Jen Vogus is a parent, educator, photographer, and disability advocate. Her passion for photography began years ago when she started taking pictures of her son, Aidan, who does not communicate verbally. She captured his daily life and favorite things so he could share them with peers and teachers at school, giving him a voice to share his interests and all that he is capable of doing. She is a graduate of the TN Council on Developmental Disabilities’ Partners in Policymaking Leadership Program, a board member of The Arc Williamson County and a founding and continuing parent advisory council member of WCSLink, a special education parent organization that collaborates with the local school district. She combines her passions for teaching, photography, and advocacy by developing and leading photovoice projects that put cameras in the hands of young adults with disabilities, empowering the participants to utilize their own photography as means of self-expression. She has had the pleasure of presenting her story and about the AbleVoices program at a numerous state-wide and national conferences including The Arc national convention and TASH’s national conference.
I’ve always had the tendency to notice and appreciate the more ordinary things in the world around me, but it is my experience as a parent of a child with a disability that has really heightened this for me. My son, Aidan, began having seizures shortly after birth due to a novel chromosomal deletion. His development lagged behind his typically-developing peers as those first several months and, eventually, years went by. No matter how many doctors we saw, how much physical and speech therapy we did, and how much love and support we gave at home, he was not meeting those age-appropriate milestones. Slowly, I began to understand the challenges Aidan would face and the degree of help and care that he would always need.
When reading books and talking to professionals about parenting a child with a disability, one recommendation I heard often was to put behind the expectations you had for your child before he was born. Longing for baseball games and learning to ride a bike were counterproductive- a parent shouldn’t focus on what he cannot do, but what he can do. Which made perfect sense to my husband and I, and we welcomed that approach whole-heartedly. But even for the most loving and patient parent, this can be challenging at times when you are in the midst of life’s daily struggles where even the simplest of things are difficult and you long for a “normal” life for yourself and especially for the child that you love unconditionally.
When Aidan entered elementary school, it became increasingly difficult for me not to compare him to the other students and constantly worry about what the future holds for him. The gap in abilities grew wider and wider as each school year passed and the list of activities he could participate in got shorter and shorter. But I knew I had to tackle my feelings of worry and negativity that were keeping me from happiness and living in the moment. That is when I decided to really embrace the “ability” part of disability… it didn’t matter what the other kids were doing- it only mattered what Aidan was doing and more importantly, how he was feeling. I really set my mind to notice the little things more than ever. Little things like his infectious smile, his unbridled excitement when he saw someone mowing the lawn, his quiet focus as he watched an animal go by, and his amazing connection to and love for music. Aidan is Dave Matthews’ biggest fan! Because, for kids like Aidan, and really all kids, the little things in life are the big things and they need to be celebrated.
Parents are their child’s best advocate and this role is especially important when your child does not communicate verbally and has considerable physical challenges. At school, Aidan has limited ways to communicate with his teachers and peers and they are often not able to see the things in him that I did. I shared Aidan’s “little things” with his teachers and aides but the stories got lost after they were told. I tried to think of a way I could share this information in a more permanent and visual way. So I began to photograph the things Aidan was doing and the things that he enjoys. I sent the photos with captions to school with Aidan on Monday mornings for him to show his teachers and peers. It gave him a voice to share his interests and all that he was capable of doing.
Teachers and other students were delighted to learn that Spiderman is his favorite superhero, that he takes riding lessons on a horse named Lady, that he can hold his breath and swim down to the bottom of the pool, that he loves the thrill of the wildest rollercoasters, and that he gives his dad the biggest bear hugs of all. “That is so cool, Aidan! I like those things too!” students would say. This feedback, in turn, helped me to realize that Aidan is, in fact, more like other kids than he is different from them. And the other adults in his life were seeing this as well and becoming strong advocates for him. Taking photos that made me grateful for Aidan was also a catalyst for him building more lasting and meaningful connections and interactions with his peers (who became his friends) and his teachers and the other adults in his life.
