Knocking down barriers to success: Students on IEPs
Students present unique challenges to teachers. But those challenges can be exacerbated among certain groups of students who historically have underperformed.
Those groups – ranging from students whose native language isn’t English to those on the lower spectrum of the socioeconomic scale – are a part of what is called the education gap: the academic difference between white students who aren’t from economically challenged families and the students belonging to the historically challenged subgroups.
The Iowa State Board of Education recognized that closing the gap is critical for students – and the state’s long-term success. So 15 years ago, the board created the Breaking Barriers to Teaching and Learning Award, designed to recognize schools that have worked to overcome the education gap.
This year, five schools were honored for their work over the 2015-16 school year. Here, Hansen Elementary School of the Cedar Falls Community School District explains what it does to ensure top-notch education for students with special needs.
Hansen Elementary has been honored by the State Board of Education for its work with students who have special needs and are on Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. Among those students, 79 percent of them are proficient in reading and math, compared to a statewide proficiency of just 43 percent.
So what is Hansen doing? Principal Tara Estep explains.
What is the guiding philosophy of your school?
The climate and culture of any organization is the glue, foundation, and typically a compass of its success. This holds true for Hansen Elementary. Nearly six years ago, Hansen stakeholders came together to develop a shared vision of what we wanted to achieve for Hansen along with action steps of how to get there. Out of that vision was born a student-friendly language belief statement, which is imbedded in everything we do. Hansen PRIDE (Positive, Ready to Learn, Insist on our Best, Dependable and Respectful, and Encourage Others to do the Right Thing) is the foundation for our students and staff. This language is utilized to promote the high expectations we have for academics and behavior. Since the implementation of our vision, our office referrals have decreased and student achievement has increased, which we believe has a direct correlation to our successful climate.
Our student belief statement was developed to provide consistent expectations and language for our students, but has matured into a leadership framework for our students. We noticed that our student council structure did not match the goals and vision of our building, thus we dismantled the traditional model and created Hansen Student Ambassadors. The main objective of our student ambassador program is to provide service to our school and community, thus we have an organized student leadership system. Through our ambassadors we have implemented: student application for jobs (tour guides, recycling leaders, announcements, library leaders, greeters, etc.), completed community service projects (food drive, coat drive, Art for El Salvador, etc.), and provide a consistent message of kindness and PRIDE in our building through the promotion of positive character and recognition of individuals and classrooms.
Through the development of the shared vision, the staff is devoted to providing students with rich learning opportunities while staying steadfast in keeping focused on only the initiatives that matched the Hansen vision. Meanwhile students began living the vision and slowly we have enjoyed both qualitative and quantitative results!
Each year our Building Leadership Team creates a SMART (strategic, measureable, attainable, realistic, and timely) culture goal. For instance, last year our goal was to improve the number of students who feel successful at school and that is measured through a yearly culture student survey. Our action steps surrounding this goal include: professional development around mindset and efficacy, developing a classroom nomination system, recognizing student achievements, and implementing the Great Kindness Challenge throughout the school.
What particular challenges does your school face?
We are not unlike many schools out there that are faced with meeting the diverse needs of our students while juggling demands on our time. A challenge is to constantly strive for excellence, thinking of creative ways that will drive our student learning to new levels while also being cognizant of the importance of teacher autonomy.
What, specifically, is your school doing to push all-student advancement?
We are a true Professional Learning Community (PLC), thus we believe in a kids-first philosophy and an approach that meets the needs of individual learners. We achieve this through the design and implementation of SMART goals and our Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS).
Our PLC Collaborative Teams work tirelessly to analyze data, create common formative assessments (CFA’s), build targeted intervention and enrichment lessons, and engage in conversation surrounding best practice. These meetings are incredibly purposeful and useful as we work to make learning individualized.
Hansen Elementary makes it a goal to first ask, “Is my Core sufficient?” Core is sufficient if 80 percent of students are proficient in the concept/skill. We work to provide a strong Core for each and every student that provides exceptional learning opportunities. We utilize characteristics of effective instruction to engage our students. These include student-centered classrooms, teaching for understanding, assessing for learning, promoting rigor and relevance in our lessons, and teaching for learning differences. These components are necessary for optimal learning.
Hansen Elementary was the first school in our district to design and implement SMART (Strategic, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goals. These goals have provided us with the opportunity to review data, research best practice, and construct meaningful and authentic goals, thus providing true instructional guidance focused on the needs of students.
We take an individualized approach to learning through our MTSS framework. This structure ensures that our instruction is targeted to the needs of each student. We practice a skill-by-skill and student-by-student approach to intervention and enrichment. Utilizing formative assessment results, teachers group students according to need and use the data to guide our instructional decisions. Hansen is unique in that it offers explicit instruction not only to students who require re-teaching of a concept, but to students who have also mastered the concept.
Teachers also engage students with 21st century skills, thus they infuse communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking into the design of their daily lessons. The use of the “4 C’s” encourages active participation and student centered learning and is achieved through highly engaging and innovative lessons.
What, specifically, is your school doing to push the advancement of students on Individualized Education Programs?
MTSS provides opportunities for advancement for each and every student, no matter their skill level. We have time set aside daily for intervention/enrichment in both reading and math. This targeted instruction ensures that each student is receiving what they need. This plan has strengthened our Core to the point of not needing to refer as many students to special education; however, students with IEPs also still receive this targeted intervention. For students with IEPs, they receive both specially designed instruction via their special education teacher in the least restrictive environment, which often lends itself to co-teaching opportunities.
There is a continuum of learning for our kids and we work to build a program around their needs. Prior to building classroom schedules, class lists, or special schedules, our team looks at IEPs and their individual needs. We build a schedule and class list around these needs to ensure our IEP students (and all students) have the best possible advantage at success. This is one example of how our students come first and we don’t take the easy way out.
What advice would you like to share with your contemporaries?
I’m certain there are people much more deserving of giving advice, but I would say that spending time on building a shared vision and developing a trusted culture of learning in your building is worth it. It is so rewarding (and fun!) to be part of a building where everyone is working toward a common goal and doing so with positivity, joy, and love for our kids.