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How to Get Low-Income Kids Out of Special Ed


Q. As a general rule, the richer your parents are, the better you do in school. The poorer your parents are, the more likely you are to have reading problems, be labeled "Learning Disabled" and placed in special education "backwashes" in our schools. Low-income children are badly over-represented in special ed programs in our schools. We can't stand for this any longer. If more money creates better learning conditions, shouldn't we pour extra money into the schools where our most impoverished students go, to try to overcome that?


It isn't so much the money that is creating the superior learning ability. It is the set of behaviors that come with money. Parents who are married, college graduates, often bringing in double incomes that are both good amounts, who talk a lot with their children, have a lot of books in their home, bring them to museums and on vacations where they can learn a lot of new things, feed them well and insist that they rest enough, and read to them each and every day, are going to create children who are good readers, writers and thinkers just because they have been nurtured educationally from the beginning.


On the other hand, children who come from homes in which one or both parents are dead, sick, depressed, high-school dropouts, on drugs or booze, in jail, working three jobs, trapped in abusive situations, cohabiting, neglecting their health, and unable to make ends meet, much less provide amply for their children, and there's violence in the neighborhood, and the grownups in charge are too exhausted and distracted to talk with the children much or tend to their intellectual needs, are naturally going to produce children with more learning challenges than the first group.


But it doesn't have to be this way. It sure doesn't - and in a lot of places, despite serious educational disadvantages for low-income children, it isn't. They are doing fine . . . because the educators in their lives know the secrets of overcoming poverty in order to produce a highly literate and numerate citizen against the odds.


Even though 15 million children live in poverty in the United States, and 7,000 children drop out of school every day, the vast majority of them low-income, there are good results bringing success to children in poverty by schools that "get it." Mostly, they teach reading correctly in the early grades, keeping the low-income students on an even keel with their more advantaged peers as the curriculum becomes more challenging and complex in later grade school and beyond.


But also, there are attitudes of the teacher's heart which go a long way toward helping children in poverty develop into able learners.


According to Dr. Martin Haberman, Distinguished Professor of Education Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and author of the book, Star Teachers: the Ideology and Best Practice of Effective Teachers of Diverse Children and Youth in Poverty, certain practices and belief systems are associated with success for disadvantaged students:


         Persistence. The first core belief is that teachers must be endlessly persistent to find a way to help each child learn. That promotes high expectations for students, the development of teaching skills, responsiveness to diversity, teaching efficacy, effective responses to setbacks, and successful use of reformed teaching methods. If teachers lack this overarching spirit of persistence and their students underachieve or fail, they then blame the students for lack of attention, motivation, or capability. What is really the teacher's lack of persistence becomes a failure on the students' report cards.


         Protecting Students' Learning. The teacher must foster relevant and engaging education by discovering what is "hot" for students as well as what is important for their future, and explore these subjects via meaningful methods. Don't waste their time, don't patronize them, and go the extra mile to make each day exciting and relevant. The ability to advocate, gently negotiate, and hang on to whatever works with students to keep them engaged and motivated is crucial.


         Putting Theory into Practice. You have to bridge theory (what teachers learn from other experts) to practice (how they will apply this in the classroom). Use multiple sources of feedback -- such as test scores, attendance, student conversations, and peer review - to shape the development of both yourself as a teacher, and the students. Use extra creativity, determination and insight to adapt teaching strategies for the challenging realities, and minimal resources, of the low-income context.


         Approach to At-Risk Students. Recognize that school itself can put a lot of pressure on students that, if not channeled into constructive outlets, can lead to the student "checking out" of class and ultimately dropping out. Just labeling a student "at risk" or "special needs" brands that student, in his or her peers' eyes, as "lower class." The message sent to low-income children when their schools are run down and their teachers are the least experienced is not a positive one. So a good teacher will do everything possible to bust the stereotypes and show the students how valuable they are and what a great future they will have.


         Professional vs. Personal Orientation. It is important to build a trust with all learners, regardless of your personal feelings about them, that is independent of students' behaviors or foibles. Kids "know" when a teacher doesn't like them, and with students whose home resources and support network aren't very good, that could translate to underachievement and dropping out.


         Burnout: Network with other good teachers to keep children at the center, and minimize the stress of the central-office bureaucracy, office politics, disgruntled co-workers and so forth. Maintaining a supportive network, learning from one another, and achieving milestones with children help star teachers avoid high staff turnover.


         Fallibility. Be honest and humble about your own shortcomings with the children. It will help them trust you, and often, they come from a world in which hardly anyone is worthy of their trust. Adults who cover up, blame someone else, or manufacture excuses cannot model responsibility and conflict resolution.


Homework: Book, HOPE For Children in Poverty, edited by Ronald J. Sider and Heidi Unruh with a foreword by Marian Wright Edelman. Haberman's insights are explained in a chapter in that book written by Delia Stafford and Vicky Dill of The Haberman Educational Foundation,


By Susan Darst Williams Special Learners 02 2008


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