By Federico R. Waitoller
Let’s talk about charter schools, disability and race. Three topics that tend to be discussed separately, but they stick together like bread, peanut butter, and jelly. Ok, here is a warning; I am going to start with a jargony sentence, but I promise that by the end of the blog it won’t be so jargony. Here is my sentence. First, read it, take a minute to digest it, and then continue reading it. Are you ready?
Charter schools are an ability and racial project associated to the production of urban space.
To illustrate this jargony sentence, let me share with you a quote from a participant from a recent research project that I conducted in Chicago with Black and Latinx parents of students with disabilities who experienced conflicts with charter schools. Her name was Janet, a Black parent of a student identified with Autism living in a Black segregated neighborhood that had being impacted by extreme poverty since the 1970s, and also by school instability due to school closings, including turnaround schools (see Figures 1 and 2).
Janet, had a history of poor experiences with neighborhood schools. Before enrolling in the charter school, her son attended to two turnaround schools in where the constant turnover of personnel affected the delivery of special education services received by her son. After these experiences, Janet felt without school options. “I just was being failed by all of these schools out there. The charter was our last resort,” she said.
Once in the charter school, her son received uncountable disciplinary sanctions, including numerous suspensions. When reflecting about her experiences in the charter school Janet shared with me,
Race has a lot to do with it because I feel like they just automatically assume, “Well, since you’re black, you’re poor, you come from a broken home, you’re a single parent, and your child has problems because of that. Not because of his disabilities, his routines, his environment at school. Well, because he’s adopted, he’s black, you’re black, this is a black area, and those are your problems. That’s why your kid is actin’ up, so let us just fix him. We’ll get him right. We’ll have him like a robot in no time if you just calm down and let us, and it’ll be better that way. We’re gonna push him.” They go off of—they taught my son chants and songs that he’s going to college every day. I don’t have a problem with that. I do want him to go to college, but I feel like it was kind of a brain washing mechanism that they’re using with these kids, like black people are down here and poor, and white people go to college and they’re up here. I have a bachelor’s degree. You’re a poverty stricken black family and let us show you what you can do to improve everything in your life, your child’s.” Comin’ into these areas, these neighborhoods, and puttin’ up these—factories is a good analogy, and your kids are the product. It’s all about numbers. “Well, Miss Baker, calm down because our stats say it’s working.” “Your child is an exception, and we’ll whip him into shape.”
Wow! Do you need to read it again? Please do so.
Lets unpack this quote together, shall we?
Janet perceived charter schools as saviors coming to Black areas to “fix” Black student so that they can get to College. By the way, Janet’s son was in early elementary grades. The deficit discourse about black communities is clear-cut. Indeed, the large majority of charter schools in urban areas market themselves as beacons of academic and disciplinary rigor and a path to college for low-income students. Offering flashy educational opportunities for families that had far to few, if any. A brochure from an elementary charter school in Chicago stated its how as, “how to best support our students as they grow and prepare to compete with their peers in college preparatory high schools and four-year colleges, ambitiously pursue career opportunities.” Charter schools target specifically certain areas of the city of Chicago affected by gentrification or by poverty and school closures (see maps in Figures 1 and 2). They become a “spatial fix” for the kinds of neighborhood in which Janet’s leave. They are associated to process of urban space and economic development. On the one hand by trying to revive certain area of the city that are prime for real state investment and in the other hand by producing subjects (mostly black students) that are disciplined and trained to contribute to the market economy.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with preparing students for college. That is not my point, nor was it Janet’s point. The problem is the paternalistic and deficit discourse about black communities. This deficit discourse had material consequences. The charter school employed a combination of mechanisms that were exclusionary and resulted in pushing Janet and her son away from the school: the school that she considered her last school option.
These mechanism included a combination of (a) denying certain services that Janet son had in his IEP, (b) applying a strict disciplinary and academic code that did not account for Janet’s son disability, (c) having inexperienced and untrained teachers, and (d) explicitly suggesting her to move her son to another schools in where he could receive better services. If students could not perform in such inflexible, non-supportive, and normalizing environment, they were weeded out or suggested to leave. This was the case of Janet’s son.
In Janet’s family’s case, race and disability intersected in two ways. On the one hand, by dis/abling race through negative and racist attitudes toward black children, the charter schools positioned themselves as saviors that came to “Whip children into shape” so that they can become productive subjects and attend to college, and ultimately contribute to a market economy. On the other hand, by racializing disability, the academic and disciplinary practices of charter schools positioned black children as dis/able and incapable to succeed in an environment that was never designed with them in mind.
If charter schools are to become a solution to educational inequities, they should not be excluding any student. Otherwise, charter schools are like and old wine in a new bottle. Old forms of exclusion based on racism and ableism are now renewed and mutated under the banner of school choice. Exclusive spaces come to replace exclusive spaces.
So, can charter schools become inclusive rather than exclusive? I mean not a just a few exemplary cases, but all of them or at least the vast majority. Otherwise, they are not options for parents who live in spaces where those schools do not exist. And, even if those schools are an option for parents like Janet, do we want students of color to attend such paternalistic, meritocratic, and punishing spaces? Do these spaces have communities of color best interests or what purpose do they serve? Whose cultural, political, and economic values informed charter schools’ practices?
I think even when regulated and in their best form, charter schools will struggle to deliver their promises of equitable inclusive education. First, market responses to educational inequities present services for particular students, or we also may say particular identities. They are selective by design. In order to market themselves, charter schools have distinct missions that differentiate them from other schools. They have a particular market niche (e.g., disciplining student of color in areas perceived as unsafe and marginalized). Their teaching practices represent such missions, as in the case of Janet. Their goals are not to be inclusive but exclusive to certain kinds of students.
Second, the problem of market of responses to inequities such as charter schools is that they address students with disabilities and other underserved populations in paradoxical terms. They are commodities that are desirable but also disposable. That is, on the one hand, these students signal new opportunities for market expansion and commodification (e.g., charter schools economically benefit from enrolling students). Students with dis/abilities, particular those of color, are understood as eternally lacking and in constant need of new commodities (a charter school education) to be individuals that contribute to the market economy. Charter schools offer the services to whip these students into shape and the promises of being included in the market economy. On the other hand, students with disabilities are perceived as threats to the “ideal individual” that contributes to the market economies (i.e., productive, independent, disciplined, and self-entrepreneur) and therefore, they are a threat to the core identity of the charter school and need to be disciplined, fixed, and normalized. Otherwise, they need to be pushed away.
