If everyone's included, no one’s left behind

“Education, then, beyond all other divides of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

— Horace Mann, 1848

We believe the best way to solve a problem is to first identify and define it.

Earlier this month, we published a front-page story reporting that the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School district has been identified as a potential target school, and may be in need of intervention, for its special-education program.

BKW students with disabilities who were tested were among the lowest 10-percent in their group for English, math, and science, and were also among the lowest 10 percent for growth in English and math, according to a spokeswoman for the State Education Department.

We ran a similar front-page story in 2011 when Lynnwood Elementary School in Guilderland was listed as a school in need of improvement; Lynnwood draws students with special needs needs from across the district.

We followed up with coverage of Lynnwood’s Literacy Collaborative program, in which coaches are trained in classroom methods that can reach all students including those who are struggling, and those coaches then work interactively to train classroom teachers. It is based on the same principles used in the Reading Recovery program, but generalized for the classroom.

Six years later, in 2017, we reported how standardized test scores from Lynnwood students had not only equaled the test results of the rest of the district but, in some cases, surpassed them.

Neither of our local schools is alone in their struggles. For a decade, New York State has been on a federal watch list for not adequately helping special-education students.

A State Education Department report delivered this month to the Board of Regents, which sets education policy for the state, noted a total of 44 districts statewide are identified by the federal government for compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA — 27 districts need assistance and 17 need intervention.

Under IDEA, students are entitled, for free, to accommodations, supports, interventions, and services to enable them to have access and make progress in the general-education curriculum. Each student with disabilities follows an Individualized Education Program, known as an IEP,  outlining services determined by an IEP team, typically made up of teachers, parents, and administrators.

Berne-Knox-Westerlo, with 15 percent of its students identified with disabilities, is not out of line with the national average for identified students in public schools. In 2014, about 6 million students, which is about 13 percent of students in the United States, were eligible for special education.

With 762 students in its schools, BKW has, according to a December presentation made by Susan Sloma, BKW’s director of Pupil Personnel Services,118 students with disabilities — 44 have learning disabilities, 27 have health impairments, 21 have speech and language impairments, 11 have multiple disabilities, eight are on the autism spectrum, and seven have emotional disturbances.

But BKW is below the state averages for test results of students with disabilities. According to the latest, from 2018: For students with disabilities statewide, 13.8 percent were proficient in English and 14.6 percent were proficient in math.

In 2018, forty-one students with disabilities were tested in English at BKW and 4 of them, or 10 percent, were proficient. In math, 39 students with disabilities were tested and two of them, or 5 percent, were proficient.

Berne-Knox-Westerlo faces an added problem, not faced by Guilderland. Forty percent of its students receive lunches for free (35 percent) or for a reduced-price (another 5 percent) — an indication of poverty.

The effects of poverty can clearly be seen in the most recent student test scores, posted by the State Education Department. In 2018, among BKW students who are not economically disadvantaged, 56 percent of the 177 students tested were proficient in math and 62 percent of the 191 students tested were proficient in English in 2018.

Compare this with students who are disadvantaged economically: 34 percent of the 131 students tested were proficient in English and 27 percent of the 128 tested were proficient in math.

The gap is wide: Well over half of the students who are not economically disadvantaged are proficient in math and close to two-thirds are proficient English while only about a third of economically disadvantaged students at BKW are proficient in English and only about a quarter are proficient in math.

This is a nationwide trend and the gap is growing.

“If we do not find ways to reduce the growing inequality in education outcomes — between the rich and the poor — schools will no longer be the great equalizer we want them to be,” wrote Sean F. Reardon in “Educational Leadership” 2010.

He examined the student achievement gap over the last five decades in the United States and noted how it had grown along with the income gap. And the gaps have grown wider since then.

The Tauck Family Foundation, based in Connecticut, the state with the widest achievement gap, has created a concise synopsis of research on the gap, noting, “The achievement gap typically emerges as early as infancy and widens over time, making it exceedingly difficult for these children to attain the education and skills that could lift them out of poverty.”

