Elevating Special Education
"Children with disabilities will only meet their potential if they have effective teachers," says John O'Connor, executive director for special services at DeKalb (Ga.) County School System, a metropolitan Atlanta school district in the second-largest county in the state.
Through an intense collaborative effort, O'Connor has helped reinvent instruction for special education students who, combined with ELLs, amount to about 17 percent of the total student population.
O'Connor came to DeKalb in 2006 after teaching special education for students with orthopedic impairments and serving as an administrator. Forty-one percent of students with disabilities spent 80 percent or more of their school day in general education classes. "We needed to increase inclusion and to improve instruction in our general and special education classes for students with disabilities."
A New Direction
O'Connor's first step was to use technology to ease the administrative burden. "We use an electronic application called TIENET that streamlines paperwork. It makes ongoing, real-time data available so that we can analyze our efforts and make targeted improvements across our large school district."
In 2007, DeKalb began implementing Project ICE (instruction, collaboration and environment). Its goals were to promote the preferred model of co-teaching in which students with and without disabilities are placed in small, flexible instructional groups led by both teachers; and to implement specific instructional practices that have the greatest impact on disabled or struggling students.
For Project ICE to succeed, O'Connor needed to improve instruction. "Decades of research have shown us that what happens between teachers and students has the greatest impact on how those students learn," he says. "Students with disabilities and all students need great instruction, or instruction that is both guided by the standards and rigorous with research-based strategies."
DeKalb has focused on eight instructional practices, four for all classes; four for math classes. These include focusing on implementing effective proactive and reactive strategies for behavior, increasing practice turns and feedback, providing effective vocabulary instruction, and implementing fill-in-the-gap fluency instruction. Math teachers focus on providing explicit instruction, reinforcing student effort, teaching students how to approach word problems and modeling and expecting "thinking aloud."
For the last three summers, a team from each of the district's 138 schools has learned how to deliver these instructional practices. The teams—which include principals, assistant principals, general education teachers, special education teachers and instructional coaches—are taught how to develop IEPs that support students with disabilities in general education classes. "Once we train people on the instructional practices, they can share what they've learned with their colleagues," says O'Connor.
A district-wide effort like this one requires buy-in from every level, and O'Connor is grateful for the tremendous support he receives. Ramona Tyson, the district's interim superintendent, says, "John has done an excellent job in shifting from paperwork to data and improving the instructional component of the special education department."
"Today, more than 60 percent of students with disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their day in general education classes. Student performance has also improved. Between 2009 and 2010, there was an 8.4 percent increase in the graduation rate for students with disabilities across DeKalb. Most importantly—our classroom teachers are diligently implementing instructional practices that are having a positive impact on our students with disabilities."