Achievement Gap

When I Realized No One Cared About My Students With Special Needs, I Chose to Raise My Voice

As a first-year teacher of students with disabilities in a large urban district, I faced huge inequities that even other teachers and principals overlooked. I taught a classroom full of students as young as kindergarten and as old as fifth-graders, all mixed together. All had different disabilities. The classroom was a lawsuit waiting to happen from the wide age range alone, but there was more. For the children in some grades, I had textbooks; but for others I had no materials. I’ll never forget one student in my class that year. She had been diagnosed with learning disabilities in reading and math and was working on curriculum two years behind her grade level. One day, I saw her squinting at her paper and holding her face three inches from her work. It hit me; this student can’t see. I recommended she get a vision test. As it turns out, my hunch was right. She didn’t have learning disabilities; she needed glasses. Once she had them, she returned to regular classes. Knowing what I know now, I realize someone missed her vision problem when she was evaluated for special-education services. (Another big issue at this school.) As happy as I was to catch this mistake, it didn’t make up for all the learning she had lost. It didn’t make up for our school’s role in the unjust overrepresentation of African-Americans identified with disabilities. Seeing the disservice we did to this student broke my heart. Had an advocate ever entered my classroom, we would have been in a due process hearing in no time. Only, no advocates ever came. I’d love to say this was a one-time mistake. I’d love to say it was due to my inexperience, or because it was “self-contained” (no inclusion with non-disabled students). But the reality is, in almost every classroom and school environment, support for students with disabilities is sorely lacking.

When I Realized No One Cared About My Students, I Chose to Raise My Voice

No one really cared to make sure these students had what they needed to be successful. Seeing this injustice fortified my resolve to raise my voice. As the years passed, my experience and education expanded. I took roles as a teacher leader and department chair, a campus leader, taught at a university and most recently served as a district-level special education administrator. Eventually, I chose to undertake doctoral research into whether greater inclusion for African-American students with emotional or learning disabilities led to improved graduation rates. The results I found were disturbing. I failed to find a link between inclusion and higher graduation rates for Black students with disabilities. Worse, in the district I studied, handing the designation “emotionally disturbed” to Black students practically sealed their fates as dropouts. When inclusion leaves some students behind—as it often does for those whose disabilities stem from mental health issues—large numbers of those students don’t graduate. Their success depends on teacher support and school culture. Culturally appropriate evaluations and better transition planning could make a difference and help more students in special education earn diplomas.
Barbara Mullen is currently serving as the Co-Director of the Learning Leader Network for the Center for Leadership and Educational Equity in Providence, Rhode Island. Dr. Mullen has a wide variety of experience in cultural competency, leading for instructional and systemic equity and supporting special populations. She has served students, families and educators in several large urban districts ...

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