By Carina Wells, Special Education Teacher, KIPP Baltimore
My first classroom was in a small village of Mongolia. Population: 2,000. Winter Temperature: -50 degrees Fahrenheit. Given the local context, at times it was difficult to create a rigorous environment which would prepare the students I was reaching through the Peace Corps for a post-secondary education.
When I returned home to Baltimore and became a special education teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools through Teach For America, I found that some classroom complexities crossed borders. I realized how much effort and time went into creating a rigorous environment for my students with learning differences.
As we mark April’s Autism Awareness Month, I’ve been reflecting on all the power and possibility that exists in the Baltimore classrooms where I’ve taught special education – and also the extra effort and training it takes as a special educator to help my students reach their full potential.
I currently serve as a Special Educator and Teacher Development Leader at KIPP Harmony Elementary School in Baltimore, and throughout my time in the classroom I have seen a lot of variation in students’ learning. Where some students need additional support to catch up, others can best show what they know through projects and portfolios.
At KIPP Harmony we strive to help all of our students make over a year’s worth of growth during each academic year, regardless of their background. By providing extensive, tailored supports to our students with special needs, while exposing them to the standards for their grade level, we have seen our students with special needs grow faster than their general education peers.
I think of students like Malcolm, who came to my classroom in third grade having barely made any reading progress since Kindergarten. Over the second half of last school year, Malcolm improved one and a half grade levels in reading. Now, because of his vastly improved reading skills, Malcolm has access to expanded educational opportunities and choices.
Unfortunately, students with special needs in Baltimore and across the country too often face environments which don’t meet their learning needs, limiting their academic and life opportunities. Department of Education data reveals that the four-year graduation rates of students classified with learning disabilities lag behind their peers by more than 40 percent in some states. The impact of this gap extends beyond school. The National Center for Learning Disabilities reports that nearly half of adults with learning disabilities are unemployed.
We can address this gap by creating a supportive environment for all students that requires a systemic understanding of ability-based mindsets and inclusive practices. It is imperative that our students with learning differences have teachers who believe in them, and who help them achieve at the highest levels.
Ensuring that students with learning differences have equal opportunities is truly transformational. I’m encouraged by the work happening across Baltimore to do just that.
Baltimore City Public Schools’ One Year Plus policy ensures that all students with special needs in Baltimore City are pushed to make more than one year of academic growth in each academic year. This policy ensures that we are pushing students to close the gap between their performance and grade level standards. Additionally, Teach For America-Baltimore is part of the organization’s national Special Education and Ability Initiative, which will strengthen partnerships between communities, families, and special education corps members to help meet students’ unique learning needs, as well as strengthen national teacher training around meeting students at their level and other key practices.
All students are capable of achieving at high levels, no matter how they learn. It’s our job as educators to invest in them, understand their learning needs, and tailor our instruction so that they can become anything they can dream.
Carina Wells is a Baltimore 2010 Teach For America Alumna and the Special Educator and Teacher Development Leader at KIPP Harmony Elementary School.