I began putting the photos in a book and that inspired others to contribute to it. His teachers and aides at school also began taking photographs of Aidan during the day to share with us at home all that he does and enjoys at school. Pretty soon his photo book took on a life of its own- he helped type the captions, glued the photos into the book, and shared his visual stories with everyone. He has been keeping a photo book of life at home and school since the second grade and now he is a junior in high school! And, more recently, we’ve started his own Instagram account to share photos.
As a result of taking these photographs of Aidan, I became more and more interested in the technical and artistic aspects of photography. I immersed myself into learning the various settings to creatively control the camera and obtain better exposures, which led me to getting involved in classes, workshops, and related professional organizations. So capturing Aidan’s “little things” has also made me grateful for an additional reason- it’s given me an outlet that is creatively, intellectually, and professionally stimulating.
After seeing the powerful effects of photography for Aidan, I sought ways to take the benefits to him to people with disabilities more broadly. Specifically, I’m now using photography as a tool for communication and advocacy beyond Aidan’s past needs (specifically the photo books) and just looking at and sharing photographs, but taking them as well. There is a growing body of research on the benefits of photography with under-represented groups, such as at-risk youth, women without healthcare, and older people with early-stage dementia for example. Putting cameras in the hands of people who feel like they “do not have a voice” as an outlet to express themselves and tell their story has become an increasingly utilized approach. Research and practical interest in utilizing photography with children and adults with disabilities are expanding. I realized quickly that I am not alone in my discovery of the benefits it has offered Aidan.
After learning about the photovoice approach and participating in an intensive training, I have developed the AbleVoices program, teaching photography as a means for self-expression and empowerment to young adults with disabilities transitioning from school to adulthood. Working with a new group each semester, they engage in several getting-to-know-you activities, learn how to use digital cameras, participate in photo scavenger hunts to develop their “eye”, learn basic composition techniques to better tell their story through photographs, and have collective discussions about their photos. The culminating experience of the project is to exhibit photos that showcase their strengths and represent themselves as individuals in a gallery space so that family, friends, and the community can celebrate their work. Students are able to keep their camera so they can continue to make photographs after the project ends.
Having people with disabilities share and take photographs embraces the concepts of dignity, self-determination, and allows us to see new possibilities and opportunities in the lives of those we interact with and care for so much. We’ve all heard the phrase, “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” (probably a thousand times!) but there is real value in this cliché, sometimes in unexpected ways.
My challenge for people in the disability community is for them ask their family member, their student, their client, or their loved one to express themselves by sharing and taking photographs… the end result is a direct line to the heart! What we discover is that we learn as much from them as they learn from us. Photography is a powerful way to create a better tomorrow for people with disabilities!
Brian Herndon, PhD., is Associate Professor of Teacher Education at John Brown University. He also holds a Graduate Certificate in Leadership in Special and Inclusive Education Program from
The University of Kansas School of Education.
I’m a numbers guy. I love numbers. I did my dissertation as a quantitative study because the last thing in the world I wanted to do was to transcribe countless hours of interviews. At the time, there was nothing about that process that appealed to me.
….Numbers tell a story.
Let me tell you mine:
46 – the number of trips I’ve taken around the sun
17 – the number of years I’ve been joined on those trips with my wife, Jenny
4 – the number of children we have
1 – the number of children we have with disabilities
5 – the number of degrees/certificates I have
21 – the number of years I have been an educator
6 – the number of years I served as a school administrator
3 – the number of years I’ve served as an educational advocate for families of children with disabilities
100s – the number of times I’ve served as the Local Educational Agency Representative (LEA) for Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings
0 – the number of times I have felt comfortable dropping my son with Down syndrome off at school
Those are some numbers! Yet, there is something missing. There is a narrative behind those numbers which doesn’t emerge by examining the numbers, alone.
Lived experience has a way of showing the importance of the narrative behind the numbers. As I examine those numbers, I see one that really stands out to me. It’s not the number of degrees I have, though that’s impressive. It’s not the number of times I have served as an LEA in IEP meetings, though that’s also impressive.