To end, I want to go back to our starting phrase; Charter schools are an ability and racial project associated to the production of urban space. That is, charter schools are located in urban spaces occupied by black (also Latino families) families that have suffer years of poverty due to neglect and disinvestment or in spaces that are seen as prime for real state development (i.e., gentrification). After various poor educational experiences, Black and Latinx parents that I interviewed living in such spaces were lured by the promises of charter schools: a safe space in unsafe neighborhoods and the so coveted access to college. Once in the charter school, however, they experience new forms of exclusion at the intersections of race and disability. In the end, the charter school promises vanished, and parents found themselves again looking for another school in an educational market that treats them as disposable. Charter schools, race, and ability have a sticky relationship.
About the Author
Dr. Waitoller is an assistant professor in the department of special education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research focuses on urban inclusive education. In particular, he examines how neoliberal informed polices, such as top-down accountability, portfolio district models, and school choice converge with inclusive education efforts, and how these initiatives affect Black and Latinx students with dis/abilities. His research also examines teacher learning efforts and pedagogies for inclusive education.
When I enrolled in my first college class as a special education major in the Fall semester of 1978, it was with both the excitement of a pioneering adventure and apprehension of the enormity of the task. Excitement because only a few years earlier (1975) the landmark Public Law 94-142 had been passed and the field of special education was growing in leaps and bounds.
Apprehension because—well, because there was so much to do. PL 94-142—now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—opened the school doors for literally thousands upon thousands of children and youth with disabilities who, prior to that Act, were denied a free public education in most places in the country. I began my teaching career in 1980 and throughout that decade can remember adolescents coming to school for the first time in their lives.
In 2015, I had the privilege of speaking at the U.S. Department of Education’s celebration of the 40th Anniversary of IDEA. It was a time to reflect, to admire the journey, to celebrate the progress, and to take stock of what remained to be done. In other words, it was a time of excitement to celebrate the impact of that landmark Act, and a time of apprehension about the enormity of the task that remained. Yes, there was much accomplished in that 40-year span, and we must not take for granted what has been achieved nor forget those who worked so hard to get us to this point. Yet, there is still much to be done. Students with disabilities are still too often segregated from their peers without disabilities. Special education remains, in the minds of too many, a place to which students are sent, rather than specially-designed instruction. Students with disabilities are held to low expectations and IEPs still too often reflect student deficits and not their strengths.
On July 1 of this year, I had the honor of becoming the chair of the KU Department of Special Education. I do so with a sense of both—well, you guessed it, excitement and anticipation. Excitement for the innovations that will result from the research, teaching, and service from our internationlly-renowned faculty. Excitement for the opportunity to interact with world-class doctoral and graduate students. Excitement for the growth of the highest quality online graduate programs in the country. Excitement for the opportunity to work with alumni who are changing the field and friends of the department who support our efforts. Excitement to work with teachers and administrators and students in schools across Kansas, the U.S. and, indeed, the world. We are uniquely positioned to lead the field into whatever is next. In fact, it is what we do… we lead the field in new directions. Dr. Elizabeth Kozleski has provided exceptional leadership to the department and we are stronger as a result. Anticipation? Well, we are not the same faculty I joined in 2001. Many of those pioneers have retired and started new adventures. We, as a faculty, need to create our own identity, forge our own path, and build on the legacy that we have inherited. The challenges are, in some way, more difficult. The easy problems in education have been solved, what are left require partnerships, creative thinking, and elbow grease. And yet… there are few, if any, departments better situated to take on these tasks: To generate the next big idea that changes how students with disabilities are educated; to train the next generation of leaders in research and practice; to influence policy that leads to full citizenship for all. It is what we do… we lead the field in new directions. I look forward to working with you in whatever role you have in our department as we start this part of the department’s journey.
Michael L. Wehmeyer, Ph.D., is the Ross and Marianna Beach Distinguished Professor in Special Education and the chairperson in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. He is also Director and Senior Scientist for the Beach Center on Disabilty at KU.
Elephants, American Indians, and the Circus
by LeAnne Howe
My mother collected elephants, bronze, ceramic, silver, large and small urns shaped like elephants, and even a belt with the silver images of marching elephants. After she died in 2003, my brother and I were going through her things and dividing the mementos that we each wanted to keep. I chose her elephant collection. Today the yellow, or gray, or silver elephants of all shapes and sizes rest in various places nooks and crannies in the house that has been passed down from my grandmother, to my mother and now me.
Until I began the research for my novel Mike Kings: An Indian Baseball Story (Aunt Lute Books, 2007) set in Ada, and later research for our new play, Side Show Freaks and Circus Injuns, co-authored with Monique Mojica, I had no idea why my mother was drawn to elephants. But it seems that circuses and elephants loomed large in the minds of American Indians in southeastern Oklahoma, and certainly in my mother’s imagination. Small and intermediate-sized circuses began coming to Ada, Indian Territory, as early as the 1890s. The Ada Weekly News began writing about the circus in Ada in 1904.
When circuses came to Ada, they always parked in Daggs Prairie about six blocks from my grandmother’s house. My mother and my great aunt Euda and their friends would always sneak in the backside of the circus tents and watch the elephant, tiger and bears that were part of the circus acts. Sometime around 1929 my great aunt Euda joined the circus, and she traveled all over the world as a circus performer. Euda was only a few years older than my mother, and the two looked like sisters and remained very close until their deaths.