Among the points highlighted by the foundation are:

— Children from low-income households entering kindergarten and first grade are already significantly behind their more affluent peers in terms of academic knowledge, and cognitive and social skills;

— Third-graders who both live in poverty and read below grade level are three times more likely to drop out of high school than students who have never been poor;

— Fourth-graders from low-income families are likely to be academically three years behind their peers from affluent families;

— Sixth-graders in high-poverty schools who fail math or English or exhibit unsatisfactory behavior have a 75 percent chance of dropping out of high school;

— Students in low-performing schools are five times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers from high-performing schools;

— High school seniors from low-income families are, on average, four years behind their higher-income peers;

— Only one out of two students from low-income families graduate from high school; and

— Nationally, only 33 percent of high school students from low-income households go to college and only 8 percent will complete a degree within six years of matriculation.

Much research has also shown a distinct correlation between low-income students and those placed in special-education programs.

“Nearly seven million children with disabilities currently receive Special Education services, roughly 13.5 percent of total enrollment in public and private schools,” wrote Jessica L. Cohen in a 2007 paper for the Brookings Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.  “This number has been growing steadily since 1975 when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHCA) was passed and when only one in five children with disabilities was being educated in the public school system.”

She goes on to note that special education has grown by 40 percent since the early 1990s, largely due to the increasing diagnosis of “soft disabilities” such as mild mental/behavioral disorders, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the rising inclusion of preschool and kindergarten students with developmental delays. Nearly a quarter of total education spending is dedicated to special-education services.

In January, The Century Foundation, a not-for-profit think tank based in New York City, released a report, “Students from Low-Income Families and Special Education,” that studied the relationship between poverty and special-education placement in three unnamed states — two moderately-sized states (between 500,000 students and 1.5 million students) and one large state (greater than 1.5 million students).

The researchers found, across all three states:

— Students from low-income families were more likely to be identified for special education than their non-low-income peers; and

— Students from low-income families were also more likely to be placed in substantially separate classrooms than their non-low-income peers.

“Past research has assumed a positive correlation between poverty and special education assignment to be appropriate,” the authors, Laura A. Schifter, Todd Grindal, Gabriel Schwartz, and Thomas Hehir, write, “because children in poverty have experiences (lead exposure, low-birthweight, malnutrition) that tend to be more associated with disability.”

However, the authors continue, “We find that students from low-income families are more often identified in more subjective disability categories, and that, once identified as such, students from low-income families are more often placed in substantially separate classrooms where expectations for success tend to be lower, education outcomes tend to be worse, and stigma associated with special education is higher.

The authors discuss what has long been known as the “paradox of special education”: Special education provides students with critical services, supports, accommodations, and legal rights that help them succeed in school; yet, at the same time, special-education identification can result in lowered expectations from teachers, limited access to the general education curricula, and stigma.

Berne-Knox-Westerlo has already put into place two major initiatives that should help uncouple the dilemma at the heart of the paradox on special education:

— Students with disabilities are being included in general-education classrooms.

In the 2016-17 school year, following state directives, BKW eliminated two elementary self-contained classrooms, making in-district classes fully inclusive for kindergarten through sixth grade. In 2018-19, six to eight self-contained programs will be eliminated, making in-district classes fully inclusive through eighth grade.

Staff has been trained in co-teaching, Susan Sloma told the school board in December.

This initiative does away with the stigma for special-education students and the problem of lowered expectations; and

— A half-day prekindergarten program was started in 2007 and expanded this school year to include full-day as well. This BKW program helps to close the gap that begins before kindergarten with students from wealthier homes having more academic knowledge as well as better cognitive and social skills.

Results from current BKW initiatives are already evident as the drop-out rate has declined from 22 percent three years ago to zero the past two years. Having a high school diploma is a useful first step for any student but particularly for one climbing out of poverty.

We applaud the district philosophy that Sloma expressed to the school board in December: “They are ours,” she said. “They are BKW kids. They are not being kicked out … They are still a part of our community.”

We hope the community continues to respond in kind. The robust support of BKW school budgets in recent years has been heartening. We urge continued support; without it, students can’t be helped as schools more and more have to compensate for social ills.

Further, we urge parents to have their students take the state-required tests.

The tests provide a valuable way for educators to learn how best to help students. And, according to BKW’s superintendent, Timothy Mundell, students not taking required tests in the past is what led to the potential for the district to be targeted for possible intervention.

Just as students’ needs must be identified and understood in order for teachers to meet them, so, too, must a school district’s needs be identified and understood in order for a community to meet them.

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