Is Special Ed Forever?

In November, I sent my first student to a general education class. It was for math only, fifty minutes a day, in a fourth-grade classroom—one grade level lower than the student’s actual age. I initiated and pursued this placement because the student was out-performing the other students in my self-contained class, and I had a feeling this might be good for him. I had no idea how good it would be.

In the minutes before Edgar leaves for his math class, he transforms before my eyes. The often-disrespectful bully, becomes a quiet, respectful and responsible student. He smiles and offers to help the other students with their math when he returns. He is proud. He is motivated. He is happy. But, Edgar still cannot read.

Edgar, a fifth-grader, reads at an early second-grade level. He has limited comprehension of what he has read and still cannot write or identify a sentence. While he is on par with many of the students in my self-contained class, and works with the highest reading group, he is far from the level of his fifth-grade peers.

However, the transformation of Edgar was so apparent and so drastic, his mother began calling the school daily asking to have him taken out of special ed. She came to report card pick-up day with an English-speaking translator and begged me to have him taken out of special ed. Finally, she came to school with two lawyers.

Eleven people attended an emergency meeting—Edgar’s mother and two lawyers, myself and six others including the case manager, general education teacher, school psychologist, school social worker, region representative, resource teacher and the school nurse. The team came with armed with condescension, expert opinion and an indignant attitude. After presenting his mother with test scores and evaluations indicating Edgar was far too low to ever consider moving to a general education class, the team proceeded with further hopelessness.

“Special ed is nothing to be ashamed of,” said the school psychologist.

“Edgar couldn’t possibly function in a regular education class,” said the case manager. “But don’t worry,” she said. “he can still go to college.”

I’m not sure who was more repulsed, Edgar’s mother and her team of lawyers, or myself. I realize I am just a first-year teacher, but this didn’t seem right. I recognize Edgar is significantly behind in his reading, and maybe he couldn’t transition into a different placement immediately, but I was astounded at the lack of hope the other team members had. While Edgar is still far below where he needs to be, he is the one student in my self-contained classroom who I truly believe could make it in a regular education class with assistance. I watch Edgar rise to the level of his peers every day in math, and it seems to me this desire and motivation could lead to faster improvement in his reading as well.

Edgar’s mother was visibly depressed when she left and said to me in broken English, “I’m sorry for bothering you. Edgar begs me to. He cries every night.”

Meanwhile, after Edgar’s mother left, the case manager said she couldn’t believe Edgar's mother had the audacity to call this meeting and would even think he could get out of special ed. “In all my years, I’ve only had one student leave special ed,” she said. “And I believe he was misdiagnosed.”

And there is was. Edgar wasn’t going anywhere because according to the case manager, there is no way out. Special ed is a life sentence. I promised Edgar’s mother I would continue pushing him. I’ve spoken with Edgar several times and told him I believe he can do it, but is it enough? Does it really matter what I think? As long as Edgar’s test scores indicate he is significantly below grade level, is he doomed to stay in a placement that is truthfully keeping him further behind? As a teacher in a self-contained classroom of eleven students, ten of whom are much further behind than Edgar, I have to teach to the median, which is not always challenging for Edgar. The longer Edgar remains in my class, the further behind he will be in general knowledge and exposure to the general curriculum, leaving him at an even greater disadvantage in regular ed.

For many of my students, I believe special ed will be forever. For many of my students, I believe this is the best placement. What I can’t believe is that the door is locked for everyone. Instead of rejoicing that one student is actually making progress and learning, we discourage him and his family by telling them it is still not good enough. I am hopeful that eventually Edgar will move back into a regular ed classroom, but I’m fearful that obstacles larger than his test scores, might keep him in special ed forever.

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