Enter Sideshow Freaks and Circus Injuns
Over the past seven years I’ve been working with indigenous actress and playwright Monique Mojica, and others on an indigenous research project for our 70-minute play about mounds, mound building and theatrical performance. Both Monique and I had family members that were in the circuses. Our play involves developing new Indigenous performance models based dramaturgically on Indigenous cultural texts: earthworks. Indian Mounds were built by layering different kinds of soils one upon the other. As Indigenous playwrights Monique and I will employ the deep structure of earthworks as dramaturgical models. Our soil layering will be represented in the stories we “layer in the play” with circus acts and our two principle characters, Panther Girl and Invisible Woman. We began our research at mound sites by asking a simple question: How do Natives embody the lands of their origin? To help with our research we talked with tribal elders and residents in Native communities in close proximity to mounds, and we visited mound sites from Canada to Louisiana, and read historical documents.
What we found was that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, modern circuses parked on mound sites. Why mound sites is a little unclear, but one guess is because the sites were ready made for the circus tent. I’ve since wondered if my great aunt Euda had played Indian on any of these mounds sites.
The Western Hemisphere is populated with mounds and earthworks in various ages from the Archaic, Early Woodland, Middle Woodland, and late Woodland/Mississippian periods. In the Southeast some of the great mound cities are Poverty Point (Louisiana), Moundville (Alabama), Nanih Waiya (Mississippi), and Okmulgee (Georgia). Other earthworks known as Hopewell era sites are located across Ohio and the Ohio Valley. At one time, hundreds of thousands of mounds, including embankments, conical mounds, platform mounds, and effigy mounds, dotted Indigenous North America, beginning as early as 4000 BCE. The very name “Turtle Island” connotes a vast effigy mound rising out of the water.
In studying mounds as Indigenous literatures, we asked other questions. Are the earthworks embodied mnemonics aligned with moon and sun rotations to show future generations of Natives when and where to converge at specific sites? Another indication of the return motif. One thing is certain, the circus always returned to Ada to perform for two weeks at a time, as if following in the footsteps of indigenous people who designed “return elements” via cosmic alignments at all these mound sites in Native north America.
Today at Hugo, Oklahoma, located within the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is Showmen’s Rest, Circus Cemetery for all the “showmen under God’s big top.” Indeed, it’s a graveyard of circus performers of ages past. You will note the elephant statues that graces the graves of past circus performers. Hugo, the second oldest Choctaw town in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, has been a “popular winter headquarters for traveling circuses, earning the nickname “Circus Town, USA,” according to Hugo’s website.
In finding out so much of the history of the circus that came to town and enticed my family members to join it has been a joy and a sorrow. A joy because they were brave people to uproot themselves. A sorrow because I should have asked more questions when my mom was alive: “Why did you collect elephants, Mama?” In writing this play, I think I’ve found the answer. But I’m sure there is more to the story.
LeAnne Howe is an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She writes fiction, poetry, screenplays, creative non-fiction, plays and scholarship that primarily deal with American Indian and Native American experiences.
Her first novel Shell Shaker (Aunt Lute Books, 2001) received an American Book Award in 2002 from the Before Columbus Foundation. The novel was a finalist for the 2003 Oklahoma Book Award, and awarded Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year, 2002. Equinoxes Rouge, the French translation, was the 2004 finalist for Prix Medici Estranger, one of France’s top literary awards. Evidence of Red (Salt Publishing, UK, 2005) won the Oklahoma Book Award for poetry in 2006, and the Wordcraft Circle Award for 2006. Her most recent novel is Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story (Aunt Lute Books, 2007). Her latest two books Choctalking On Other Realities (Aunt Lute Books), a memoir, and Seeing Red Pixeled Skins, American Indians and Film (Michigan State University Press), a co-edited anthology of film reviews were both published in 2013. She is the Eidson Distinguished Professor of American Literature in the English Department at the University of Georgia, Athens. She is available for readings and lectures at colleges and universities.
She is now working on an Irish Choctaw Chapbook with Irish poets Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Padraig Kirwan about the 1847 Choctaw gift to the Irish for famine relief.
Lean in and Listen: Shaping Inclusive Schools With Youth
As a special education professor, I often reflect on how much my time as a teacher continues to shape my research. My last few years of teaching were in an inclusive classroom in a predominantly Latinx community where my co-teacher and I worked together to try to figure out what it meant to create an inclusive classroom. We knew it was more than just having students with disabilities in the general education classroom, so we worked together to plan lessons and implement co-teaching structures while we figured out how to create classroom communities attuned to histories of exclusion (i.e., disability and racial) while drawing on students’ interests and experiences. Our efforts to create inclusive learning communities took many different shapes while simultaneously navigating the complexities of the classroom. Yet, one practice in particular has carried over from pedagogy to research method to help me think about equity and inclusion—listening deeply to what youth have to say.
I was fortunate to teach in a dual language school that provided me with wonderful mentorship that emphasized attention to language and cultural differences. My teacher colleagues (and friends) Carmen and Silvia brought the assets-based pedagogies I had read about through the work of scholars such as Guadalupe Valdés (1996) along with Norma González, Luis Moll, and Kathy Amanti (2005) to life every day in their classrooms; always pointing out what students could do and countering deficit-narratives with counter-narratives. I repeatedly saw that the source of their assets-based understandings was rooted in paying attention to the youth. Watching them confer with individual students was like watching two people sit at a table solving the mysteries of the world with deep intensity. I knew something special was happening in those classrooms, so I followed suit in the practice of listening deeply to youth.Sarah Hudelson and Karen Smith, professors that gave their time to work alongside me and other teachers in the classroom, deepened my understanding of listening in the context of literacy instruction. They taught me to put writing skills on the back burner and to first respond to the human then to the scholar, which is more easily said than done, in a room hustling and busting with students. Yet, it made a world of difference for “struggling” writers and youth who had seldom had their literacies affirmed. Thalia, a seventh grade student, is my constant reminder of why listening matters. Thalia was frequently absent, so when she was at school I was often in a hurry to catch her up. On one of these catch-up days, she willingly sat down and joined her classmates in drafting a memoir. Towards the end of class, not knowing if she would be back the next day, I pulled her aside to confer on her writing. Thalia sat with me and showed me her paper. No punctuation, no capitalization, but words filled the page as if they had been poured there. As Thalia began reading her memoir, I moved my burning desire to address her first sentence needing capitalization and punctuation to the back burner, and instead I just listened. In return, those words poured onto her page lifted and began to weave a story about a quiet early morning when she caught her father leaving the house before everyone else awoke. Thalia felt lucky that morning as the child that got to join dad on an early morning errand. Her story transitioned to sitting in the doctor’s office lobby; her head leaning on her father’s shoulder as she dozed in and out of sleep. Thalia awoke to her father telling her that the doctor said he had cancer.
