liza Phillips says it's different at Park School.

LIZA PHILLIPS: I've had times in where I've missed something, and I've gone back to a teacher later and said "Hey, can we find time when we're both free so I can get a better grasp on it." You just don't have that access in other schools.

[English class]

To address the suspension issue, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents is working to put forward some recommendations for the Department of Education. Tom Smith, the Legislative Liaison for the association, says they would like more funding for alternative education programs, and a better utilization of the Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports, an alternate education process based on what researchers are learning about behavior in schools.

TOM SMITH: Right now, they are limited in utilizing that because of funding, approximately 30 percent of school divisions out of 132 school divisions have been able to participate. We would like to see funding so that more could do that, so that we can work with these children that have difficulty before the situation gets to a point where they have to be suspended or placed and all that.

Back at Park School, Brooke McCoy says they are focused on variables that are harder to measure. 

MCCOY: The hard thing is monitoring progress: the kind of progress we see here isn't always numbers, it's not always scores. It might be a student is anxious going to math class for the last couple of days: those are the kind of progress monitoring that we see here.

That was the case of Carly for instance – Liza’s twin sister.

CARLY PHILLIPS: I used to be really bad at math, but I'm actually getting good grades now because I have teachers who can actually stop and explain what everything means and give me the attention I need to actually learn how to do it correctly.

And this nurturing environment does not mean children have no responsibilities.

MCCOY: They have chores everyday - since our school is a house, we do not have anyone who comes in and cleans and things so that's up to the kids. They take a lot of responsibility for this place. We don't clean: they do it themselves.

Another big emphasis is community service: they have a requirement of 25 hours each semester.

MCCOY: Some of the kids are going to do a Defend Love project, and start kind of an art gallery project to raise money for the things that transpired here in Charlottesville.  Our kids really take a lot of initiative when it comes to their volunteer work.

According to Tom Smith, who has also been a superintendent in Fluvanna County and was Director of Special Education Programs for almost 40 years, such an engaging environment is really the key ingredient.

SMITH: To be honest with you, the best discipline-reduction process is to have children engaged in learning. When they're engaged, they're moving forward, and discipline does go down. I think programs like that, if they’re structured, if they're well planned and funded, I think alternative education programs can be very productive.