Our New Experience: Teaching Students with Language Learning Based Disabilities in an Inclusive Community

In 2004, a group of ninth graders with significant learning challenges entered Fenway High School unconventionally, as Fenway English teacher Rawchayl Sahadeo explains. This gave Fenway— a CES Mentor School community committed to equitable, inclusive education—an opportunity for renewal and growth along with controversial and sometimes frustrating essential questions. Is separation for some students the most equitable and educationally sound route to full participation? How do you move from separation to inclusion? And how do you use the opportunity to work with students with significant learning challenges to expand your capacity to create the best teaching and learning for all students?

Simultaneously studying U.S. history, biology, and Hamlet is typical of what high school demands of most students, and for many, it’s difficult. Students with moderate to severe language-based learning disabilities can feel like they are drowning in words and concepts. To an already challenging curriculum, add reading and language processing difficulties, and you will begin to understand that these students’ struggle to find meaning is complex and sometimes impossible without support.

In 2004, Fenway High School was mandated by the Boston Public Schools to enroll ten ninth-grade students with language-based learning disabilities into a substantially separate classroom. This is a new experience for Fenway; for over twenty years, we have mainstreamed students, whether or not they have been diagnosed with a learning disability. Fenway does not have a tracking system, and before this year’s mandate, all students were taught in the same classrooms.

As well, in contrast to all other ninth graders at Fenway, these students did not apply and go through the usual admissions process to the school. Learning to create and exist with this new structure has been both difficult and controversial for the entire staff.

At the same time, Peggy Kemp, Fenway High School’s Director, believes that the new class of ninth graders gives the school a chance to draw on its established strengths and build new areas of competence. “This is an opportunity to make Fenway a better school,” said Kemp. “It will create opportunities for teachers to examine their teaching strategies more closely and it reminds many of us that we have much more to learn as educators. In the process, I believe we’ll learn new skills and institute new practices that make our curriculum and instruction more easily accessed by all of our students.”

First Steps: Co-Teaching and Professional Development

These specific students have moderate to severe language learning disabilities (abbreviated here as LLD). To help these students achieve academic success, we have had many grueling hours of meetings and hired additional Special Education teachers and paraprofessionals to co-teach alongside teachers from each discipline. This practice ensures that these students will not have a different curriculum from the other ninth-grade counterparts. The students with LLD are fully included in Fenway’s advisories and physical education classes because we believe that their transition into the mainstream population will be easier when they have developed relationships with their peers. The students’ schedules are aligned with the other freshmen so there will not be any scheduling barriers when a full transition into the mainstream population becomes possible. As well, community building is integral to Fenway’s culture; the goal is for the students to feel connected to their fellow students. We already see evidence of success: when the students with language-based learning differences leave their classroom, they mingle well in the community and have strong peer relationships outside of their group of ten.

Our initial step in this process was to assign a designated classroom for the new students, conveniently located near our Learning Center. The Learning Center serves students who have Individualized Education Plans and are included in general education during the school day. The Learning Center is open also to all students after school three days a week. This creates a close network of support for our students with LLD and their teachers because many of the teachers already assist in the Learning Center.

As a next step, Fenway administrators decided, with input from each department team, which teachers would co-teach alongside special education teachers and paraprofessionals. The prospect of co-teaching eased concerns for many teachers about the goal of an equivalent curriculum in all subjects. Many teachers did not feel they were ready and qualified to teach these students. More education on language disabilities was the major concern prior to the start of the school year.

The professional development created for Fenway’s educators centers on equity for all students with a special focus on teaching students with LLD. Some staff meetings and staff retreat time facilitated by outside experts and Fenway staff have emphasized the importance and ongoing use of improvements, adaptations and modifications including:

  • Student planners
  • Graphic organizers
  • Multi-sensory instruction
  • Descriptive directions
  • Properly formatted handouts (legible and/or with large fonts)
  • Uncluttered paperwork
  • Question format variations
  • Consistency with word definitions

The Teaching and Learning and Special Education teams spearhead the professional development. These teams share ideas and provide staff with time to discuss concerns particular to learners with language-based learning challenges. The special education teachers and the subject co-teachers share their ongoing experience with the entire school’s staff in discussions during advisory, house, and content department meetings, offering valuable insight and strategies about these students. The ten students and all their teachers, including a speech therapy specialist, initially met weekly on Fridays for the first three months. Teachers recapped the week’s events, checked in with each student, reviewed concerns, set community expectations, and shared information about grades. As well, parents received weekly assessments of their child’s progress in each class. This meeting was distinct from and in addition to Advisory. Other community activities have also been created to build personal relationships, such as holiday parties, taking walks around the school neighborhood, and having lunch as a class.

Transition to Inclusion

A strong bond with the students, parents, and teachers is important for fully including the students successfully. All parents regularly receive contact from teachers, via phone or email. Certainly, the goal of each student is to be completely included in all subjects. Thus far, three have been mainstreamed in different subjects such as math and humanities, depending on their strengths, but none are fully included. Other issues of concern are these students’ maturity levels and their overall academic readiness.