I remain deeply appreciative that Thalia and I had that moment together, but I am also very aware that I could have easily missed that moment had I not prioritized listening. What if I would have stopped her at the first sentence to point out needing a capital letter or a punctuation mark? What if I would have stopped her halfway through the page thinking this was a random morning with her father instead of understanding how powerfully she turned the mundane into one of the most important moments in her life? What if I never understood why Thalia’s life outside of school was understandably taking priority over her year? Instead, Thalia allowed herself to be fully vulnerable at school and in return she was heard, and that moment sits in me like an anchor. Thalia and I were able to also discuss using capitalization and punctuation as tools to make sure people were reading and understanding her story the way she intended, and she eagerly used those tools. But more importantly, Thalia shared a story with me and I responded to that story with the human reactions that it deserved. Thalia is my constant reminder to listen deeply to youth as human beings first, because being heard is a critical part of creating inclusive spaces where youth can more accurately narrate their experiences.
As a researcher, I now draw on research methods that allow youth to narrate their experiences and understandings while adding complexity to the adults’ understandings of educational issues. Many schools and researchers are invested in creating more equitable and inclusive schools through a range of foci and at different levels of the educational system (i.e., practice, policy, research, community; see Kozleski & Smith, 2009; Kozleski & Thorius, 2013) but oftentimes those understandings are limited when they do not include youth perspectives. This is why I have turned to collaborative research methods as a viable means of centering youth perspectives and contributing new visions of equitable and inclusive schools.
I have most recently been able to push my own understandings of equity inclusion through an interdisciplinary research project with my colleagues Mel Bertrand and Sybil Durand using Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) methods (see Bertrand, Durand & Gonzalez, 2017; Gonzalez & Bertrand, 2017). We have been able to engage in collaborative research with youth at a school site to better understand and take action on the inequities youth feel impact their educational experiences. In the spring of 2015, we started a YPAR after-school club open to all seventh and eighth grade students, while purposefully inviting students with learning classifications that have historically resulted in inequitable participation and outcomes (e.g., youth with disabilities, youth classified as English language learners, indigenous youth).
Adults at this school were committed to advancing equity and inclusion by implementing project-based learning as a school-wide initiative. While this curricular goal was an important step toward creating more equitable learning opportunities, it was also missing the perspectives of youth. During the 2015-2016 academic year, the YPAR youth identified internalized racism as an equity issue impacting their educational experiences and developed research questions and data collection tools to further study the issue. They interviewed peers, teachers, and community members to better understand where people learned about their racial and cultural histories, where they thought it should be taught, and the role schools should play. They also surveyed 120 of their peers on this same topic, and found that their peers were not learning about their racial and cultural histories at school but thought that they should. and findings to an audience of their teachers, administrators, and parents with a call to action for the school to include their racial and cultural identities and histories as part of the curriculum. The youth offered the adults a missing piece to their school change efforts, and youth-centered perspective of equity and inclusion. (For other examples of how other researchers are using YPAR, click here and here.)
As schools and researchers commit to pursuing equity and inclusion, it is critical to also ask whose notions of equity and inclusion are shaping the work and whose are missing? What opportunities do youth have to collaborate and contribute missing and sometimes opposing notions of equity? How can adults restructure their school change efforts to include youth? In what ways are youth afforded opportunities to represent their own educational experiences and take part in improving them? Youth are well aware of many of many of the inequities that limit them in school. We can learn a lot from youth about creating more equitable and inclusive schools if we lean in and listen deeply to them.
 Latinx is used to refer to people with Latin American roots without using the gender binaries that accompany “Latino” and “Latina.”
 Pseudonym used to protect privacy
Bertrand, M., Durand, E. B., & Gonzalez, T. (2017). “We’re trying to take action”: Transformative agency, role re-mediation, and the complexities of youth participatory action. Equity & Excellence in Education, 50(2).
Gonzalez, T. & Bertrand, M. (2017). Youth advancing equity and inclusion: The role of after school spaces in school change in Advancing educational opportunities through inclusive education: Community based research in special education. Symposium paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Antonio, TX.
González, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (2006). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Albingdon: Routledge.
Kozleski, E. B., & Smith, A. (2009). The complexities of systems change in creating equity for students with disabilities in urban schools. Urban Education, 44(4), 427-451.
Kozleski, E. B., & Thorius, K. K. (Eds.). (2013). Ability, equity, and culture: Sustaining inclusive urban education reform. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Valdés, G. (1996). Con respeto. Bridging the distances between culturally diverse families and schools: An ethnographic portrait. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Taucia Gonzalez, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education. Her program of research, grounded in equity and inclusion for culturally and linguistically diverse learners, is twofold focusing on 1) opportunities for Dual Language Learners (DLLs) with learning disabilities (LDs) to learn in inclusive literacy communities and 2) preparing teachers to work at the intersection of language and ability differences. Dr. Gonzalez’s work bridges general and special education and has been featured in journals such as the Journal of Multilingual Research and the European Journal of Special Needs Education. She currently serves as an advisory board member for the Wisconsin Education Research Advisory Council. Dr. Gonzalez has spent over 15 years working with Latinx communities as an educator and educational researcher. While teaching in urban dual language schools she was honored as an exemplary Latina educator with the Chicanos por la Causa Esperanza Award.
Given that I am trained in special education, I thought that if I had a child with special needs, I would be prepared to assist teachers with strategies to meet the needs of my child’s growth development in order to reach his/her fullest potential. Too often, gifted students are not considered to be students with special education needs. They are not even listed in the IDEA categories of special education. Gifted education is often separate from special education. I have three sons and have now learned a few invaluable lessons about gifted education, which was not part of my formal training in special education.
