Focus on Ability: Including All of Our Region’s Students in Education

There are 13 categories of disability that would qualify a student for special education under the federal IDEA act (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

Then, there are other disabilities or health conditions that qualify students for something called a 504 plan, where a child’s life is impacted significantly enough to require accommodations at school but not quite require special education. Already confused? You’re not alone.

Cindy Duch serves as the director of parent advising at the PEAL Center, which stands for Parent Education Advocacy Leadership. The PEAL Center serves as a translator and a guide for families whose children are diagnosed with disabilities. “We help families understand their rights, plan and strategize for meetings with school, and to understand their child’s disability,” she says. “It’s all individualized because what is good for, or works for, one student isn’t necessarily going to help another child succeed.”

Presumed Competence

Central to this success is an attitude of presumed competence for learners with complex needs. Duch says, “It’s dangerous to set the bar low and later find out a child was capable of much more!”

To find out what this presumed competence looks like in practice, we talked to Amy Filipowski, Executive Director of the Program for Students with Exceptionalities in Pittsburgh Public Schools. The district offers a full continuum of services, which means special education teachers can offer inclusion services in the general education classroom, but also resource rooms, full-time support centers, or even instruction in the home. “We can service students with mild, moderate, severe, or profound disabilities,” she says.

The Program for Students with Exceptionalities supports 4,500 students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and the district supports a great many more with 504 plans. When you cut through all the lingo, you’re left with a team of special educators who focus on their students’ strengths, supported by a team of occupational therapists, speech pathologists, physical therapists, nurses, and more. The district finds solutions for students with visual and hearing impairments, traumatic brain injury, health conditions such as sickle cell anemia, and all manner of intellectual or cognitive disabilities.

The programs are so vast and complex, it’s little wonder that special education comes with its own complicated language that Duch helps to translate for parents who want to understand just what their kids are doing all day, and what they might expect their future to look like after graduation.

Snapshot of Special Education

To that end, Filipowski is excited to discuss the district’s new curriculum as well as their transition plans for her students graduating high school.

Filipowski says that students with moderate disabilities, for instance, are often placed in regional rooms (located in select schools throughout the district) where their teachers previously had no curriculum available. Teachers were cobbling together worksheets, searching for resources online, because they simply did not have access to research-based curriculum for their students. Now, Filipowski says, the district invested in professional development and materials for these special education teachers. “Our students are getting that deeper knowledge,” Filipowski says, “And our data shows it’s making an impact.”

Students now have access to modified versions of novels and literature, for instance. “That means these kids are reading the same books as their peers, having rich discussions, and are able to talk to their non-disabled peers about them. It’s a common experience they’ve never had before,” Filipowski says.

She’s also jazzed about new grants that fund work readiness programs for her students. PPS students work with job coaches and community partners throughout the city learning everything from how to clock in for work to solving issues with a supervisor. Filipowski says job coaches work with students one on one at over 40 sites ranging from Allegheny General Hospital and the University of PIttsburgh to pet shops, mailrooms, and more. Many students are paid for their work through the new grant and also learn life skills like financial literacy and travel training. “We have students on the PAT buses, teaching them to navigate the city, while learning life skills such as grocery shopping, paying bills, and whatever else is required of adults after high school. This funding has opened the door to so many partnerships and opportunities,” she says. Students under PSE Transition Services purview can now start job shadowing as early as middle school, gaining independence and learning to take ownership in their community.

Inclusion for Change

Historically, people have conceptualized Special Education as a “place” students go, when Filipowski explains that it’s really a service available to students. One way to lift the veil on many misconceptions about disabilities is to create inclusion programming. PPS has a program called Unified Track, which pairs students with disabilities with peers who do not have disabilities. “They train together all spring for track and field events and really build relationships,” says Filipowski.

This approach is valuable for students without disabilities, who talk with their peers about language they use, misconceptions, and empathy. Filipowski says, “these events are growing in our high schools and are organically run by the students. It’s exciting to see this sense of community.”

PPS isn’t the only district who sees the benefits that inclusion can have for its students. Tom Ralston, superintendent of Avonworth School District, referees his district’s unified bocce ball games. “Our students turn out in droves for these events,” he says, noting that everyone from the cheerleading squad to the pep band treats these matches like any other sporting event.

His district, which focuses a lot on career exploration, opened a coffee shop and smoothie bar in their high school. It serves as a work site for his students in special education and, as a favorite hangout, offers a creative way for all of his students to enjoy interactions.

All in a Name

A lot of this work may sound familiar— tailoring an educational experience to match the learning style and strengths of individual students. “Special education is personalized learning,” says Dr. Temple Lovelace, a member of the education faculty at Duquesne University, who explains that while personalized learning might be a “hot, trendy term right now,” educators supporting students with disabilities have been designing individualized instruction for each of their students for decades.

The personal aspect of an IEP is about to get more meaningful, too. Duch explains that a landmark case recently went through the Supreme Court that grants students with disabilities the right to an ambitious curriculum. Duch says, “The Endrew case tells us schools have to look at the potential of each child and offer supports and services to challenge them in their learning.” This means schools cannot offer a one-size-fits-all approach to special education. Duch thinks this legislation is great, saying, “We’re excited to see the impact this will have on IEPs!”


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