It’s the number that doesn’t hold a lot of value: 0. You see, that number, above all the others listed in my story, holds a tremendous amount of value to me. I have a son with Down syndrome. His name is Nate. He is a very bright, articulate boy with 10 years under his belt. He reads, writes, and understands numbers. He’s not on grade level, but he is (mostly) educated in the general education classroom. He has behavior issues from time to time, and this is the thing that causes me the greatest fear.
Here is a bit of the narrative that gives value to the 0:
I’m a professor at the local university in our town, and my son’s school is on my way to work, so I am privileged to get to take my son to school every day. Every day, this is what our drive sounds like:
Me: “Nate, tell me what your day is going to look like today.”
Nate: “It’s going to be good.”
Me: “What does ‘good’ look like?”
Nate: “Listening to my teachers. Doing the teacher’s work. Following directions. Being responsible.”
Me: “Very good. I hope it goes well for you today. How many smiley faces do you think you will get on your chart?”
Nate: “All of them!”
Me: “Good deal, buddy! I hope that happens!”
As I ‘round the corner in my ’02 Outback, I see Nate’s school, peeking out from behind the trees, as if to taunt me in a childhood game. My stomach tightens. I become aware of my breathing. “Just breathe,” I tell myself. “It will be okay,” I whisper reassuringly. “He’s had several good days in a row. So, today should be no different,” I say to myself, trying to ease the anxiety building in my chest. I try to relax as I pull into the center turn lane, clicking on my left blinker.
We make the turn into the school’s driveway.
“Nate, take your buckles off and get your backpack on,” I tell my son. We roll toward the drop off lane. “Alright, get out. Have a great day! Be good!!” I say it almost as if to convince myself that it’s possible as much as I am telling it to him.
My experience and my education have taught me that all children with disabilities should be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment, unless the nature and severity of the disability is such that the child cannot be educated with his or her nondisabled peers, even with the use of supplementary aids and services. IDEA 2004 does not provide definitions for this statement beyond what you have just read. IDEA 2004 does state that children whose behavior is severe enough can be removed from the general education environment.
“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”
My 46 trips around the sun have taught me that not all school districts view special education law through the same lens. There is varied interpretation about statements in the law, specifically when it pertains to educating children with disabilities alongside children without disabilities. We have worked very hard to make sure that our son has equal access to the same things that all children have access to in school. We have worked very hard to ensure that our son is educated alongside his peers without disabilities.
It has not been an easy journey, and it has not been without great sacrifice. I believe that the mild bouts of anxiety I experience nearly every day are related to the fact that I know all of our work on behalf of my son could come to a halt, should the district determine that my child’s behavior is too disruptive for the general education classroom.
My education through the University of Kansas School of Education has taught me that when we educate children with disabilities alongside children without disabilities, we normalize disability. We help those without disabilities view those with disabilities as experiencing something that is a normal part of the human journey. Children with and without disabilities become adults with and without disabilities.
When disability is normalized and children with disabilities have been part of the regular education setting for most of their educational career, then being an adult with a disability is not so disabling. It is our hope and dream that our son, Nate, will be a valued and valuable member of society, contributing to the world around him in a myriad of ways. My wife and I understand that the likelihood of this happening diminishes greatly if he ends up in a self-contained classroom. So, even though our son is only in 4th grade, we know how incredibly important it is that we are building a solid foundation of inclusion for him.
“Inclusion is not a strategy to help people fit into the systems and structures which exist in our societies; it is about transforming those systems to make it better for everyone. Inclusion is about creating a better world for everyone.”
Diane Richler, past president, Inclusion International
Returning back to that “0” in my story, I know that I will never feel comfortable dropping off Nate at school or waiting in the car rider line to pick him up. I have three other typically developing children, so I know the feeling that other parents experience when they drop off or pick up their children at school.
However, the feeling is different with Nate. If I never feel that way dropping off or picking up Nate, it will be okay. It is minor in comparison. The fight for my son is real, and I will not back down until he has true equality under the law. Even if it means experiencing a bit of pained anxiety in my chest every day.
