Columnist Leigh Graham: Must commit to supporting high-needs students

  • Bridge Street Elementary School in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Monday, February 12, 2018

The implementation of a new inclusion model in Northampton’s elementary schools, Welcoming Inclusion in Northampton Schools (WINS), has been extensively covered in the Gazette since it was proposed in February 2017.

Meant to reduce the segregation of students with disabilities placed in district-wide separate programs, WINS uses a combination of higher class sizes and co-teaching between general education and special education teachers to keep children with disabilities in general education classrooms throughout the day. The rollout has been rocky in multiple schools, but particularly at Bridge Street School, which has one in four children with a disability and more than half of its student body considered “high need” by the state, which covers disabled children, English-language learners and low-income children.

By staff and administrator accounts, the school also has a troubling high number of students with social-emotional and trauma-related challenges. In such a setting, a middle-class, white, general education child is not the average student.

Yet, despite persistent advocacy from parents of children with disabilities, our parent allies, the teachers and staff that Bridge Street School is in crisis, our experiences are routinely dismissed as one “narrative” or “perspective” that can and should be countered by rosier accounts of the school. These counterarguments, surely well-intended, nonetheless effectively silence the very real experiences of families of children with individualized education plans, who have fought this school year for appropriate interventions and supports so their children can thrive in their classrooms and in the school.

With disaster recovery on the minds of many households in Northampton, given the city’s warm response to displaced families from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, I think an analogy from the world of disaster recovery, where I have worked and taught for more than 15 years, could be helpful now for Gazette readers unsure of what’s going on at Bridge Street School.

The concept of a “natural disaster” is a misnomer. Yes, a 9-foot storm surge or 150-mph wind may strike a single city or set of neighborhoods, leaving every household reeling from flooding, shattered windows or crushed roofs, displacement, and worry about how to rebuild their home.

But this shared experience is quickly stratified when we move from emergency response to long-term questions about rebuilding homes and communities. Families with homeowners insurance can file claims for wind and property damage. Families with flood insurance can file claims for water damage.

Property owners have autonomy, within local zoning and building guidelines, over how to rebuild their homes. Families with retirement accounts may dip into them to rebuild. Families with thick social networks in communities may find places to stay, hear of available homes through word of mouth, or have other families fill their freezers with casseroles for a month. They may have working or quickly leased cars to get their children back and forth to school during months of displacement.

Renters, on the other hand, are at the whim of their landlord’s rebuilding decisions. Renters on average are newer to communities than homeowners, and may not have the same social networks that can help with housing, food or child care.

Displaced renters may find fewer places to live, given communities’ often successful ability to block multifamily rental housing. This leaves them unable to make use of Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to rent an apartment, and they may end up in hotels for extended periods of time.

Many renters are in this now precarious position because they cannot afford the premium prices of buying into good school districts in the first place. Their subsequent commutes to get their children to school may be longer and less predictable, depending on their degree of displacement.

It turns out a disaster’s impact is not so natural after all. To rebuild damaged communities fairly, policymakers must address the needs of the most vulnerable first or risk increasing inequality, including permanent displacement of some residents. We have the same equity obligations in our public schools.

Children without high needs have a ton of resources at their disposal to succeed in public schools. Classes are held in their native language. They learn at the designated pace in their classroom. They develop their peer relationships with reasonable adult scaffolding.

Some have parents who are home nightly to read to them. Others have parents who can organize their weekly schedules to volunteer in their schools.

They do not routinely come to school hungry or cold or exhausted. They can make transitions from one activity to the next. They are not overloaded by the bright lights, stuffy air or noise of the classroom. They do not have developmental or cognitive or physical disabilities that make learning to read, participating in groups or navigating the classroom so challenging.

More than half of children at Bridge Street School, and more than one in three in the Northampton public schools, experience one or more of these barriers to education. We make choices about how to include these vulnerable students in our schools.

We can educate the children with family and institutional resources at their disposal, or we can design an education system that prioritizes our most vulnerable learners, so that our school district serves every child equitably.

We can make staffing choices and expand community partnerships that address social-emotional needs, poverty, language barriers and disabilities that impede learning. We can design and staff buildings to offer proximate learning, community and respite spaces for individual and groups of students to safely learn and grow. We can make teachers and parents equal stakeholders in the district to learn from their expertise and feedback.

We can offer translation of public meetings and vary meeting times and locations to increase community participation. We can deliberate as a community about our policy priorities so that our schools gain ground in the expensive competition with charter options.

There is no shortage of ways to rethink our commitment to inclusive education. We are surrounded by a wealth of colleges and universities that could lend their expertise to this endeavor.

But all these choices rest on a shared commitment to supporting our high-needs students first. We need to make this commitment, together.

The positive community spillovers include improved family and school stability, greater (and real) tolerance for diversity, and a more attractive, fair and inclusive city for newcomers to put down long-term roots.

Leigh Graham, of Northampton, has a child at Bridge Street School. She is a professor of urban policy and planning at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She has worked for nonprofits and as a consultant in disaster recovery since Sept. 11, 2001.