Having had the opportunity to work in two high schools, I have seen how special education can differ vastly in the classes and supports offered to students. Each special education teacher has a caseload of students for whom they are responsible. They meet minimally once a year, with parents, general educators, and administrators, in order to develop an academic program for the student receiving services. While services like speech and language, occupational therapy, and adaptive PE are usually consistent across schools, the classes in which students with disabilities receive their high school education differs.
The first school I worked at kept the majority of students in self-contained classrooms. These classrooms held 8 to 12 special education students, a special educator, and usually an instructional assistant. While the class focused on subject matter similar to the college prep classes where general education students were enrolled, it was done in a slower manner that only touched on surface level information. The teacher or instructional aide often heavily supported the students, resulting in limited independence. Furthermore, the norm of the department was not to assign homework or long projects, as students would not do the work. These classes were offered in all academic areas, which allowed students to complete the requirements for a high school diploma without ever attending a college prep class. In addition to the typical courses, students were also enrolled in Directed Studies—a support class where student complete classwork or tests, and have the opportunity for re-teaching and individualized instruction. This high level of support followed students throughout their four years of high school, unfortunately preventing them from developing independent academic skills necessary for post-secondary success.
The second school included students in a wide range of courses. Students were not restricted to grade level courses, and instead move through co-taught classes (25-30 students) that focus on a particular need, like reading comprehension or writing. These courses catered to special education students, English learners, and students who struggle with the requirements in college prep classes. There is not a prescribed pattern of courses, so students were able to move from these classes into college prep classes where they receive collaboration support from special educators and instructional assistants. Students were offered Directed Studies, which differed from my initial school in one way: instead of a class of 8-12 students, there are around 25. This requires the class to be run more like a tutorial, where students worked in pairs or small groups with staff support. Students were required to plan their work time so they could shift from group to group, getting support in needed subject areas. As students continue through high school, they were expected to work more independently in Directed Studies, until eventually they no longer need to be enrolled in the course. Instead, they were asked to come to our drop in tutorial, offered the last period of each day.
At my current school it may seem like we were offering less support for students in special education; however, I argue that instead we were supporting them in developing the independence and self-advocacy skills they will need in college. If they register for disabled student services in college, they will not be offered a Directed Studies like course. Instead, they will be offered opportunities to attend tutorials on an as needed basis. In addition, in order to receive accommodations in their classes they must discuss their disability and accommodation use with their professor. In special day classes, the special educators are aware of the need for accommodations and offer them freely; there is no need for the student to have a conversation with the teacher. But, in co-taught or collaborative classes, the student is encouraged to request accommodations from the general education teacher. This allows them to practice in a supported setting before attending college.
Ultimately, supporting students in special education requires a delicate balance. While students with disabilities often need high levels of support in order to be successful, special educators need to consider the skills that students may be missing out on because of this support. By gradually removing supports through out high school, we are actually supporting student by requiring them to lean the skills that will benefit them in college.
Shayne Brophy, is a doctoral student in the Disability Studies emphasis and a special education teacher. She began her career while at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she earned her B.A. in Psychology. While there, she worked at the Koegel Autism Center as a clinician. This work continued when she relocated to Orange County, both in private and school settings. During her time as a paraprofessional she pursued her teaching credentials and a M.A. in Special Education at Chapman University. Since completing her credentials she has worked in both the self-contained and inclusive settings. At her current school site, she developed two classes which focus on her passion: supporting students in transitioning from high school to post-secondary institutions or into the workforce. Currently at Chapman, Shayne works as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in master’s and credential level courses for both general and special educators.