I write this post because I believe it is important for practitioners and researchers, alike, to understand the narrative of the “special needs parent.” I’m a member of a few Facebook pages for parents of children with Down syndrome. We don’t experience life in the same way as other parents, and this includes the simple things like dropping off and picking up our children from school. The anxiety we experience when we see our child with their behavior improvement plan sheet in their hand as they make their way to the car rider lane runs deep, and it extends far beyond the drive home. We want to feel “normal,” whatever that may be. Right now, for us, “normal” is associated with anxiety and pain.
I suggest that educational practitioners and researchers note this, make the necessary accommodations for us, and include us in research on this matter. My hope is that together as researchers, practitioners, and parents, we can create a world where disability is not so disabling and where children who experience life differently will be included as a regular part of society. Until then, we “special needs parents” will continue to fight, both silently and vocally, yet always with the pains of anxiety and stress coursing through our veins.
Dr. Herndon is Director of the Missouri Center for Inclusive Education.
“We envision a world where school systems are designed to accommodate the needs of all children (Kozleski, Thorius, & Smith, 2014; Kozleski, Gibson, & Hynds, 2012; Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu, 2015). Schools have, in the past, segregated children, specifically children from historically marginalized groups of people (Theoharis, 2007), and it is our hope that we change the practice of segregating children, specifically children with disabilities. Children with disabilities deserve to be educated alongside their typically developing peers, and we will always work toward that end.”
Bryk, A.S., Gomez, L.M., Grunow, A. & LeMahieu, P.G. (2015). See the system that produces the current outcomes. In Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better (pp. 57-85). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Kingston, M., Richards, C., Blank, R., Stonemeier, J., Trader, B., & East B. (2014). Leading education reform initiatives: How SWIFT (Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation) coordinates and enhances impact. Issue brief #2. National Center on Schoolwide Inclusive School Reform: The SWIFT Center, 1-14.
Kozleski, E.B., Thorius, K.K., & Smith, A. (2014). Theorizing systemic reform in urban schools. Ability, equity, and culture: Sustaining inclusive urban education reform, (pp. 11-31). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Kozleski, E.B., Gibson, D., & Hynds, A. (2012). Changing complex educational systems: A framework for collaborative social justice leadership.
In Uhl-Bien, M. & Ospina, S. (Eds.), Advancing relational leadership research: A dialogue among perspectives (pp. 263-286). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
As I opened a box that was delivered recently, I was very excited! It contained my cap and gown for my December graduation with a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis in autism. I may sound just like any other graduate …except that I have taught for 20+ years and will turn 60 in January. Why would anyone my age go back to school when they should be planning for retirement?
Realizing just how fast my graduation from KU is approaching made me reflect on my time there. It began 5 years ago when my principal asked to speak with me about working with students with autism who were coming to our school.
I hoped this new position would provide an opportunity to learn more about helping students develop pre-academic communication and social skills.
I also hoped I could build strong relationships with parents.
I couldn’t wait to begin!
I immediately fell in love with my students and their families. Most of my students were intellectually able to learn the curriculum, they were eager to learn, and our relationships were strong. I quickly realized, however, that I would need to incorporate specialized instruction (including adaptations and modifications) as a part of class routines. I needed to explore the use of evidence-based practices within inclusive settings where all children are fully included.
Initially, I felt out of my depth.
I watched videos on YouTube and read everything I could find on how to teach my students. I did a lot of soul-searching, praying, and reflecting on the past year. I truly wanted to meet the challenge of advancing the goal of full inclusion for Pre-K children with autism. This was what I wanted to do with my life, and I needed to return to school to learn to be more effective. Fortunately, my husband was very supportive.
I researched various schools and decided on the University of Kansas because of their multifaceted curriculum and reputation as the number #1 public education program in the US. I applied for their Graduate Certificate in Autism, was accepted, and began classes. I loved the individualized feedback and communication with my instructors, learning about the most current trends, issues, and practices in the field, as well as experiencing the immediate and practical implementation of what I was learning.
