THE BLOG

Teach For America Launches Special Education and Ability Initiative

03/28/2014 01:54 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2014

A few years ago, well into my thirties, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

In some ways, this was not news. My memories of my own education primarily revolve around the ways I wasn't learning -- disrupting classes, skipping lectures, doing no homework and reading no books. I couldn't maintain focus on what a teacher was saying for more than a few minutes, and I couldn't read more than a few paragraphs at a time. Even the slightest distraction -- noise from a television a few rooms away -- would render me completely unable to concentrate.

But getting the official diagnosis turned out to be tremendously important. The story I told myself about my challenges in school was that I wasn't interested in anything that could be taught there, and so it wasn't worth applying myself. I'm embarrassed by the ways I wasted the opportunity to learn during my time in school. But with a diagnosis and treatment, I developed a new story: I love to learn, and I want to work hard to do so, and I can learn as much and as well as anyone else with a few simple accommodations, including a project-based learning environment and medication to help me focus.

I was fortunate to have family and teachers who helped me navigate my way through school and make the best of the situation, and things turned out fine for me in the end. But I often think back to those 17 years and imagine how they might have been different if there had been a good plan to tailor my education to the way I learned best. Unfortunately, too many students with learning differences, and in particular students of color and those growing up in low-income communities, aren't getting the supports they need and deserve.

According to the Department of Education, students with disabilities comprise 25 percent of students who've received multiple out-of-school suspensions, and 23 percent of those arrested in-school -- despite constituting just 12 percent of the overall student population. When time in the classroom does not meet students' needs and time out of the classroom is too frequent, disproportionately low national graduation rates for special education students is the result -- a gap approaching 40 percent in several states. This is no doubt contributes to the fact that almost half of adults who identify as having diagnosed learning difficulties are not currently in the labor force.

That's a shame, because the 5.7 million students in special education settings nationwide deserve every chance to reach their potential. Businessman Richard Branson credits his unique perspectives with dyslexia. Leonardo Da Vinci's perfectionism, which led to historic breakthroughs in art and science, is believed to be an outcome of Asperger's Syndrome. When we don't give our students the right kinds of support, we default on our most fundamental promises of equal opportunity, and we risk missing out on all the amazing things they can contribute too.

The communities where Teach For America corps members teach have a particularly high need for additional special education support, as Black, Latino and Native American students are overrepresented in special education courses nationwide. Special education diagnoses are sometimes used as a way to help kids get the support they need, but in these communities, generic diagnoses are too often used to rationalize the struggles of students who already face many other challenges. Adding to their challenges is the fact that, according to the Department of Education, 46 states face a teaching shortage in special education subjects.

Because over 10 percent of our corps work in special education contexts -- and likely all 11,000 teach at least one student with some level of learning difference -- we feel a strong responsibility to help create a culture of high expectations and tailored learning for special education students.

To aid in that effort, Teach For America is launching its Special Education and Ability Initiative to enlist and develop more leadership for the movement underway in America today to ensure that every child gets access to an excellent education, regardless of how they learn. Over the last 24 years, we've learned about the power of excellent teaching to change lives, and we've learned about the importance of ensuring that the leaders influencing the educational and related systems from every angle are grounded in the perspectives that come from teaching successfully in high needs schools. Nowhere are those lessons more important than in our work in special education.

Across the country, our Teach For America regions are developing local partnerships to improve the training and development of our corps members teaching in special education classrooms. In Atlanta, Teach For America is hosting the first-ever Metro Atlanta Special Education Assembly this spring, gathering special educators, parents, and students to consider the state of special education in their community.

We're also working with the Georgia Parent Mentor Partnership to help educators develop individualized goals for students in special education settings.

In Philadelphia, corps members, Teach For America alumni, parents and community organizations formed the Special Education Advisory Partnership (SEAP) - a group dedicated to informing and improving special education outcomes.

Nationally, we're forming an advisory board including Teach For America alumni and partners in this work, to inform teacher training and support around ability-based mindsets and inclusive practices. And for the two pilots we announced recently - providing an extra year of pre-corps development for a select group of undergraduates who are accepted early to Teach For America, and ongoing support for teachers in their third, fourth, and fifth years across 12 regions - will feature support around strengths-based mindsets and inclusive practices, valuable concepts for special educators and all teachers.

My ADHD hasn't held me back from a fulfilling personal and professional life. Students who learn differently from the way most schools teach today often aren't so lucky, and the moral and economic costs to our country are staggering. It doesn't have to be that way. Because we know the potential that exists in every student, we're excited to invest more in partnership with many others to ensure that every child, regardless of learning style or mix of abilities, has the opportunity to attain an excellent education.