As I watched the signs of my three boys in their earliest development, I came to discover something I did not know quite how to deal with about students who are more advanced than their age and peers. There are a number of signs that children may be gifted, including advanced cognitive skills, advanced vocabulary, early reading, advanced skills in one or more school subject, high critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, creativity, and more. Two of my sons showed advanced skills in cognitive development and the ability to process information very quickly.
One was on a 6-year old cognitive level at 3-years old and by kindergarten he was on a 4th grade math level. The other had the highest score on the state 3rd grade reading assessment at a school in the top district in the state. I thought to myself, this is going to be a new experience, especially as I had no idea if there would be opportunities to assist my sons as gifted and advanced learners. I found similar challenges that I have witnessed in a number of parents with children with special needs go through, and with my understanding of the historical battles and laws in place to assist parents with children with special needs, I have found that services for children who are gifted are more limiting than students with special needs. Part of this may be because gifted education is not federally mandated, unlike special education. Depending on the state and district, gifted students may receive no services to meet their needs as advanced learners. This is inequitable.
The most challenging part as a parent was first understanding if my children were gifted and in need of more challenging curriculum for their age. My wife and I did the regular annual check-up visits with their doctors. However, it was not until my sons started school that we were we able to get academic and cognitive assessments of their skills and abilities. The school did not have the funds and personnel to assess students for gifted education identification; therefore, we had to pay $300 for testing. This represents another inequity; parents do not have to pay for their children to be evaluated for special education services. This experience brought me to a halting reality. It is our financial privilege that allowed us the opportunity to respond to the academic needs of our sons.
Further, I came to realize that few states mandate and fully or partially fund gifted education in the nation. As I battle to find services for my sons, I am often left feeling, as I know many parents of children with other special needs feel, that I am letting my children down on a daily basis.
I am a doctoral level professional, with resources; I am able to provide enrichment opportunities for my sons. However, what I find discomforting is that there are a number of families who are unable to provide access for their gifted children. This is inequitable.
Before this experience, like many, I saw giftedness as exclusively or extensively comprising of upper-middle class to rich private school students or “nerds” in suburban schools. However, I have come to see that giftedness exists in different cultures, ethnicities, economic statuses, and linguistic backgrounds. I have come to understand that being gifted is a special education need and to ignore this type of need is unjust and failing such students.
As a person who is committed to equity, I have found that while we continue to create laws, practices, and access for “all children”, we unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) leave out gifted children. Some in gifted education have noted a love-hate relationship when it comes to gifted students. We value them when competing internationally, but ignore them during other times.
I see equitable education as providing gifted students the rights to the same access and level of education in relationship to the needs of all children. With this, I have often consulted with friend, colleague, and gifted and talented expert Dr. Donna Ford to help in understanding how the absence in equity is a grave impact on students and families. She writes extensively about the inequitable under-representation of Black, Hispanic, and low-income students in gifted education. Annually at least 500,000 of these students are not identified as gifted and, thus, are not being challenged to reach their potential. This waste of gifts and talents contributes to disengagement and underachievement. Dr. Ford urges educators to recruit and retain these students in gifted education, and to support and advocate for families, such as mine.
Regardless of their race, ethnicity, and income, children deserve to be challenged in educational settings. They need teachers who are formally trained in gifted education; they need teachers who are advocates for culturally, ethnically, and linguistically different students and families; they need educators who will provide resources for those who are low income; they need policies and procedures that are grounded in equity.
When this happens, we move closer to helping gifted students receive an appropriate education; we move closer to helping gifted students reach their potential. This is a win-win for gifted students, families, educators, and the nation. Equity is about fairness and responsiveness. Gifted students are deserving of an education that is equitable. Any parent of gifted students will soon learn this, as my family did. Let’s hope all others learn this too, especially educators and decision makers.
Dr. Donald Easton-Brooks is the Dean of the School of Education at the University of South Dakota. He received his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Masters in Early Childhood Special Education from the University of Colorado at Denver. Dr. Easton-Brooks research is on Educational Policy and Educational Equity. He is widely known for his work on ethnic matching, which has been cited international and used to promote quality practices in educational equity.
Davidson Gifted Database with list of mandates and programs state-by-state. Last retrieved online May 2017 at http://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entryType/3
Every May our esteemed KU Department of Special Education moves through a natural maelstrom as the end of the spring semester approaches. In keeping with tradition–Hawk Hopes Blog annually begs, borrows and ultimately “steals” the [now…less than] “freshest” batch of first year doctoral students away from their nail-biting probationary reviews [and a couple of other intensive assignments]. They are badgered for weeks to share their initial experiences before they wrap-up a very intensive first year. Their musings and images below make one thing crystal clear: our first year students know how to keep on “keeping on”– Ad Astra Per Aspera: To the stars through adversity.
ROCK THAT CHALK KU SPED JAYHAWKS ###1 !
Before starting this program, most of my free time was spent in the mountains, climbing, camping, and working on my Chaco tan lines. When I moved to Kansas, I thought the mountains were a thing of my past. In some ways, this is true. There are no “14ers” to conquer anywhere near here. However, my first year in the PhD program has paralleled that of the hikes that I so enjoy. At the beginning of the year, my hopes were quite high and my outlook optimistic. With one month left of the school year to go, I feel like I am on my 100th switchback, exhausted and questioning why I thought this would be a good idea in the first place. I know that just around the corner is the end (of the semester). And the end always brings an amazing feeling of accomplishment, pride, and awe. And the thought of “look just how far I have come.”
My first-year experience has been characterized by supportive relationships with faculty, staff, and fellow students and the opportunity to explore my research interests within the field of special education. While it has been challenging, the rewards of knowledge, skill building, and friendship have brought me great joy along the way. I am looking forward to the next phase of the journey.
A single word I would use to describe my first year in the doctoral program is limitless. Throughout this year, I have had opportunities to expand my way of thinking through collaborations with individuals who are truly leaders in the special education field within which I have dedicated my short, professional career. Although, most of the time these opportunities have come from my persistence in asking for more work as someone wise once advised me to do! Ultimately though, my choice to come to the University of Kansas has been one of the best I have ever made for my present and future roles in improving quality of life for individuals with disabilities. As such, I maintain that “the sky’s the limit” on the 5th floor of Joseph R. Pearson Hall, a notion continually endorsed and supported by faculty, staff, and students. I am grateful for the limitless opportunities that have come my way this year and cannot wait to see what awaits me in the next.