What a difference it made it my class! My students with autism began to blossom. They learned to follow schedules, communicate, and express the knowledge that they were in a safe and loving environment. They began to communicate and interact with staff, students, and families through smiles, hugs, and active engagement. As they grew, parents began asking for suggestions about how to better communicate and socialize with their students at home and in community settings.
When I completed the Graduate Certificate, I realized I wanted to continue toward my master’s degree, so I applied and was accepted into the program. Words cannot express what I have gained from being a student at the University of Kansas. Dr. Glennda McKeithan, an instructor for several of my classes, became a mentor and friend. She helped me to develop confidence in my knowledge and ability to teach my students and to advocate for them and their families. I know how to assess my students’ needs, determine which of the Evidence-Based Practices would meet their individual needs, and how to collect data to measure their progress. I can interpret and elaborate on student needs/instructional practices when I speak with administrators, county staff, service providers, parents, and other educators. Dr. Jason Travers, my advisor, has gone above and beyond in helping me to meet my graduation requirements.
I have become more actively involved in local and national organizations such as the Council for Exceptional Children, Division on Autism and Developmental Disorders, Autism Speaks, and Professional Educators of North Carolina. I was nominated for and won the 2018 Teaching Excellence Award, and one of my students won the 2018 Yes I CAN! Award. I was also elected to be part of the executive boards on both state CEC organizations. I am now actively working with educators all over my state from multiple institutions of higher learning and school districts to make decisions about resources, staff development, and evaluating policies.
As I prepare to graduate from KU, I am immensely grateful for all the KU staff has helped me to accomplish. Never did I dream where I would be now. I came to KU with little to zero belief in my abilities. I am now confident, knowledgeable, and know I can make a difference in the lives of my students and their families. I am thrilled my husband and two children will be with me as I walk down the hill and receive my graduate degree. The pride they communicate about what I have achieved gives me a feeling I cannot describe.
I am working with two colleagues on a manuscript intended for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. I will present my research at the 2019 NC CEC Annual Conference, and I am hoping to continue my education to earn a Ph.D. which will help me to learn more about my field and working with adult learners. I am inspired to help others find the passion, knowledge, and confidence I have. All students deserve to have the best teachers!
Thank you to the Special Education Department at the University of Kansas who have developed such an effective, personalized and meaningful online program!
The “apprenticeship of observation,” introduced by Dan Lortie (1975) provides a lens through which we can consider why preservice teachers (and the general public) may feel they know all they need to know about teaching and learning. They went to school, kindergarten through 12th grade, at least, and have had numerous teachers across their educational experience. As a result, they may enter into a teacher preparation program with the belief that they know what teachers do, why teachers do what they do, and how they, as teachers themselves, will do it better.
High quality teacher preparation programs typically prepare candidates through a mix of theory, evidence-based and best practices, and field experiences. Teacher educators and preservice teachers often struggle with the disconnect between the preparation program’s teachings and the practices and strategies preservice teachers experience in their field placements. This is when we must also tackle “unteaching” of misunderstood or misinformed educational practices and “unlearning” of the things we think we know about what it means to be a teacher.
Unteaching requires us to acknowledge some of the commonly-held beliefs and practices prevalent in schools and classrooms; as well as to challenge those practices that are problematic with evidence and applicable strategies. For example, in early childhood teacher preparation, we are charged with unteaching shaming and punitive behavior management systems such as clip charts because these systems persist in practice. Simultaneously, we teach the evidence about social emotional development, community building, and trauma-informed care, which are all in direct conflict with systems like clip charts. Both are critical to future teachers’ ability to eschew traditional systems and instead implement best practices in meeting the needs of their learners, teaching the behaviors they want to see, and honoring the individual and unique needs of each child.
Unteaching is hard work but unlearning is even more challenging. The “apprenticeship of observation” is so powerful. Unlearning is the act of letting go of ideas, beliefs, and practices we believed to be true, effective, and valuable. When presented with more compelling evidence for an alternative approach, we unlearn the previously held belief and replace it with a new belief. Years of watching disruptive kids be removed from class, conforming to threats of punitive consequences (e.g., your grade drops one letter grade for late submission), and expecting school success to be measured by compliance with rules, many future teachers struggle to adopt more equitable, intentional strategies focused more on teaching than on punishment. As I have become more intentional in implementing unteaching pedagogy in my courses and interactions with preservice as well as inservice teachers, I have become increasingly aware of the challenges we face in creating inclusive, accepting, responsive learning environments for learners and teachers.
