Volume 21, Number 17 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Sept. 5 - 11, 2008

Back to School 2008

Is it special if your son is placed with special ed kids?

By Pam Frederick

Graham couldn’t write. At 5, entering kindergarten, he couldn’t effectively hold a pencil and even draw with some accuracy. This was no great crisis nor was it a sign of anything other than the simple fact that he, well, couldn’t write. Still, it cramped his style. He was reluctant to sit and draw with his pals, and there were plenty of times when he would have found it rewarding or satisfying to get his message across in print.

So after two years of preschool, endless urging from his art teacher grandmother, and a few wasted Leapfrog purchases, it took his teacher at P.S. 234 about two weeks to break him. Hold the pencil like so, she said, with this rubber grip. Rest your elbow on the table. Do these worksheets every night, using dots as the starting point for your letters — G-R-A-H-A-M. Do it till it comes easily. That was it. Nothing complicated, but it sure was satisfying for all of us — most of all Graham, who somehow felt validated now that he had homework like his big brother. He went at it with gusto.

His teacher, Jan Benson, is a special education teacher, but since Graham, a regular education student, is in P.S. 234’s first C.T.T. class — for Collaborative Team Teaching — he was the recipient of her expertise. His other teacher, Erica Davis, is a math specialist and a regular ed classroom teacher.

These C.T.T. classes are intended to integrate special ed students who require some services from the school — physical therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, speech therapy — into the regular education classes. With two fully certified teachers to a maximum of 25 students total (and 12 special ed students), these classes are designed to, according to the Department of Education, “ensure that students with disabilities are educated alongside age-appropriate peers.”

But for the balance of the class, there was a clear benefit to having a teacher who knew just how to work with kids who, quite literally, couldn’t get a grip. As a special ed teacher, Benson has more than a few techniques to target a whole spectrum of skill development. I am going to guess that Graham was not the only one in there that needed a push here or some extra attention there — and with two teachers in the classroom, chances are they got it.

C.T.T. classes became an option in city public schools in 2000 and P.S. 89 in Battery Park City was one of the first schools to implement the program. Citywide, there are now nearly 30,000 students with disabilities of some kind in C.T.T. classes, according to the Department of Education. The program was introduced at P.S. 234 in the fall of 2007 with Graham’s kindergarten class, which is now moving up to first grade. This year, a new kindergarten C.T.T. group started, and the school leadership’s goal is to have one C.T.T. class in every grade.

In introducing the class to parents a year ago, the school and district leaders kept their cards pretty close to the chest as if they were anticipating some criticism or the usual strurm und drang that goes with any new program. Getting information was not easy — in fact, the program was not explained to parents until the first week of school — and there was an unwritten code that we were not to know which kids were needing services and which were regular ed. This top-secret attitude led me to believe, and I assume some others, that we somehow got the short straw.

But with a school year behind us, and entering our second “loop” with the same teachers and same kids, I can only assume that the majority of us parents figure we lucked out. Yes, there is a greater diversity in abilities and skills, but any teacher will tell you that spectrum exists in any regular ed classroom. Does a broader range make it harder to teach a class? Perhaps not when the M.O. is individualized instruction for each child. Are there more behavioral issues in a class where kids might have increased frustrations in the classroom? Anecdotally, it’s hard to find a class anywhere that doesn’t have one or two children who require more of the teacher’s attention.

Should the school successfully advocate for its goal of one C.T.T. class in each grade, some questions remain. What happens in older grades, once the curriculum becomes more intense and more content-based? In Graham’s case, both Benson and Davis are master teachers — not only experienced in the classroom, but also especially skilled at evaluating and knowing each child’s strengths and weaknesses. But is every teacher up to the challenge of truly individualized instruction?

And with that in mind, what happens to the child who can move faster than the majority? Can she be sufficiently challenged? Will she be less likely to push herself in a classroom with such a broad diversity of learners?

Of course, much of this analysis is lost on the kids. As one of my fellow parents said, “They are just happy to be there.” And perhaps that is the most we can ask for of any educational setting.

With two teachers and 22 students, by the numbers, this is the ratio jackpot. Now I wonder why every class is not structured the same way, and I have begun to apply that thought to the broader question of school overcrowding. Yes, class sizes must be kept in check and yes, the overall school enrollment must be reduced to make the school community more manageable. But isn’t the ultimate goal meeting each child’s needs? Making sure each child meets his potential? The mantra of individualized instruction is the way to achieve that, and two fully prepared teachers in each class goes most of the way to meeting that goal.

So as we observe the successes in these two new classes at P.S. 234, perhaps we should be on the lookout for a silver bullet.

Pam Frederick, an adjunct professor in Columbia University’s journalism graduate school, is raising three children in Tribeca with her husband.

 




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