Volume:3, Issue: 1

Mar. 1, 2011

Our Journey in Special Education: Insights, Lessons, Progress
Cioffi, Katherine [about] , Kathleen White [about] , Jeffrey Kole [about]

DESCRIPTORS: resource room program, multisensory reading program, in-class support, language concepts class, consultant teacher, academic support program.

SYNOPSIS: The authors are educators with over thirty years experience in the field of special education. Here they share their insights, achievements, and innovations which made their school one of the best in reaching out for every ‘special” child and making a difference in his/her life.



Haven’t we all realized that the more we learn in life, the more we know that there is a whole lot more to be learned?  This lesson came early to us in our professional lives as special education teachers.  We found that nothing stays the same over time, even when we thought we had found the right program or just the answer to meet our students’ needs.  We learned that programs and methods of delivering service to our special education students had to be ever-evolving and changing. 

Despite our constant search for improvement, there was one principle that never changed or even wavered in our minds as we collaborated to design our programs:  the goal was always to do what would be best for our very special kids.

In this article, we will describe some of the efforts made in a small rural school district in upstate New York over a period of about 15 years.  It is a process of which we, as educators and colleagues, are very proud and hope that others will find it interesting and helpful. 


As teachers, we always felt empowered by our strong belief that we needed to do whatever we could to best meet our kids’ needs.  We would brainstorm and collaborate for hours at a time to be proactive within our school system.  We were not afraid to research, think out of the box about what could be, and then look for ways to achieve our goals.  We strove to be flexible, positive and forward-thinking.  Then with dreams, ideas and plans we would approach our principal, special education supervisor, superintendent, and Board of Education. 
We always felt that since we were “in the trenches” we had the best handle on what our students needed in order to be ultimately successful in the regular education classroom.  Many times we would approach a supervisor and begin with “what if….,” or “we have some ideas on how to improve…”  We were usually met with a good response, but if not, we went back to the drawing board to figure a different way.


In the early 1980’s, a method of approach called the Resource Room was introduced into the Mary E. Dardess Elementary School in Chatham.  In this model, students with special needs which impacted learning would leave their regular   classroom to work in the Resource Room with a special ed teacher for 30- 60 minutes daily.  An individual program was devised to help each student improve skills that were below grade level.

As a few years passed, classroom teachers identified more and more students who were not making adequate progress in the classroom.  The Resource Room program grew but we knew changes had to be made.  We did not feel that what we were doing with the students in the short amount of time we had in the Resource Room was enough.


After much research, attendance at conferences and collegial conversation, we decided to implement a multisensory approach to teaching reading, writing, and spelling, that we would adapt for use in the Resource Room.  We chose to use a patented curriculum called Preventing Academic Failure, by Eileen Perlman and Phyllis Bertin, as our basis.  We decided to group students according to their particular reading levels and needs.

Our lessons were very structured so that we maximized the time on task from the moment the children walked into the Resource Room. Based on phonics, each lesson progressed through review and practice, introduction of new material, dictation incorporating the newest material with elements from previous lessons, original writing, and reading.  We found that our poorest and lowest functioning readers began to blossom and grow.  Along with this we noted their self-confidence and willingness to try new things was also improving greatly!  We were so excited!

Along with a level of comfort and satisfaction with this program, came our need to examine our strengths and our weaker areas.  On the plus side, we knew that our students’ basic reading and spelling skills were improving.  These disabled readers were gaining decoding strategies, phonological awareness, spelling skills, and basic comprehension skills.  On the other hand, we knew that these same kids were still struggling when they were back in their regular classrooms where the bulk of the work was still above their level.  We needed to find a way to help carry over their success in the Resource Room to their regular classrooms.


Thus, the next stage in our journey evolved.  We decided that we needed a period of time to work with these kids and their teachers within their regular classes.  This would be time for the special education teacher to be in the class, usually during science, math, or social studies, to collaborate with the regular teacher.  The special ed teacher would plan with the regular classroom teacher to take a small group, teach a whole class lesson, work with an individual, or “float” around the classroom supporting the special ed students as well as the regular students as the lesson progressed.

We had now embarked on a real journey with our colleagues whereby both regular ed and special ed teachers shared responsibility and ownership of those kids with special needs.  We found the need to find specific time to plan collaboratively with our regular ed colleagues in order to help students find the greatest success possible in class.  Modifications were made for individual students.  Specific opportunities were designed to help ensure carryover of multisensory instruction from the Resource Room program and to make sure students were given work that was appropriate for their reading level.


At the same time that these services were being delivered, there remained a small number of children in the elementary school who could not function at all academically in a regular classroom at their grade level.  A special class was created and a program designed for these four to 12 students, their teacher and a paraprofessional assistant called the Language Concepts class.  


An interesting development occurred in Chatham at about the same time that New York State was introducing a new service delivery system  known as the “consultant teacher” approach to special education problems.  One of our special education teachers decided to pursue this path.  She undertook any and all training available and then connected with a local college professor, did extensive research, and overtime became quite an expert in the field.  The “consultant teacher” model was then implemented for  students who were considered as possibly benefiting most from this approach. 

The “consultant teacher” program was designed for those students who did not have severe enough needs to require being “pulled-out” of the regular classroom for small group instruction in the Resource Room but were not quite strong enough to “fly alone” in the regular classroom. 

