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Schools Must Be Better Prepared to Serve Special Education Students

By Jennifer Acevedo

John, a 5-year-old boy in my kindergarten class, is severely autistic, non-verbal, and has an oral fixation. He constantly giggles and looks afar as he bites anything within reach. John had been scratching and biting me daily. One day, he bit my finger and drew blood.

“You can find a new job,” the nurse at urgent care said softly as she gave me the tetanus vaccine. “You don’t have to put yourself through this.” But finding a new job wasn’t my concern; I was concerned about helping John. Early on, I had reached out to my administrators for help and was told I may be able to get a teaching assistant. As weeks passed by, however, no help came.

By law, if a child is suspected of having a disability and may need special education or related services, districts are required to complete an initial evaluation within 45 school days of the school gaining parent’s consent to do so. Yet it was not until I ended up in urgent care that my school rushed John’s evaluation process, narrowly meeting the legal deadline. Prior to this incident, I was offered feedback on classroom management rather than the support that John needed and was entitled to by law.

The structures my school had in place were not sufficient to serve students like John. At the time, I had had no training or experience on how to support a student on the severe spectrum of autism. Further, there was no self-contained special education class and only one special education teacher in the entire school who provided support.

I know this issue is not unique to my school. Ninety-eight percent of the nation’s school districts report shortages of special educators, an issue that is only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teacher attrition is increasing at a rate that is parallel to that of the national population of students with disabilities, and the percentage of students receiving special education services is also growing.

Eventually, we were able to provide John with a personal assistant in the classroom, as outlined in his Individualized Education Plan (IEP). However, like me, the personal assistant was not trained in special education. While having a personal assistant helped ensure I was no longer getting bitten or scratched, John needed more in order to maximize his social and academic growth. For this to happen, my school should’ve been fully vested into supporting John and students with special needs like him from the very beginning.

First, schools should plan to support high-needs students with a personal assistant — before waiting 45 days to complete an evaluation. These assistants, who may be substitutes, teaching assistants, or even community volunteers if funding is an issue, would help ensure that a student’s behavior is not severely disrupting the learning environment. They are there to deescalate a student’s melt-down, assist with basic needs, such as restroom and lunch, and help with transitioning to classes. All of this is of invaluable help to educators like me, minimizing the time I need to otherwise spend on redirecting one student and maximizing the instructional time for the rest of the class.

Once an evaluation is completed, it is essential that both the personal assistant and teacher have the training to help the student grow academically and socially, given their diagnosis. The training should equip the teacher and the personal assistant with strategies and resources to assist students like John grow and should include guidelines on how the two can effectively collaborate as a team.

Students like John need the right support to succeed and thrive. The sooner we realize that this support means creating a dedicated classroom team, the sooner we’ll be able to set John and others on a path to academic and social success.

Jennifer Acevedo is a founding kindergarten bilingual teacher at Yes Prep North Central Elementary in Houston and a 2021–2022 Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow.

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