How Educators Can Best Support Exceptional Learners #ADA31

An Interview with Fabiola Quiñones, Urban Assembly Special Populations Manager

To highlight the 31st anniversary of the American Disabilities Act (ADA), we sat down with Fabiola Quinones, the Urban Assembly’s Special Populations Program Manager, to hear her insight on how we as educators can best support special learners. Thirty-one years ago, ADA was passed to prohibit discrimination based on disabilities. Section 504 of ADA sets regulations that require schools to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to students living with a disability. This section dictates the provision of necessary aids and services to meet the needs of students with special needs. Fabiola shares a little bit about her work coaching educators and school leaders to best serve exceptional learners.

How does your work support special populations, specifically exceptional learners?

Fabiola: My role at The Urban Assembly is directly related to supporting exceptional and multilingual learners. For the past two years, I have coached teachers and provided professional development on ways to provide accommodations and modifications for special populations. When teachers purposefully and intentionally differentiate instruction based on students’ needs and zone of proximal development, students are set up for success and are able to complete the work provided to them. This will not only lead to an increase in understanding, GPA, and credit accumulation but, more importantly, an increase in confidence and love for learning.

Why is your work important, now at this moment?

Fabiola: Meeting the needs of all students should always be a top priority, but this became even more apparent when the pandemic moved us into remote learning. We all know that different people need different supports to be successful. During the pandemic, some students were given what they needed to be successful, which was technology. Many multilingual learners thrived because they were able to use translation tools during class and to complete their assignments. Having extra time to complete assignments and attend office hours with teachers helped others. Being in smaller classes in which they could ask teachers questions and get more 1:1 support helped many. Though the last year and a half has been challenging, to say the least, the use of technology has helped many students be more successful. We have to make sure these tools and resources remain available when we move back to in-person learning. There were, however, students on the other end of the spectrum who found remote learning extremely difficult. Diagnostic testing at the beginning of the year to inform where students are will be extremely important to meet students where they need the most support. Students had drastically different experiences with remote learning and as educators, we have to know what their experiences were to know how to purposefully address their needs.

What policies do you want to see enacted to advance outcomes for students?

Fabiola: If I could wave a magic wand, I would first enact equitable funding for all public schools. When a school is funded based on property taxes, students who live in areas with lower incomes are automatically put at a disadvantage. If school is meant to be the great equalizer, all children should have access to books, technology, and excellent teachers. Every student should be viewed as an asset to our country and be given all the tools and resources they need to reach their full potential.

Second, I would limit all classes to 25 students or less with two teachers in every room (one specifically holding a special education or ENL license). Before I joined the UA, I was teaching in the classroom. One year I had almost 40 students in a room, alone. It was extremely difficult to meet the needs of all of my students — especially the students with individualized education programs (IEPs) and 504 Plans. When class sizes are too large, learning suffers, students suffer, and teachers suffer.

Third, I believe that science and history should receive equal amounts of time and attention in school as math and English language arts (ELA) from Pre-K to 12th grade. Often, there is such a focus on math and ELA, that other subjects are seen as “less important”, which is not true at all. As we have seen in the current climate, lack of basic historical and scientific knowledge can breed misunderstandings that can unnecessarily divide a nation.

I could go on, but last (and most certainly not least) is the removal of high-stakes testing as the sole means of judging content and skill mastery both for students and teachers. In NYC, the Regents exam and specialized high school admissions test are gate-keeping against historically and contemporarily marginalized students that live in underserved neighborhoods; this is even more true when looking at students with disabilities and language learners. Can testing be useful, of course! But these tests are a snapshot of a student’s capabilities, not an end sum. Additionally, these tests are often esteemed over true instruction, so much that teachers will teach to the test so students can pass that standardized test, and not so they can actually understand and apply the content to real-world situations. Test-driven curriculum should be replaced with project/model-based inquiry. When thinking specifically about students with extra needs, these tests do not allow for the accommodations they may receive or have access to, which defeats the purpose of the accommodations. As we move further into the 21st century and technology is so readily available, students should be allowed to use all resources at their disposal for all learning situations.

How can educators and school leaders embed equity in their work to meet the needs of students?

Fabiola: Educators and school leaders should first look at the demographics of their schools — who are their students? Where do they come from? What languages do they speak at home? What do their cultures value? Visit your students’ neighborhoods. Speak to them and their families.

The next step is to then look at the curriculum. Are your students represented in your curriculum? Can they see themselves in the books you have them read? Do they have options on how to show their learning? Are they using the skills they have learned to solve real-world problems? Are the content and skills they are learning enabling them to become the change-makers that will make the world a better place? If not, change it.

Then, look at the staff. Who are your teachers? Do they look like your students? Do they understand important concepts such as implicit bias? Systemic oppression? Institutionalized racism? If not, how can these things be discussed in open and candid ways that lead to a better school culture for the students? This should be a priority for the entire school with weekly professional development provided to staff.

Educators should also look at disciplinary practices and data. Are all students being treated fairly? Are some students held to a different standard? Is there a subset of students being suspended more than others for similar behaviors? If so, dive into why this is happening and provide training that will negate these biases.

Remember that fair does not mean equal — always push for what students need based on their current levels. Not everyone needs a flotation device while in the pool but you should always have one on standby for someone who does.