CLEVELAND, Ohio — Ms. Carla Martin has seen so much growth in children who are on individualized education plans, that some kids eventually reach a point where they no longer need their IEPs.
The intervention specialist at Cleveland’s Almira Elementary School also has taught students who’ve remained on IEPs for the long term but have shown consistent development.
“And that’s what we look for,” Ms. Martin said. “It’s not like we’re a magic pot, you stir it up and we fix it all. It doesn’t happen like that. The goal is for them to eventually come off the IEP, but if that doesn’t happen, (as long as) you can see little bits of growth, that means a lot to us.”
Ms. Martin, who works with third and fourth graders on math and English language arts, is part of Almira’s Student Support Team, which provides early intervention for students who might have learning disabilities. Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer have embedded for the past year at Almira to document the many challenges that Cleveland teachers face while educating children whose lives are complicated by poverty.
At Almira, a teacher or parent can refer a student to the support team if they believe that child needs extra help, Ms. Martin said. When a student comes to the team, the team aims to provide 3-6 weeks of interventions, while Ms. Martin and her colleagues carefully look at the student’s Northwest Evaluation Association test scores to see if they are far behind their grade level.
The team also involves parents to see if they’re on board with the development of an IEP for the student. If the parents agree, the team can refer the student to be tested by Ms. Kara Wolfe, the school’s psychologist. Ms. Wolfe tests students for academic-related disabilities and behavior. If the student qualifies, the team looks at whether they’ll need an IEP for reading, reading and writing, math or sometimes all three, Ms. Martin said.
The resulting educational plan covers all the accommodations that the school will provide. Those might include more time and a quieter space for students to complete schoolwork or tests, text-to-speech software and audiobooks for students with dyslexia, or shorter assignments to avoid overwhelming students with nonverbal learning disabilities.
CMSD aims to follow the concepts of the Universal Design for Learning, a philosophy that centers on intentionality.
When designing a curriculum for all students, it’s important for educators to not view students with learning differences as an afterthought, but rather, to plan for them intentionally, said Ms. Jessica Baldwin, Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s executive director of special education and interim deputy chief of student services.
About 22% of CMSD’s student population, or about 8,200 students, has an IEP. The state average is about 16%, and the national average is about 14%. At Almira, about 19% of the students have IEPs, Ms. Baldwin said.
Ms. Baldwin said instruction must be designed with an eye toward minimizing barriers that stand in the way for students with learning differences. And a classroom teacher with 25-30 students must know how to manage each of the students’ learning styles. In using the Universal Design for Learning, Ms. Baldwin said, teachers must plan their instruction so students have multiple ways to take in the information.
“So, you can’t give a lesson straight out of a textbook and expect every student to catch on immediately and be able to understand what’s going on, and to be able to take a test in the exact way that a teacher wants to give a test,” she said.
Almira’s Ms. Martin points out, however, that a school can’t design an IEP without parental approval — and parents aren’t always receptive to their child having an IEP because of the perceived stigma associated with them.
“I try to get parents to understand it’s not so much of a label, but we’re doing what we can to help (their) child,” she said. “And the only problem is, we can’t want it more than (they do), because they have the last say so.”
And Ms. Martin knows what her students are capable of, with parental support and the right educational interventions.
Earlier in her career, when Ms. Martin was assigned to Miles Elementary in Cleveland, she worked closely with a fourth-grade girl with oppositional defiant disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, who wasn’t receiving adequate support.
Today, however, that former student is a dental assistant in her 20s. She stays in touch with Ms. Martin, who says she always saw the girl’s potential and is glad to see her thriving.
“I have a letter that she wrote to me years ago, just saying how much she appreciated me helping her, not just with academics, but in life,” she said. “So, that means a lot.”
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For this innovative series, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District gave two reporters unprecedented access to a classroom at Almira Elementary School to show readers the challenges of educating children in poverty and what the school district is doing to overcome them. Students’ names have been changed to protect their identity. Read more about this project here.