“I’m not going to that school. I don’t even like school,” Chase yelled at me. Running up and down a slide, holding a giant stick two feet taller than him, this almost kindergartener in tall white men’s tube socks, blue swim trunks, and a neon orange shirt was already giving me a run for my money—and school hadn’t even started yet. It was July 2016 and I was doing my home visit to Chase’s family in Southeast D.C. before Chase started at
Rocketship Rise Academy. I knew that we could create a learning environment where Chase could thrive. But I never imagined how far he would come in his first year. Those first three months with Chase were tough. He exhibited extreme behaviors almost all day long. He began the year unable to count, read any numbers, or name more than three letters. It’s no wonder Chase didn’t like school. He had been taught that school meant failure, that it meant frustration. So we set out to change that.
Fitting Every Student's Need
The foundation of our plan for Chase, and for all Rocketeers, is personalizing the curricula and school day to fit his needs. Chase is one of many of our Rocketeers with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). But unlike a lot of schools that isolate students with IEPs, Chase spends 80 percent of his school day in general education classrooms. Our educational specialists push into general classrooms and provide Chase the additional supports he needs. Our approach, we call it ‘meaningful inclusion,’ allows students like Chase to learn alongside his typical developing peers in a rigorous, common core-aligned curricula while still receiving the specialized services he needs. It also helps to combat stigma with other students who develop an understanding of and empathy towards the diverse learning needs of their peers.
An entire team of adults worked to implement and continually adjust Chase’s plans and programs throughout the year. Integrated Special Education (ISE) specialists like myself partnered with Chase’s classroom teachers, enrichment teachers, our school psychologist and school leaders to create a comprehensive learning plan for the year. The team came up with creative ways to help Chase find joy in learning and to keep him engaged. For example, when Chase was struggling to pay attention in class, a teacher took him on fun buddy lunches with friends to build his connection not just to his teachers, but also with his classmates. This helped Chase’s confidence and to build his social-emotional skills. Slowly, things were starting to change.
First Sight of Success
It was around winter break when Chase saw his first real measurable academic success—passing his first
STEP test, and going from a 14 percent to a 60 percent on his math cumulative. Chase was finally able to see the connection that when he was working hard and in class, he was learning and meeting his goals. He was able to see the fruits of his labor, and so were his teachers. With a new confidence, Chase came back in January having turned over a new leaf. He was determined to pass the STEP 1, and having been given the goal of 35 letter names, he jumped back in ready to learn. He was excited about starting
Jolly Phonics and would asked to do phonics lessons over anything else. Chase also worked on an individual letter book project that he was making for his younger siblings. He would ask us almost daily when he could take his next STEP test, and we had to compromise to do letter name progress monitoring just once a week. With all his effort he was able to pass the STEP 2, and was as proud as any student I've ever seen. He insisted on taking his paper around the entire building to share his excitement and get high fives.
A Long List of Friends and Loving Relationships
To support his social-emotional development outside of class, our support staff made sure they were responding to Chase consistently. Two of our team members then invited Chase to help during lunch and recess. Most recently, Chase worked for weeks to earn a spot helping the support staff with arrival: vest, sign and whistle included. He prides himself not just on his school work and relationships, but being an integral part of the Rocketship Rise community. Chase ended his first year at RISE making incredible gains. On the
NWEA MAP test, he made 2.3 years of growth in math (from the seventh to the 86th percentile), and 1.8 years of growth in reading (moving from the 10th to the 64th percentile). He has a long list of friends in his class, and strong loving relationships with countless adults in the building. Most importantly, Chase now loves to learn. Chase’s growth and complete change in attitude would never be possible if our entire team at Rocketship Rise Academy wasn’t fully committed to serving
all students with excellence at our school. Developing an entire school community that celebrates and includes
all students as equal participants clearly benefits kids like Chase. As we say at our school, we rise together!
Stephanie Storlie is a founding integrated special education specialist at Rocketship Rise Academy. She has taught special education in D.C. for eight years after moving from Minnesota as a 2009 TFA corps member.