This my first year as a doctoral student but my third year with KU SPED department because I pursued my master’s degree here too. Somehow I felt as if I was being reintroduced again to the KU SPED family. The more I get to know my “family” here, the more I am grateful for this experience. I am blessed for being able to pursue my dream not only with one of the best programs in the country, but also with the most supportive people who are passionate about what they do. I can’t wait to learn more from my teachers and friends here and contribute to education field! I really am proud to be a part of KU SPED family. I hope I will make KU SPED family proud of me, too!
This year has surpassed all my expectations for what it might hold. I’ve learned to welcome the complexities and controversies of special education – and to be able to join dialogue in new ways! I’ve learned more about myself and my potential as a scholar. Above all, I am deeply grateful for the support of my classmates, professors, and advisor. I’ve grown to love KU. I am proud when my daughters cheer “Rock Chalk Jayhawk, Go KU!” at the top of their lungs!
Word: Learning, growth, inspiration, gratitude, frustration
Learning, growth, inspiration, gratitude, frustration, ….. So many words could describe my first year in the KU SPED doctoral program. No matter which word, this year’s experience is bound to become one of the most valuable experiences of my life. There are too many things and people that I feel grateful for, the great opportunity to learn from the most distinguished people in the field, my cohort with whom I study and grow together, and the professors from whom I receive support and encouragement. I have been inspired by their intelligence and commitments every day. Of course, emotional ups and downs have become a part of my life as well as I embarked on this new academic journey. BUT, I feel thankful for how I have grown academically with each day. I am inspired to want to know more and to devote more effort to my work. I believe the following three years will continue to inspire.
This year pushed me out of my academic comfort zone and forced me to think and work at a higher level. I feel as though I evolved into a true scholar during this process, much as there is still plenty of room for further growth. I really enjoyed the process of overcoming so many obstacles this year, every sacrifice was incredibly worth it. Also, thank you to my cohort, professors, and advisors for their constant support and encouragement.
Word: Enlightening (to say the least)
Never put off until tomorrow what can be done, today. It’s a good idea to teach teenagers to do their own laundry. Cohort Sweet 16 FOREVER!
I would never have thought that I could get a chance to write about my first year experience as a PhD student. I still can not believe that this amazing PhD opportunity is happening to me. I feel extremely privileged and honored to be part of this program. It challenges and inspires me every day.
Transformation is exciting and new, but also uncomfortable. I can describe this year with all of those adjectives. Pruning and replanting makes room for change, so here’s to more uncomfortable and exciting growth next semester!
I have had so many amazing opportunities to learn and collaborate with colleagues and faculty. I am happy for all the experiences I have had at KU. The road may be difficult to travel at times, but through perseverance and teamwork, we can achieve success.
I have decided to share a picture of my puppy, Samson. Although I am grateful for my experiences at KU, I am also grateful for many other things in my life.
This has been a year of growth. I’ve experienced growth in reading, writing, speaking, and thinking. It has been both difficult and exciting throughout the year to dive deeply into exploration in education.
It is easy to look around a room of exceptional scholars and feel like you are the only one struggling. For the first quarter, I remained tight-lipped about the stress I was feeling, fearing that it would make me look weak. However, once I opened up to my peers about the challenges of the doctoral program, I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. With candor came camraderie and comedic relief, without which I would not have made it this far.
This year has been a wild ride! I thought that I was prepared and knew what to expect. I don’t think I could have anticipated how much I would be stretched, pushed, and pulled by my experiences. Yet through it all, there were so many opportunities to grow. I can’t help but be amazed at how much I have learned and how far I have come, as an individual and as a scholar.
Máirín Kenny, PhD, is a former teacher, principal and educator who has worked for over thirty years with students and parents from the Irish Traveller community, a recognized indigenous ethnic minority within Ireland. Dr. Kenny is currently an independent scholar and conducts commissioned research on equality, disabilities, ethnicity, racism, and sectarianism in Irish education. Hawk Hopes Blog invited Dr. Kenny to share some perspectives on what it means to be an agent of change within the Irish educational context. Here is what she had to say. —Sorcha Hyland
Who are the “Irish Travellers”?
Irish Travellers have been a distinct group in Irish society since at least the twelfth century. They are Irish, but a recent human genome research project has shown them to have been genetically separate since at least the sixteenth century. And only this year they won recognition in Irish law as an ethnic group—a status they have had since 2000 in Northern Ireland (under UK law). There are ethnic populations all over Europe, similar to the Irish Travellers. It is officially recognized that these peoples are targets of the most virulent racism across Europe. There are Irish and European people who will accept immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers—but not the Travellers, or the Roma.
The Irish Travellers’ economic activities married well with nomadism. They turned their hand to whatever trade or service was required and could cover a territory large enough to survive. They traded in horses and donkeys, they worked as blacksmiths (shoeing horses and donkeys), and tinsmiths (making and mending tin cans, buckets, basins—hence their older name “tinker”, a term that acquired pejorative racist meanings). And in the days before village shops, they hawked— selling small domestic goods such as wool and kitchen utensils. Irish Travellers included all sorts of traders who could provide a range of mobile services to a wider territory than the sedentary working population could feasibly cover. In the twentieth century, they turned to trading in second-hand goods, scrap metal, gardening, etc. But the space for these services has shrunk. And at the same time, they are virtually shunned in the employment market—currently, unemployment among Travellers runs at above 70%.
The question “who are they?” is a good one. It never struck the dominant Irish settled population to ask that question—still less did it strike us to ask the Travellers that question. In the early 1960s, prominent social activists discovered the plight of this group—a population of about 6,000, living on the roadside in miserable tents and wagons, with no services, scant access to health or education services, a life expectancy of 30 years, and an infant mortality rate seven times the national rate. But these leaders, and the government, once stirred to action, assumed that these people were dropouts, perhaps descended from homeless peasantry in Famine times. And the solution was to settle them down, clean them up, and fit them in.