In an attempt to “bridge the gap” (is this the most overused phrase in education?), I, along with my colleague and friend at James Madison University, Dr. Mira Williams, started a website with an intentional social media presence in an effort to make our own unteaching pedagogy and unlearning practice visible to other teacher educators, teachers, and learners.
Social Media As A Tool
We started by building a Facebook page for sharing blog posts and resources with a growing community of teachers. However, on advice from a trusted marketing expert/friend, we branched into Instagram. Do you know that there are thousands of teachers on Instagram who post about their lessons, their resources, their struggles, their wins, their processes, their thinking, and their outfits of the day? Neither did we. The hashtag teachersofinstagram has over 3.7 million posts as of today and the Instagram teacher leaders boast upwards of 40,000 followers. Where are teachers going to share resources, ask for support, get new ideas? Instagram.
Our site, @teachingisintellectual, attempts to provide bite size best practices to our small but growing community of followers. We use apps such as Word Swag and PicLab to create visuals in order to communicate an idea or to pique interest for a click over to the blog. We engage with the growing number of teachers we follow as well in order to contribute to the community and build relationships. We have learned so much about what teachers want support with, where they look for solutions, and how they challenge each other on matters of unteaching and unlearning simply by following, participating, and listening.
The culture of education dominating teaching Instagram is in many ways different than what those of us who no longer teach in PK-12 environments may believe. The #teachersofinstagram have taught us innovative classroom practices. For example, just this weekend, a third-grade teacher we follow on Instagram posted an anchor chart she made with her students about consent. The post has since gone viral and national news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC ran stories about her post. Popular education Twitter accounts have tweeted about it with many prominent voices in education boosting its’ reach. Teachers are using their social media presence to get the word out about their work. They are telling their own stories. We are simply listening. We then use our resources as partners to respond in ways that are useful and supportive of the unteaching and unlearning of flawed practices with a focus on replacing them with better strategies.
We aim to grow our reach in order to use our platform to inform our research but also to provide a hungry, deeply committed community of educators with the resources they are seeking to unlearn ineffective practices. Additionally, providing preservice teachers access to teacher leaders on social media who are making their innovative, creative work visible, shows what is possible. The #teachersofinstagram are modeling best practices in real time with real students in real classrooms. We believe partnering with these teachers and learning from them could be a critical 21st century step in bridging the much-talked-about research to practice gap.
Jen Newton is an assistant professor at OHIO University. Dr. Newton’s research interests include strengths-based approaches to families, early childhood inclusion, and inclusive teacher preparation. She regularly presents locally, regionally, and nationally on a range of inclusive educational topics.
She served as an early interventionist and an inclusive prekindergarten teacher prior to pursuing doctoral studies. Dr. Newton earned her doctorate in special education from the University of Kansas and spent four years as an assistant professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., then three years at Saint Louis University before finding her home at Ohio University. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @teachingisintellectual and her website www.teachingisintellectual.com
We celebrate our friend and colleague, Mary Morningstar as she moves to her next adventure in Oregon. Mary, you will be missed by your colleagues and students! We found some pictures and quotes to share with you.
A few quotes!
Hugs from Kosovo
With students and colleagues at the Thanksgiving Celebration!
Always with a smile and sense of humor! Mary and colleagues!
We won’t say goodbye…we wish you Godspeed*!
*”good fortune; success (used as a wish to a person starting on a journey, a new venture)” Dictionary.com
Stuart Rhoden, Ph.D.
Arizona State University
In 1969 when the Beatles were on the verge of breaking up, they, or rather more specifically John Lennon, wrote a song titled Come Together.While there are many songs that articulate the concept of finding common ground, this song has always stuck out to me because of the back story that was taking place while it was being written. Even in the midst of tremendous conflict, Come Together from the brilliant Abbey Road album demonstrated the genius of the most influential band in the world. If the Beatles could come together during that time of extreme conflict to create beautiful music, why can’t we in public education get along amidst similar factions and struggles?
