David Riley pauses, thinking about the challenges of educating students with disabilities in urban school districts. Then he finds the simple phrase he has been looking for: “It’s really complicated.”
Since 1994, Riley has led EDC’s Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative. What began as an intimate group of 12 member school districts has expanded to over 100 districts today, including some of the nation’s largest—New York City and Los Angeles Unified among them. As membership has grown, the mission of the Collaborative has remained constant: to improve outcomes for students with disabilities in the nation’s urban schools.
Riley ticks off the reasons why serving students in any of the 13 federally identified disability categories is more difficult in urban districts: a range of severity within the categories, wide socioeconomic and linguistic diversity among families, and poor building design. “A child in a wheelchair is more likely to run into accessibility issues in an urban district than in a suburban district,” he says, giving one concrete example.
Improving outcomes may seem like a lofty goal given these realities, but the Collaborative’s work is making a difference in even the largest districts.
One success story has been written in Boston. Invited to evaluate the district’s services for youth with autism, the Collaborative found that current policies had an unintended consequence: Students with autism who also had severe impairments were being moved among multiple schools. The Collaborative’s recommendation? Develop specialized strands in selected schools that would allow for continuity in school assignments for these students. The result? Districtwide implementation of these strands beginning this year.
Farther south, the Atlanta Public Schools turned to the Collaborative in an effort to improve the graduation rates of its students with disabilities. The Collaborative is now helping the district adopt a multi-tiered system of academic and behavioral supports for all students as well as an inclusion model for students with special education needs.
The Collaborative helps districts develop informed policies for special education students through research, technical assistance, and professional development activities. It also sponsors semi-annual leadership development conferences, bringing together educators from across the country.
Research translates directly to practice, according to Claudia Rinaldi, a senior trainer with the Collaborative. “I am working with teachers and administrators on a daily basis,” she says, emphasizing that school visits are part of every Collaborative initiative. “You have an impact on what they are actually doing in the classroom for students.”
Riley hopes that providing leadership development opportunities through the Collaborative will benefit all students. “In my career,” he reflects, “the conversations we’ve been having about educating students with disabilities have experienced a sea change. Everybody is now concerned about their success—not just the special educators and the students’ families.”
Originally published on October 26, 2011