In a negative sense, nomadism also shaped everything. In Ireland (and in the UK and elsewhere), Irish society and social structures (law, housing policy, etc.) have traditionally used nomadism as a tool to destroy the nomad: historically, they were needed but not wanted by local communities. Once the work was done, the Travellers had to move on; and at an official level roadside camping was made illegal. In short, the timing of their movements was dictated by the settled population, and the conditions for dignified nomadism were cut from under them, where they existed at all. Very few of them are now nomadic, and even fewer want to be so.
But when they try to settle, they are still in the wrong “place”. Housing policies have driven them into standard accommodation (hugely inappropriate and inadequate), and those who move now do so because they can’t find anywhere to live. Everyone wants them to stop travelling, but not to stop it “here”—Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY-ism).
Today, there are perhaps 40,000 Irish Travellers. Theoretically they have access to all the social services, but racism still raises its ugly head to narrow that. They nearly all stay in school until age 15 years, but that is shockingly far below the completion level for the general population—the education system is failing them more than any other sector. Their life expectancy is 11 years below the national average for women, 15 below for men. Infant mortality is over three times the national average. Suicide rates for men are seven times the national rate, and for women 4.5 times the rate.
Why did you choose to work in school provision for Irish Travellers specifically?
When I chose to work with the Irish Travellers I also thought they were at the extreme end of rural disadvantage—so marginalized that they were homeless. I think I quickly realised that was far from the whole story—if it was part of the story at all.
As a teacher, and later principal in a school for Irish Traveller children, and as a sociologist I was very interested in educationally disadvantaged populations. From the get-go, I wanted to work with people who were experiencing marginalization. I wanted to learn more about and with the people who were being forced to operate in the fringes of the Irish public education system.
What have you learned from your professional experiences both as an educator, a principal and a researcher in relation to Irish Travellers?
It took me a lot of work to really get it that the Irish Travellers are a people with a distinctive identity and approach to life. And one that I have grown to understand and respect hugely. In 1978 I became principal of a school that had been set up entirely for Travellers. Then, the idea didn’t seem as shocking as now! And, I developed an agenda for it—two long-term aims, and once they were achieved, the school should go.
First of all, I argued that like any silenced group, Travellers needed their own space to find their voice, and to read their world, to reclaim their pride, and reflect on their situation—free, for as long as necessary, of the hostile gaze of the oppressor. I think Liégeois (a French specialist on Roma and Travellers in Europe) had a point when he said that the paradox facing Travellers was that they had to enter the house of the oppressor to gain the tools to end their own oppression.
Secondly, I was very concerned with an unspoken notion that I saw at least implicit in education policy towards them– that “Traveller culture” is a euphemism for poverty or deviance. A submerged racism. And among Travellers, there was a mirror-version of that—expressed often in the words “how can Travellers all in together learn anything?” I wanted the school to prove that Traveller culture provided a rich space for a proud and distinct school identity and curriculum, and that Travellers all in together could learn, could go from there to any school of their choice, as good as any child or youth from any other school in the town. In my school, the children could be openly Traveller, and they go on into local secondary (=middle/high) schools, well able to state their case, challenge racism and say why it was wrong. But at the same time, I know that there was a larger structural lesson being learned: the students were Travellers, and were being kept separate.ut at the same time, I know that there was a larger structural lesson being learned: the students were Travellers, and were being kept separate.
However, the mainstream Irish public education system is just not flexible or intuitive enough yet to take in all the different perspectives that ethnicity in Ireland presents. In theory and even in practice, we know where we need to get to. In terms of securing the kind of national and international support necessary to ensure all students, of all ethnicities, have access to fair and culturally appropriate free public education—Ireland– like other European Union member states, like other developing and industrialized and even post-industrialized nations—has a way to go yet. But I think school provision is the wrong place to start.
What has your practice in the field, and your research revealed to you?
The huge thing I have learned – when approaching populations who have been marginalized to the extent that Irish Travellers are –severely disadvantaged, encountering multigenerational cycles of unemployment…the attitude of the dominant education or academic community is often misplaced. The focus tends to be “Let’s get to the children and rescue them first”. I have learned that it can’t work this way. That this way of remediating a human rights problem, particularly involving children and youth from ethnic minorities, does not work. In my experience here you can’t work with the children if you don’t work with the community that envelops the children. In a human rights framework. If the parents are empowered and enabled, if we make a space where they can explore possibilities beyond what has been allowed or offered to them before– then they—the parents, the grandparents, the family members, the guardians and caregivers from within the marginalized population—will make sure the children get the best that they can get.
Our focus needs to shift to not just parental access to education, or parental rights in education, but to creating meaningful and culturally responsive parent-professional interactions where parent-driven professional learning and development can occur. As opposed to teachers working solely with children from populations where they have no prior knowledge or understanding of that population as a living ethnic minority, an evolving culture. Or where they have no professional preparation in critical and culturally reflexive and responsive practices to inquire and learn about the cultures their students and families bring to the classroom.
How are Irish Travellers impacted by other international realities, such as state, EU- and UN-driven incentives around inclusive and special education, if at all?
In the 1960’s, once it was discovered that Irish Traveller children and youth were not going to school on any kind of a consistent basis, activists campaigned to have resources available to them within the special education system (the only avenue to augmented resources available at the time). This was a strategic move, tempting for well-intentioned educational activists. The objective was to intensively up-skill these children, prior to “absorbing” them in the “normal” classes . But the children didn’t move on. Not until the inclusion movement of the 90’s. And then— (beware of what you pray for, you might get it)—in 2007, the Irish Department of Education produced Notes towards a Traveller Education Strategy. Combining the inclusion principle with the need to cut back expenditure, the Department axed all home-school and resource-teaching provision for Travellers. In future, Traveller children would access resources on the basis of need, not identity. How to separate the good from the bad in that statement!?