It seems that these days society prefers to remain in what is colloquially referred to as “silos” or “bubbles” in which the preponderance of a particular cluster of people or institutions who inhabit said space generally all agree on a particular philosophy. School choice folks associate with school choice folks. “Progressive educators” match up with other “progressive educators,” and so on. The complexity however in this analogy beyond silos is that the very terms we use to define said silos are now being co-opted by others to mean something entirely different. None the less, despite the definitional conflicts, very few individuals or groups attempt to cross boundaries, or more
importantly try to build bridges. You are either with us or against us, whoever the us is.
One of the most contentious areas where there is a strong need to build bridges is the division between those who support “traditional neighborhood public schools” versus those who advocate for “charter schools.”
Charter schools have been defined as schools that are created by a group of individuals, or a charter management organization to provide an alternative to traditional schools. While many charters are in urban areas, charters exist in many districts in every state in the country. Let me be clear, some conflate or confuse the discussion with charters with the discussion surrounding vouchers. Vouchers are defined as a state monetary subsidy that helps parents pay a certain amount for their child’s education. Generally, that voucher is worth around $5000 or so depending on the state. A quick cursory examination of independent or parochial or religious schools can discern that most of their yearly cost, even for pre-K, is in excess of $10-20,000 per year. Thus, vouchers at best pay for only 50% of the overall cost of attending these types of schools.
Separate from the voucher debate, charter schools are supposed to be “free” public schools. Their organizational structures can include non-profits, charter management organizations or even “for-profit” companies. And while they are free to attend, there is generally some cost associated with attending a charter school. For example, at some charters, full-day kindergarten is not subsidized by many states, and as such, parents have to pay for afternoon school care. Other costs could include after school programs, sports, extra-curricular/enrichment (chess, STEM, robotics, dance, etc.). As such, many contend that charters are a slippery slope towards the “privatization of public education.”
However, there is an alternative.
At least since the 1990s, there has been a movement within large comprehensive high schools (and some middle schools), to create “small schools” or “schools within schools.” Just as charter schools were created to be incubators of innovation and best practices, small schools were created to do similar work within the confines of a larger comprehensive district run school. The goal for small schools was to provide not just innovation within the larger school, but to create learning communities or academies that were focused on specific areas of academic interest (e.g., arts, STEM, technology, business, social justice, etc.). These smaller communities were also designed to create a level of autonomy at the school site level and place ownership on teachers to become leaders within the school (Dingerson et al., 2008).
As a young educator who wanted to transition into the classroom from working with students in after school programs, I moved to Los Angeles to become a teacher in South Central Los Angeles. In the school where I started as a long-term sub and concluded, in four short years, as a Small School Coordinator, we were an incubator of change – rapid, constant, and at times divisive change. In my four years, we went from theme-based academies, to small learning communities to eventually leaving the control of Los Angeles Unified School District and becoming a consortium of charter schools on a single 23-acre campus run by a charter management organization, Green Dot. Choosing to “leave” the district was seen as a drastic step by many, but the majority of the teachers voted for this change. What was unfortunate was that there were many opportunities for the transition to a charter to not occur. Time was not given to let academies, or even small learning communities be able to marinate and take root within the school community. As such, the teachers, and many parents believed that what was best for the students and community was a fresh start with new management and hopefully new outcomes.
Ten years after the transition to Green Dot, we have seen the benefits of the teachers’ difficult choice to become a charter school. The question that will forever linger is what if we, as a school and a community, were given more time to make the small schools in this large comprehensive, persistently dangerous, low performing high school work? The infighting among teachers as well as disagreements with the district, as to what small schools should look like within our school, was what ultimately led to the exodus from LAUSD all together.