Natalie Jaeger, Fenway’s lead special education teacher, said that initially, many students do not want to leave their separate classroom automatically. “All of the students have come from small classroom settings in middle school that are designated for students with learning disabilities,” Jaeger said. While this creates initial barriers to immediate full inclusion, these students want teachers to maintain high expectations and a high level of support. The students have told their teachers that they have questioned their peers in other classes and confirmed that they are learning the same content. Jaeger observed, “While philosophically Fenway believes in full inclusion, we are working in partnerships with parents and students to determine the appropriate level of inclusion for each student.”

Fenway students who do not have LLD challenges also benefit from this new addition to the school. Students appreciate the diversity of different learners, establish friendships, and understand more deeply the goal of the school to teach all learners. Many of the students do not notice differences in the classes and ostracism is not an issue.

New Learning for Veteran Teachers

Eileen Shakespear, a veteran teacher of thirty years, teaches the LLD Humanities class along with a special education teacher. Ms. Shakespear’s previous experiences have not focused on students with language-based learning disabilities, but she is aware of their challenges. Among those challenges, she said, is the diversity of disabilities even within a substantially separate classroom. Every student has different degrees of need, ranging from severe dyslexia to cognitive issues to eye coordination troubles. Working with special education teachers, Shakespear has made accommodations in reading material; for example, some can read a novel, and others need to supplement the reading with a picture book on the same content. Frequently, visuals are used in assessment, such as creating a sculpture as the meaning of the book or rearranging photographs to show the order of historical events.

“I feel strongly I have a group of kids who are very capable though they have disabilities. I’m confident I have the capability to get them to learn,” said Shakespear. Her goals are to keep up the intellectual rigor of the class with the other ninth graders, always to remember their voice in the department meetings and to make the curriculum work for them.

Shakespear said her personal challenges are that she is a language-rich thinker and teacher. She struggles when she teaches out of her learning style. She also has to minimize her speech, trying not speak at length without a change of activities.

She mentioned it is important for teachers to incorporate activities that teach through the disability and not around it. Due to the nature of the class, Shakespear believes a teacher must face the student’s disabilities and empower them to learn by facing their disabilities with them. For instance, students learning about the U.S. Constitution have to read the articles and the amendments. However, instead of just reading them straight through, which would be burdensome, students discover the ideas and the principles of the U.S. Constitution by posing situations in which the constitution is violated. Students have to read specific articles to discover the reason how it is violated. Thus, students are struggling with reading complex text with real purpose and more interest. To sharpen their listening skills, which also involve language processing, Shakespear has invited a law student to consult with the students weekly about aspects of the law they are studying.

Future Challenges and Directions

Fenway Director Kemp said that resources needed to assist the students include software programs that enable teachers to enlarge reading text, more paraprofessionals, additional funds for professional development, and funds to support regular education teachers as they pursue special education certification. Presently the school has not had any regular education teachers receive special education certification. However, Kemp said next year’s goal is for the interested teachers to begin the certification process. Efforts are in the works with a local university to combine interest in several district schools to form a teacher cohort to obtain special education certification. Therefore, the financial demands that these resources require are supplemented by the school district and outside funds. Kemp stated there has been difficulty and stress on her staff that are working to raise funds for professional development and offset salaries for additional paraprofessionals. She remains hopeful the school can raise the money, even in our current difficult economic times.

Despite the need for additional resources, Fenway is able to provide an adequate and successful learning environment for the group of students with language-based learning disabilities. Natalie Jaeger believes the main goal for them is to maintain high academic expectations in all subjects before they are mainstreamed. “Meanwhile, we are ensuring that students participate in a challenging, grade-appropriate and parallel curriculum.”

Upcoming issues Fenway has yet to solve include locating another room for the new students who enroll next year that have language-based learning disabilities. With the new arrival of students, faculty assignment and new hires will be affected. According to Natalie Jaeger, Fenway will also change the way the year starts for the students; the team will include the new students in freshmen orientation along with their parents. She felt this will make a difference in how comfortable and oriented to the school the students feel contrasted with the other ninth graders.

Creating the best school for all students is crucial but daunting for most educators. Standardized testing, federal special education laws, and state frameworks have placed a heavy weight on our shoulders. Although many educators feel that any new state or district mandate may be a burden, Fenway has chosen to adjust its views on special education and to make changes in their inclusive school model because they have seen that this new class of students has only added to the strength of our community.

Rawchayl Sahadeo is a Humanities teacher at Fenway. She joined the staff initially as a yearlong student teacher from Tufts University. She was hired the following year in a full time position. She has been a member of the Fenway community since 2001. In 2002, Sahadeo received her Masters in Teaching, English Education at Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts. She went on to receive her Masters in Educational Leadership at Simmons College in 2004. Before moving to Massachusetts, she was a resident of Florida, where many of her family and friends still reside.

In 2004, the Boston Public Schools instituted a policy to increase the high schools’ total population of students who receive substantially separate educational services. This mandate applies to all high schools with the exception of exam and audition schools. The goal for the district is to alleviate the high concentration of these students in larger high schools, in which students with severe disabilities comprised more than one fourth of all students. This required separate learning accommodations and put a strain of these schools. Therefore, by the end of the third year of implementation, which is school year 2006-2007, Fenway, along with other district high schools, will have 10-12 % of its total student population requiring substantially separate services. In addition, the mandate will apply to middle schools next school year.