The “consultant teacher” would work with  these students within their regular classroom for 30 – 60 minutes a day.  The goal was for these kids to get to the point where they would not need any special ed services in order to make adequate progress.  Planning, preparation, and careful choice of students  was key as our “consultant teacher” asked classroom teachers to welcome her into their rooms to collaborate with them.  She was very careful not to step on their toes but worked to enhance their programs so that these struggling students could meet with success.  Regular education teachers began to expand their own skills as they learned new techniques and strategies that were employed by the “consultant teacher.” 

As the “consultant teacher” blended into the regular classroom, all students began to benefit.  Both teachers could put their heads together to problem solve for all students, even for those who needed enrichment opportunities.  The “consultant teacher” would at times work with some of the strongest students while the regular teacher worked with the others.  The “consultant teacher” could teach the whole class lesson while the regular teacher “floated around the room” supporting students in need. In this way, the kids who needed extra help got helped without the stigma of being singled out. All the students in the room were helped by both teachers. Only the teachers themselves knew which students had an individual education plan requiring additional educational assistance.  Self esteem and confidence  grew in each student in the class. Thanks to the special education teacher’s modeling, the participating classroom teachers made significant advancements in their pedagogical skills.


By this point, our Special Education department in Chatham was now offering a whole continuum of services to meet the diverse needs of our students. New York State Education Department philosophy was to have the special ed student receive services in the least restrictive environment.  For our most severely disabled, that meant placement in a self-contained Language Concepts class.  Other children were assigned some small-group time in the Resource Room and perhaps a bit more time with the special ed teacher in the regular classroom. Still other students benefited from our least restrictive model, the “consultant teacher.”  Our journey to provide the best possible services for our students had come a long way! 


The final part of the journey to be discussed here was the development of our Academic Support Program.  We had found that the more our special ed staff worked within classrooms, the more students there were who could benefit from these services.  Our thoughts began to turn to the possibility of providing early intervention at Kindergarten and first grade in order to  prevent students from falling behind later and eventually need to enter the official process and be labeled as “learning disabled”.  We knew we could apply the principles of our multisensory reading program to help small groups of “at-risk students”.  Two of our special ed teachers began to work with reading teachers to deliver this program to our youngest students some of whom were already struggling with early reading skills.  These groups were seen for an hour daily for intense instruction in language and phonics skills. 

Our guiding principle of always striving to do what was best for kids led us to realize that we should be working with all students who were struggling in the early grades.  Through long conversations involving our principal, school psychologist, and special ed coordinator,  our school made the commitment to place a special ed teacher at first grade and a reading teacher at Kindergarten.  This teacher spent time daily in each of the six sections of the grade level to provide multisensory instruction for all students.  She worked together with classroom teachers who continued and enhanced the instruction.  The special ed (and reading teacher) then worked with small groups of the neediest children for intensive instruction.  Planning time for all teachers involved was built into the schedule to allow this important collaboration to work.  Any students who had been classified as “learning disabled” by our district Committee on Special Education received service from this special ed teacher.  We named this model our Academic Support Program and our special ed and reading teachers were known as Academic Support Teachers.

Regular and special ed teachers found that “two heads are better than one” and were able to spend time problem solving for any students who had academic, social, and emotional issues.  The Academic Support Teacher took part in parent-teacher conferences for non-handicapped students, helped establish behavior plans, and worked, depending on needs, with individuals for very short or continuing periods of time.  The program was very flexible because the Academic Support Teacher was able to dedicate all her time and efforts to one particular grade level.  Within a year of starting, the Academic Support Program was expanded to cover the entire range of grade levels and the five or six class sections on each level.
Our school gained a regional reputation  for doing a great job of meeting the needs of children. In many cases, families moved into the Chatham School District because they had a child or children with special needs and they had investigated school districts through the New York State Education Department and learned of Chatham’s innovative and diverse attempts to meet each child’s individual needs.


Had we reached the ultimate goal of our journey toward meeting our students’ needs?  We felt very lucky to have the support of our administration and Board of Education in this rather costly venture.  We found that supervisors and teachers from districts near and far wanted to come and visit our school.  Some members of our Special Ed staff were invited to provide training and make conference presentations around New York State.   

No one ever provides us, teachers, with a road map for life or for our work.  Our journey progressed in such a positive direction because of the dedication and support of all the “players” in our District.  Of course, there were hurdles and dips in the road, but our journey towards our ultimate  goal continued. Even as staff retired and new teachers were hired, the process remained stable: always keep up with current educational philosophy and research, study the ever changing population of students, keep a keen eye on budgetary considerations, and work hard to maintain a fluid and flexible program that would meet the needs of our special students.

1 Katherine Cioffi, teacher of 32 years experience with degrees in special education from The College of Saint Rose, Albany, NY; Adjunct professor, The College of Saint Rose, Albany, NY;  Kathleen White, teacher of 30 years experience with degrees in special education from the State University of New York at Geneseo, NY and The College of Saint Rose, Albany, NY; Jeffrey Kole, teacher of 32 years experience with degrees in speech and language, special education, and school administration from the State University of New York at Albany, NY and the College of Saint Rose, Albany, NY. 


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