The teacher factions within the school could not convince one another that meaningful, long-term change meant doing something significantly different than what had previously been attempted to achieve more positive academic outcomes for our students. Our skeptical colleaguesmall schools would be academically and socially beneficial for all our students – even at the most persistently low performing school in the district. In addition to our skeptical colleagues, we were not able to sway the union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), that we were willing to adjust our contractually obligated number of hours in the day to obtain a greater level of actual autonomy. We were not able to quickly alert those skeptical colleagues to the preponderance of research that indicates smaller is better, even to those who had visited excellent examples of small schools in New York, and other parts of California. In short, we were unable to make change happen because the vocal, powerful minority did not believe in the power of a small group of dedicated teachers and students who saw a different way of educating youth in an urban environment.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to skeptical educators “buying into” the small schools movement, not just at our school, but across the country was the millions of dollars being spent towards small school efforts by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Strauss, 2014). Gates and his wife were insistent that the comprehensive “factory” model of public education was not only antiquated, it did not prepare students for the 21stcentury work force (Gates, 2005). People were then, and still are, skeptical of Gates and his intentions when it comes to public education.
Regardless of Gates’ prior support of small schools, it is well past time that we revisit this educational innovation again before we really do “lose” more of our public schools to charter conversions. In order for us to attract and maintain middle class parents and continue to have schools that are inclusive and representative of society as a whole, we need to revisit the concept of small schools within large comprehensive schools and school districts. Without this change, we will continue to lose ground, not to mention teachers and students, to innovative schools who do not have the same pedagogical constraints as many traditional, comprehensive neighborhood schools.
Parts of this blog were excerpted from Rhoden, S.(2017) Small Learning Communities (SLCs) and the Importance of Listening. In Kent, A.M. & Green, A.M. (Eds.), Examining Best Practices in Mentoring Public School Educators throughout the Professional Journey. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
The 2017 Cohort members were asked to provide a word that summed up their experience, a few sentences and a symbolic picture!
I am so thrilled and so privileged to be completing my Ph.D. in Special Education at the University of Kansas. This first year experience has assured me that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, even though I could have never predicted I would be here. I am grateful for the support and knowledge of my cohort, other cohorts, and my professors. The copious amounts of reading and discussion have positively influenced my thinking and broadened my understanding of the world.
This year I’ve learned how to navigate new aspects of academia I never knew existed. Through obstacles and challenges, I’ve become stronger as a writer, researcher, speaker, and advocate. I have also become humbled in recognizing that I still have such a long way to go. The connections I have built this year are important, as the KU community is full of powerful allies I am proud to call my friends and colleagues. These relationships empower me today and will certainly be lasting into all of our futures, regardless of where our paths may fork.
Word: IterativeMy first year at KU has been equally challenging and rewarding. With the support of my cats and family, I am beginning to embrace the iterative process of reading, learning, and writing. I am looking forward to the next three years at KU!
Bryan A. Simmons
My inaugural year has been nothing short of overwhelming and the experiences I have undertaken this year have pushed me beyond my limits, shaping my relentless behavior through each contingency along the way. I have been able to persevere particularly with the encouragement of my supportive colleagues and the faculty. I am eternally grateful for my experiences this year and I am thrilled to see what the next several years here at KU hold in store for me. Rock Chalk!
Word: Challenging, Memorable
I am so grateful for all the support from my advisor, other faculties, and fellow students that helped me transition into the profession. Many of my “unknown unknowns” of the field turned into “known unknowns”. I become more aware of my strength, weakness, and room for improvement. I wish to keep growing and enjoy the moment.
This year has forced me to take my many thoughts and find them a home. Excellent collaboration with my fellow students, adviser, and other faculty members have brought some of my ideas to life. It is amazing what I have learned thus far and I look forward to where the next chapter on this journey leads.
“Even though the workload appeared daunting and atrocious.
Once I studied long enough, my vocab became precocious.
The knowledge that I gained made my mind ferocious.
My first year in the program was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!”
I was able to self-reflect on the purpose of my study and learn how to organize my thoughts. Most of all, I learned how important collaborating with my cohort is. My colleagues have inspired me every time I communicated with them, and those priceless engagements helped me to grow in this academic field.