Congratulations, Your High Achiever Has Classmates Who Have Disabilities!
On January 2012, NYC Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott sent a strongly worded email (Word doc) to the city’s competitive screened high schools, saying that they will be required to admit students with disabilities at a percentage equivalent to the percentage in their district or borough.
At the time, my child was in 2nd grade in a special education school, struggling to read and write and control his behavior. If there was a protest against these students from entering these high schools, it was of little importance to me. Little did I know that this decision would change my son’s life and put him on a corrected path to educational success after the system had failed him for so many years.
First things first, to the parents of children who worked so hard to achieve the higher test scores and grades they needed for acceptance in these rigorous schools, know this: For the most part, your child’s application was considered in a different pool of mostly non-disabled students and the average grades in that pool was likely higher than the average grades of the pool of students with disabilities (SWDs). How much higher those grades are is a number that is never published. Parents should also know that there are plenty of disabled students whose applications were not eligible to enter the SWD applicant pool because they did not have a special education teacher for 20% of their school day. Thus, a disabled student could be receiving speech, occupational, and physical therapy every day and still not be included in the special pool of applicants.
Some may also consider this admissions policy to be a “lowering of the bar” because the disabled students did not have as high grades as their non-disabled peers. These concerns are duly noted. Maybe the disabled student may not have achieved such high scores, but think of who this new classmate is because, in truth, there is no lowering of any bars. How could there be when these children work so hard to overcome their disability every single day? Can you imagine how difficult school is when you can’t read unless you have headphones, a break in routine could destroy your morning, you forget something a minute after it’s said, you can’t move from class to class without a person to help you or a wheelchair to transport you? This child is an example of resilience that few of his non-disabled classmates will ever experience in their childhood or perhaps their lifetime.
In an age when we worry about our children being too busy with homework and team sports to wash dishes and empty the trash, parents of typically developing children might develop a new appreciation for their child’s disabled classmate. When these students with disabilities walk through the halls of their rigorous schools, even the students with poor behavior know deep down inside how fortunate they are to attend a school with high expectations and ambitious classmates. Even if they are only pulling Cs with tremendous effort, if they haven’t given up, couldn’t you consider this classmate an amazing role model? Who better to emulate the growth mindset than a student who shows up every day when the odds are stacked so high against them?
Success with Inclusion Can Demonstrate Cutting-Edge Education
While all screened schools may be forced to accept students with disabilities, not every screened school is going to do inclusion well. In some of these schools, there are excellent special education teachers providing integrated instruction to students with disabilities who may have the intelligence but not yet possess the academic skills to keep pace with the others. These special ed teachers along with the general teachers are pushed day after day to balance the needs of everyone while still providing rigorous instruction. The resulting creative solutions are what I call cutting-edge education because there are few previous models for offering accelerated education to disabled students. If your child is not yet in high school, then
here’s a good school research tip: find evidence that shows the school can elevate every child in the classroom, not just the students who have good habits and can afford tutors when needed. Those results will show the might and dedication of the teachers and the administration that supports them. That’s the school you want your child to attend.
For my fellow parents of SWDs whose children’s IEPs say that your child needs to have a special ed teacher in their classes otherwise known as Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT): If your child is going to a school that historically has not provided this service, I implore you to guard your child’s rights come September. Do not agree to give up this service unless they are going to offer you something that will not diminish the quality of their education and their access to schedule choices. All non-screened schools provide these services to freshmen every year without complaint! Why should a screened or specialized high school be excused from this responsibility? Parents of non-disabled students, please support these parents. By condoning the removal of this service, you are allowing a strain on the disabled student, your child, and your child’s teachers. Everyone loses.
No school, including specialized high schools, has the right to deny special education services to students with disabilities. “There aren’t enough students to do ICT,” is sometimes heard by parents of high-cognition learners who are disabled, often called twice-exceptional. While any new mandated service provision may require a school to reconfigure its budget, a school does not have any grounds to say that they cannot provide ICT service because of insufficient funding. These schools need to recognize the new norm of inclusion in accelerated learning environments. High schools now offer ICT services in AP classes too.
These days, there is much discussion on segregation and culturally responsive education but these conversations largely leave out the 22% of NYC students who are disabled. Where is the outcry for disabled students who will be affected by the Mayor’s proposal to change admissions to specialized high schools? Some disabled students can perform well on the SHSAT but may not have had good grades in school. Our current Public Advocate was one such student. Unlike screened schools, specialized high schools are not required to admit a percentage of disabled students because of state regulations. Moreover, the Mayor has never mentioned the needs of disabled students when proposing changes. Not surprisingly, none of the specialized high schools provide integrated co-teaching services and often have zero special education teachers listed on their budgets when some of these schools serve thousands of students. Who said accelerated students can’t have disabilities? It’s absolutely possible. Most of these schools are not fully wheelchair accessible either.
To be sure, there is still so much work to be done. Regardless of your child’s abilities, parents of all students would do well to support the inclusion of students with disabilities in their child’s school. Inclusion isn’t what’s best just for disabled students, it’s what’s best for all students.
Jenn Choi is a parent of a child with a disability attending a competitive screened school in New York City. She is the founder of 2eNYC, a listserv supporting the needs of twice-exceptional students (gifted students with disabilities).