How Master’s-Educated Special Ed Teachers are Shrinking the Achievement Gap in Kentucky
“It’s important to get to know your kids and get to know their learning styles, but also to get to know them personally and the struggles in their own lives. That helps you develop the appropriate strategies for learning.” – Kelly Teague, 2015 Kentucky Special Education Teacher of the Year, quoted by Kentucky Teacher, 2015.
Kentucky was the first state to adopt Common Core standards in 2010, which affected special education students as well as traditional students. Since Common Core has been adopted, the achievement gap between special needs students and traditional students has widened in the state (The Hechinger Report 2016).
There are 98,000 students in Kentucky that are served by special education programs throughout the public-school system. Some schools have a much higher percentage of students with disabilities, like Field Elementary School where one in five students require special accommodations.
Even with such a high number of students with disabilities, the school’s achievement gap has decreased to nearly half what it was in 2010. Other schools in Kentucky are following Field Elementary School’s model to help students with disabilities succeed (The Hechinger Report 2016).
Most students simply need to have extra support and intervention from teachers to stay on track with grade-level work and graduate with the same requirements as traditional students.
According to Jessica Rockhold, a special education teacher who works with autistic students at Field Elementary School, it’s important to push students to the best of their ability rather than to lower expectations. “We don’t know what they can and can’t do if we don’t ever try to push them to learn,” Rockhold said (The Hechinger Report 2016).
Assistive Technology for Special Education Students
Some schools are equipped with iPads that students use for interactive exercises. Other schools have Kindles and Go Talk communication devices.
With an increase in the use of assistive technology, most master’s degree programs in special education include courses that introduce teachers to things like text-to-speech software, interactive applications, word prediction software, and other technologies that help non-verbal students and students with communication disorders.
Kentucky offers five Assistive Technology Resource Centers (ATRCs) to provide public schools with the proper assistive technology for their students.
Schools in the state have also adopted a Peer Buddy program, which pairs autistic students with nondisabled students as mentors to help them develop intentional relationships and build social and communication skills. The program is meant to enrich the lives of all students involved, giving general population students the opportunity to learn about autism and develop leadership skills (Kentucky Teacher 2015).
Exceptional Teachers with Master’s Degrees in Special Education Produce Exceptional Students
As special ed teachers in Kentucky work to shrink the gap between traditional and special education students, most agree that while the role of the school systems, Common Core, and provisions like assistive technology are important, the most critical element is exceptional teachers.
- Kelly Teague worked at a residential facility for troubled youth before becoming a special education teacher at Muhlenberg North Middle School in Greenville, Kentucky. Through her work with students suffering from behavioral disorders, Teague had a good grasp on how to communicate with students with a variety of disabilities.
Teague won the Kentucky Special Education Teacher of the Year Award in 2015 from the Kentucky Council for Exceptional children and the Kentucky Department of Education. She has worked with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade children. Teague was recognized for taking the lead on initiating a dedicated day for staff to learn about transitioning special education students from one grade to the next, a common challenge for special needs students.
Teagan was also recognized for the strong relationships she builds with each of her students, and the encouragement she provides to each one of them. According to Julie Pendley, the director of exceptional children for Muhlenberg County Schools, Teagan gives her students “the support they need to succeed” (Kentucky Teacher, 2015).
- Allison Slone, a special education teacher in Rowan County, Kentucky, is an advocate for students with dyslexia. Slone is passionate about helping educators understand proper interventions for dyslexic students. She helped found Decoding Dyslexia Ky-East and works as a dyslexia educational consultant as well as a special ed teacher. Because dyslexic students run the risk of not being ready to attend college or start a profession, it’s important that special education teachers are equipped with the skills to teach them to read and write (Kentucky Teacher, 2016).
- Special education teachers often say that it is their relationships with the students that make the job worthwhile. One Kentucky special education teacher, Kinsey French of Christian Academy Rocky Creek, went out of her way to include students with Down Syndrome in her life by inviting all seven to be in her wedding ceremony as flower girls and ring bearers. “To have students that love you with all of their hearts, it means so much,” said French (People, 2016).