A few months ago, I addressed the issue of inequity in Howard County Public Schools.
Another inequity exists that deserves a closer look: the one experienced by our special education students.
Granted, Howard County offers many superior services to these students. These services include:
- Extended School Year (ESY) options every July
- Our innovative Cedar Lane School Program, which offers specialized instruction, various types of therapy (speech, occupational, and physical), and assistive technology
- Social Opportunities and Relationships (SOAR) programs in elementary and middle schools
- A dedicated staff that constantly and diligently works to improve the learning experience for students who require extra services
However, to ensure that these students have the same opportunities as their peers, you have to look at all the facts, not just the positives. And after you do, you can see that we still have some work to do.
To begin, you must not lose sight of the fact that we are responsible for the education of Howard County students from ages 5 to 18. But to bridge the gap of special education, we must start our efforts prior to kindergarten by reaching out to parents with infants and toddlers.
The research is clear and consistent that quality Pre-K programs reduce the number of special education referrals. If we reach out to parents before their children come through our doors as kindergartners, it will lighten the load of our special education personnel in the future.
And there are many other great reasons for reaching out to families as often and as early as possible. The most important one is improving communication with parents. We know that sharing data with parents can better equip them to support their children’s learning. However, this element is often missing in our well-intentioned efforts with our special education students, which can leave parents feeling disenfranchised, or even hostile.
According to Zero to Three, we make parents partners in the decision-making process by building relationships with them early. And we make them part of a powerful, collaborative team that’s working in the best interests of the students. These teams can work together on a daily basis to assess each student’s progress, determine what is and isn’t working, and adjust instructional practices as needed.
Ultimately, we need to strive for full inclusion of every student in the regular classroom. Students cannot perform well on standardized tests if they are not exposed to the same content as their peers.
According to the HCPPS Special Education Annual Update, special education students in Howard County only improved their standardized tests scores by 2.8 percentage points between 2015 and 2017. Meanwhile, the scores of special education students in the general population in the US improved by 6.2 percentage points.
However, with adequate staff and appropriate scaffolding, we can give each student the full range of educational experience and allow them every chance for success.
Of course, ensuring that this process happens for every student requires a time commitment on the part of school personnel. So, ensuring that we consistently have an adequate number of staff to act on these measures must be a priority in our schools.
Although we’ve seen improved services and more opportunities for parental input over the years, it is clear that we need to do more.
The foundation has been laid for the support we need to successfully build early relationships with parents and achieve full inclusion. Nonprofit organizations such as the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education are ready to facilitate this type of effort. In fact, Maryland was awarded the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant in 2011.
So let’s keep working together to build a great future for every student in Howard County Public Schools.