Our Schools: Special Education In Focus

Story & photos by Angela Bao Bei Bei (@AngelaBaoBeiBei)

Public School 192 - Harlem

Public School 192 Jacob H. Schiff on the morning of September 6, the opening day of a new semester.

Hamilton Heights – A little past 7:30 last Thursday morning, Jennifer Low stood in the cafeteria of Public School 192, anxiously waiting her first batch of students – 10 second- and third-graders with disabilities ranging from autism to speech and hearing impairments.

Low, 22, is a first-year Teach for America fellow and one of 260 special education teachers the nonprofit has placed in New York City this year. Having no more teaching experience than a five-week preparation program she finished in July, Low will be the only teacher in her class.

“I am really nervous,” said Low, who was born in a small city in Malaysia and grew up in Chinatown in Lower Manhattan.

Nearly 40 percent of Teach for America’s fellows in the city are special education teachers. In addition to the training program, which involves teaching in summer school classes and receiving feedback from veteran teachers, Teach for America also enrolls its fellows in an alternative certification program. Fellows must attend evening classes at one of the universities that Teach for America partners with, and earn a master’s degree and a teaching certificate at the end of their two-year contract.

The nonprofit’s efforts to get its teachers ready for the classroom also include mentoring and seminars, a spokeswoman at Teach for America, Danielle Montoya, said by e-mail.

Not everyone thinks that is enough.

Susan Luger, founder of a New York-based special education advisory group, Susan Luger Associates, Inc., said kids with disabilities need someone who thoroughly understands their challenges, such as learning and identifying difficulties. “They cannot learn that in five weeks,” she said.

“How can they compare to those who spent three or four years in school learning special education?” Luger said in a telephone interview, “Their students are not going to get the education the law demands.”

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, special education teachers must be “highly qualified,” which means having obtained full State certification as a special education teacher, or having passed the State special education teacher licensing examination and holding a license. A bachelor’s degree – at least one – is also required.

The Act allows a waiver of the special education certification or licensing on an “emergency, temporary, or provisional basis,” according to the United States Department of Education’s Web site.

Low is licensed to teach in Hamilton Heights, said the spokeswoman of Teach for America, and she will be certified to teach special education upon completing her twice-a-week training at Hunter College over the next two years. Low is also a graduate in environmental science from a college in Ohio.

Still, critics like Luger worry about the qualifications of the likes of Low, as well as the city’s new plan this year to pull disabled students out of specialized programs in District 75 and instead mainstream them into local schools.

In a note published on the city’s Department of Education Web site in June, Dennis Walcott, the department’s chancellor, lauded the move as “an important step” to ensure all high school graduates are ready for colleges and careers.

Disabled students in District 75, most of whom were previously separated from their non-disabled peers, will now be given “increased access to the same curriculum” and “challenged to reach the same high expectations,” according to the announcement.

Luger said the change “will create real problems” for the parents and kids, because “necessary classes and resources may not be there.” Even Low agrees. She said the reform is “controversial” as “students all come here but they don’t have all the resources they need.”

Jennifer Low, sitting in the classroom that took her six days to clean up, said she was nervous to meet her first batch of students on September 6.

At P.S. 192, Low was assigned to a previously abandoned classroom on the second floor. Unlike the classroom across the hallway for mainstream four- and five- grade students, Low’s classroom is not equipped with air-conditioning, leaving the room temperature at 81 degrees on a recent afternoon.

“It’s a sauna. I hate saunas. How are they going to study here?” Low said.

“But in late morning, it’s gorgeous, at least my view is nice,” she soon added, looking out of the window where her eyes met with shrubs and some wild flowers.

Low always knows how to cheer up herself. As an immigrant child who came to the United States at age six and became the first college graduate in her family, Low knows about how difficult life can be. Yet, she remains optimistic and determined.

“My goal is to enable my students to have the skills to be in the mainstream society,” she said.

The question is how.

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