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Schenectady plans more services in effort to support students

Schenectady plans more services in effort to support students

Program seeks to help students gain a better grasp of their emotions and improve their basic learning skills
Schenectady plans more services in effort to support students
Central Park Middle School teacher Djemila Stevens writes on a poster while social worker Debra George speaks with students.
Photographer: Zachary Matson

SCHENECTADY — A small class of students at Central Park Middle School last week spent the first hour of the day talking about their feelings – feelings that oftentimes get in the way of their learning.

The students are part of a respite program at the school that places students struggling with grades, behavior and attendance together for a 10-week program to gain a better grasp of their emotions and improve their basic learning skills. Similar programs exist at Mont Pleasant Middle School and at Woodlawn Elementary, where elementary students come from around the district.

Those three programs are among many efforts throughout the district that are part of the “general education continuum,” a set of programs aimed at struggling students who don't qualify for special education services.

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The Central Park students on Thursday, sitting in a circle with their classroom teacher Djemila Stevens and social worker Debra George, took turns sharing what time they went to bed the night before and how they felt that morning.

“I'm feeling energized and – what's that word? -- rejuvenated,” said seventh-grader Erica Martin. Erica had joined the class a few days earlier due to her behavior, she readily admitted.

Referring to a one-to-five scale for students to classify their emotions – a one meaning the student is calm and engaged and a five meaning the student is “ready to explode” – George asked the students to describe the signs that they are reaching a higher-score of emotions. She also asked the students how adults should and should not act around them as they reach a three of four on the scale.

“When I'm at a three, four or five, adults should not try to blame a situation on me when they do not truly know the story,” Erica said. “When I'm at a three, four or five, adults should ask me what happened or ask me if I want to take a break to talk about it."

“It's normal to be angry, it's a normal human emotion,” George told the students. “However, the issue is how we express it. ... We don't want to get to a four or five, because when we get there it's hard to pull back.”

The class spent over an hour at the beginning of the day discussing their emotions and how best to manage them; teachers from math, English, science and social studies come to the respite room to teach the core classes.

“We call this Team Awesome time,” Djemila Stevens, a former special education teacher who leads the respite class, said of the beginning of the day.

There are other examples of the general education continuum:

--- Later that same day at Van Corlaer Elementary School,  Ashley Prashaw entered Emma Fitzgerald's fifth-grade classroom to help small groups of students as the class split up and the two teachers worked with them. Prashaw, who has a caseload of 20 students, splits her time between Fitzgerald's fifth grade and a pair of third-grade classes. With Prashaw coming in to the different classes as a “co-teacher,” the teachers can “play with the ratios,” organizing students into different groupings based on reading level or specific challenges and offer instruction in small groups.

“She has a whole different skill set than me, she brings a whole 'nother perspective,” Fitzgerald said of Prashaw.

--- This spring Schenectady High School established a “grad lab,” where students still in need of passing Regents exams or required courses before graduation go to get caught up or study. An intensive case manager, also a new position, oversees a caseload of about two dozen students, helping them negotiate schoolwork and the outside challenges that so often seep into school.

On a recent school day, Victor Rose, an intensive case manager at Schenectady High School, offered traditional counseling to a student, met with the teacher of another student to work out a way the student could finish a late project, and sat through part of a class with yet another student.

“They need someone to walk them through what it looks like to be successful,” Rose said. “It's a wide range of things that come up throughout the day.”

Program expansion

As district residents head to the polls Tuesday to approve Schenectady's over-$200 million budget, a key part of the budget's nearly $5 million expansion of student services, enough to add nearly 50 new staff positions, is an expansion of the general education continuum programs.

The continuum includes four different types of services: co-teaching in the elementary schools; respite programs at all three levels; intensive case management at the high school; and other supports that target specific students.

Just over 1,300 students are receiving support as part of the continuum this year. The co-teachers have a combined caseload of 550 students; the respite programs have served just over 200 students. Another 1,500 students have received focused reading support.

But district officials estimate about 5,000 more students could benefit from interventions like those provided in the general education continuum.

The continuum, which grew out of earlier co-teach efforts aimed at reducing student-teacher ratios for key subjects like literacy math, effectively mirrors special education. The continuum offers a range of services of varying intensity to help students struggling in school without wrongly identifying them as having an actual disability. Rather than misidentifying students as having a disability, the general education continuum provides multiple layers of support for students, Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said.

Some students who struggle in a class may need more time on a subject or an advanced look at notes or increased one-on-one time with a teacher, Spring said. But that doesn't necessarily mean they should have to be classified in special education, which can be a disruptive and stigmatizing label.

“All of those things don't require an IEP [individualized education plan], none of those things means that you necessarily have a disability,” Spring said in a recent interview. “They are things that have to do with whether or not we have provided the appropriate training to that teacher or how it is we are deploying these resources.”

Spring said the continuum aims to offer a variety of approaches for those students and then prioritize students based on who is most in need of the help. As the district invests more into the continuum, more students will benefit from the program, he said.

“We're moving that line of who does or doesn't have a disability by saying we should be changing the way in which we teach for every kid not just students who have a disability,” Spring said. “We should be saying, we want our instruction to be responsive to all kids.”

At the Central Park respite room, self-dubbed Team Awesome, former students from the program -- “oldies” as they are called by Stevens and George – sometimes drop by the room to hang out or catch up.

Some of the “oldies” made honor roll while in the program, Stevens said. Others have been suspended since leaving the program.

“The world doesn't change when they get back,” Stevens said.

But early district-wide data suggest students in the continuum are improving more rapidly than their counterparts not receiving services through the continuum.

“I like it a lot because they give you support that [other] teachers don't really,” said seventh-grader Jallah Johnson, a student in the Central Park respite room. “I learn more in respite, they actually take it slow, they make it understandable.”

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