Aiming to prevent students with disabilities from falling behind, the Mountain View Whisman School District is preparing to solve a complicated problem with a simple solution: Add another teacher to the classroom.
At the Nov. 2 school board meeting, Special Education Director Gary Johnson told trustees that the district plans to add a secondary teacher to serve the role of "education specialist" in mainstream classrooms at both Crittenden and Graham middle schools.
The special education teacher would play a critical role in helping students who have special needs thrive in general education classrooms, and could open the door for teaching strategies and differentiation of instruction that a solo teacher simply can't do alone.
Though co-teaching will likely be expensive, and many of the details have yet to be ironed out, the strategy is expected to go a long way towards helping dozens of middle school students who have special needs outlined in their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and who stand to benefit from the extra attention. These are students who are in mainstream classrooms -- meaning they take classes alongside students without disabilities -- and Johnson said there's a growing body of evidence in recent years showing a boost in academic performance from co-teaching models.
Beyond test scores, Johnson said co-teaching helps to integrate children with disabilities with the rest of the school, allowing them to hone their social and communication skills with other students, develop friendships and have a more "realistic" school experience, according to a district staff report. Children without disabilities also have a greater opportunity to understand what it's like to live with a disability, and see first-hand the hurdles that special education students have to overcome, Johnson said.
"You get greater social integration with the students being in the same classroom together instead of segregated into separate classes," he said.
The district's Specific Learner Needs Task Force has been looking into co-teaching for a while, and parents say they're optimistic. District parent Christine Case-Lo told the Voice that it would be "amazing" if the district could offer full inclusion for students with disabilities, where another teacher actively tailors general education curriculum to meet the needs of individual special education students.
There are currently 192 students with IEPs at the district's two middle schools, a majority of whom are candidates for the co-teaching model next year, according to Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph. Once the district determines how many sections of co-teaching the district needs to support those students, there will be better estimates on how much the program will cost, he said.
Rudolph said he has personal experience with the model. He taught alongside a co-teacher at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia starting in the late 1990s, and said it was an elegant way to teach students with different needs and backgrounds. It was a strong partnership where he knew the curriculum content inside and out, and his co-teacher was a resource specialist who knew how to best present the information in a way that everyone in the class could understand, he said.
"There's a lot of power and benefits to it, and I think our parents are really excited for the opportunity that their kids can say, 'Hey, I learn a little bit differently but I contribute to the conversation as much as you do,'" Rudolph said.
Co-teaching models vary, but Rudolph emphasized the importance of adopting a format where both teachers are seen as equals, and neither teacher is perceived as an assistant who deals with just a break-out group of kids. The ideal situation is for both teachers to share the workload and design and develop lessons together.
During an event called the Inclusion Collaborative State Conference last month, Johnson said one teacher described exactly what the district wants to avoid: He showed up for his first day on the job with no idea that he was going to be sharing a classroom with another teacher, and was initially forced into an ancillary role.
"It took him two years before they really started giving him the responsibility to start participating in the instruction," Johnson said. "We don't want to take two years to get started -- we want to do better than that."
District officials say the co-teaching model is an essential part of a larger plan to reconfigure middle school schedules, with a goal of allowing students with disabilities and students still learning English the opportunity to take an elective class. Currently, the six-period schedule forces these students to take a special support class -- like English-language development or special education instructional support -- in place of an elective such as music, robotics or art.
Graham teacher Edgar Gomez told school board members that the district has short-changed kids with special needs by depriving them of an elective, calling it a "disservice" to the students who miss out on activities outside of the core curriculum.
"There's a large population within our community that is frustrated with the fact that we haven't been able to provide their child with a creative outlet," he said.