As regards special education generally, since the 1970’s Ireland has become increasingly influenced by international frameworks of thinking across Europe and more globally as inclusive education, in all its variants, has become the name of the game. This too can be a risky thing. The ideal of inclusive education can only be realised if, in the transition from special provision, the child in question loses nothing of the resources and supports they received in that provision. Truly inclusive education, in any context and of any variant, has got to be more expensive. It must entail additional services and supports and professional training that enable the modern, “inclusive” classroom to be truly universal. At a policy level across EU and in Ireland – we continue to see merely locational inclusion – the placement of children with special needs and/or with generational obstacles to education access all thrown together, in the name of inclusive education. This is not building inclusion. This is in fact worse than exclusion. This is a cost-saver.
How do you distinguish between good versus bad, or even ‘not so good’ practices of inclusive education, in the contexts you focus on?
Locational inclusion is merely a body-count. Are they in the same room? All day? If yes—job done. But real inclusion is making sure every child that is in the room owns the place, belongs. They must feel enabled to operate to the best of their ability within that setting. For example, true inclusion would enable children to access a space where they could remove themselves from a larger group, read, or relax, or sail their boat within the majority classroom. Inclusion must be elastic and modular. It must have a continuum of provisions. All students, including Irish Traveller students, need supports. They all need spaces to draw their breath. All children have the right to the tools and the supports necessary to enable them, in their bodies and with their unique strengths and challenges, systemic or biological, to find their way within the majority classroom. That is inclusion.
How do you describe the educational system in Ireland in general terms?
The general education system in Ireland is too rigid. We should have a continuum of provision so our students, from all ethnicities, with all levels of forms of learning and ability, can operate wherever they need to be to speed ahead or go at their own pace with their own lives. So, if a child needs a lot of physical therapy within the given school-day, they can have this provision within the system and no obstacles in terms of when or how they re-join their peers or class cohort. Our hidden curriculum, not unlike that in the United States, is definitely one of competition and survival of the fittest. At the end of the day you come out of education with or without the piece of paper you need to get into third level (institutes of higher education). There is an undertow separating people for the purposes of economic stratification, that informs the Irish and it seems, most Western public education systems.
Teachers in the Irish public school system are academically bright, highly qualified, and respected in the community with a very strong tradition of successful unionization. The primary (in U.S. terms “elementary”) school teaching force is trained to teach all students aged 4-12 years, not bifurcated into “general” or “special”. But they are almost all middle class, white, and indigenous. Given the rapidly growing ethnic diversity in Irish society, and the movement to inclusive education provision (under-resourced of course), Ireland needs a more diverse teaching force, and substantial investment in relevant, high-quality initial teacher education and continuing professional development.
Where else might the Irish public education continue to evolve, in your opinion?
In the Irish public education system, we need to continue to grow in parent-teacher communication and partnerships. Both on a whole school basis and to face the challenges that arise as new shifts and unexpected realities emerge from our societies at large. The huge increase in diversity in Irish society, over the course of my own career and especially over the last 15 years points to the impact that forced migration, including economic migration, has had on Irish society. Along with that front-end challenge, the system of educational organization has to become more flexible, it has to move beyond its own hidden curriculum and narrow cultural focus.
It is good to see the education partnership growing, where parents, teachers and children become partners in the whole education process. The move towards inclusive education is very good, but it is grossly under-funded. Parents and caregivers in Ireland are no longer sitting on the sidelines. They have become much more vocal.
How did your doctoral work inform your understanding of educational practice and educational leadership in the Irish system?
I did my doctorate in sociology in Trinity College Dublin while I was still teaching. I was a graduate student, a school principal, and a classroom teacher simultaneously. I went into research to try to figure out what were we missing in what Travellers themselves had to say about education, and in how they used language to describe what they were “not”. I love research and I love trying to understand what people say and how that relates to policy.
Equality, equity and the belief that everyone has the right to have access to whatever supports they need to do the best they can informed my position. We should never allow a structural block to limit a person’s potential. That structural block might be a door that isn’t wide enough to allow someone on wheels or using alternative mobility supports to enter, or a system that does not reach out to where people really are. I see no value in just saying “We are very inclusive. So you can now come to us”. If people have centuries of experience behind them, where they know, are told, and experience that they are not welcome – it is not enough for a state institution to just change its mind and say “come on in”. The system must go out to the people, it must reach out to the communities that have experienced marginalization, discrimination, exclusion, oppression – and learn how to include them.
From the designers of educational curricula all the way up to the policy maker– we must know who we have omitted/are omitting, we must reach out to them, learn about them, inform the system how to fully recognize and include them (Bryan, 2010) – to ever proclaim “nothing about us without us”, or “all means all”, or “everyone is welcome”. This is their right.
Otherwise we just sound patronizing.
Máirín Kenny, PhD, is a former teacher, principal and educator who has worked extensively and for over thirty years with students and parents from the Irish Traveller community, a recognized indigenous ethnic minority within Ireland. She is currently an independent scholar. Dr. Kenny has conducted commissioned research on equality, disabilities, ethnicity, racism, and sectarianism in Irish education. She co-edited Traveller, Nomadic and Migrant Education (Routledge, 2009) with Patrick Danaher (University of Southern Queensland). She authored a chapter for Education in Indigenous, Nomadic and Travelling Communities (Eds: R. Griffin and P. MacÉinrí. Bloomsbury, 2014); and co-authored a chapter for Self-Study of Teaching and Teacher Education Practices (Eds: AK Schulte & B Walker-Gibbs. Springer, 2016). Most recently, she co-authored a book chapter on special education in the Republic of Ireland for The Praeger International Handbook of Special Education (Eds: M. Wehmeyer & J. Patton, 2017) with Dr. Thérèse McPhillips (St. Patrick’s College, Ireland), Sorcha Hyland (Department of Special Education, University of Kansas) and Dr. Michael Shevlin (Trinity College Dublin, Ireland).
Bryan, A., (2010). Corporate multiculturalism, diversity management, and positive interculturalism in Irish schools and society. Irish Educational Studies, 29(3), pp. 253-269. http://doras.dcu.ie/21480/
Liégeois, J. P. (1994). Roma, Gypsies, Travellers. Council of Europe.
Watson, D., Kenny, O., & McGinnity, F. (2017). A Social Portrait of Travellers in Ireland. The Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin, Ireland.