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All doctoral students and faculty in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas participate in specializations. The six specializations include the Strengths Based and Inclusive Approaches to the Education of Adolescents with Extensive and Pervasive Support Needs sequence of which I co-lead. I suspect that our specialization has the longest program sequence name in the entire field of education and it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Because several of us have had a hard time getting the full name correct when asked, we’ve started calling it Strengths Based Inclusive for short.
Leaving the length of the name aside for a moment, there are probably many people outside of the field of special education, and perhaps some inside as well, who might be curious about our focus on “strengths”. After all, our doctoral sequence is intended to prepare scholars whose future work concerns children and adults with disability diagnoses that are consistent with intellectual disability and related developmental disabilities. Isn’t that population different from the general population because of their deficits?
The definitions that are used for diagnoses of disability clearly suggest that evidence of a deficit is a distinguishing characteristic. For example, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), intellectual disability is “a disorder with onset during the developmental period that includes both intellectual and adaptive functioning deficits in conceptual, social, and practical domains” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 33). This deficit-based definition and approach to understanding people with disabilities is consistent with what has traditionally been known as the medical model of disability.
Identifying deficits within a person can be useful to the extent that deficits can be prevented or remediated. Certainly, preventing neurological impairment and teaching people useful skills are worthwhile endeavors. However, the downside to the medical model becomes apparent in instances where a condition cannot be prevented (i.e., the central nervous system is already formed) and achievement gaps cannot be fully remediated, even with the very best instruction.
When viewed through a medical model lens, a condition that cannot be fixed is understood to be a chronic pathology. An implication of such a conceptualization is to focus professional efforts on caring for people in specialized settings, much like people who are physically ill being provided care in a hospital. Pathologizing and medicalizing disability has historically resulted in restricting people’s opportunities to participate as full citizens in society.
An alternative to the medical model is a social-ecological model to understanding disability, where disability is understood in terms of the fit between a person’s competence and the demands of community environments. Understanding people this way focuses professional efforts on modifying the context in which people function. It is important to point out that a social-ecological conceptualization does not call for denying that people with disabilities experience limitations in personal competency. Their limitations in competency, however, are not their most salient characteristic. According to a social-ecological conceptualization, the most important difference between people with disabilities and the general population is that people with disabilities need extra support to successfully participate in daily life activities in community settings. Educators and other human service professionals are called to prioritize time and energy on (a) making environments and activities more accessible and welcoming, and (b) identifying and arranging personalized supports so that a person can successfully participate in culturally valued settings to afford access to rich life experiences.
So, in terms of the real world, what does this changing conceptualization of disability really mean? I know a young man whose life experiences provide a good example of the power of a strengths-based, supports oriented, and inclusive approach to working with people with disabilities. For the past five years this young man has been employed as an office worker in one of the world’s largest insurance companies. His job involves sorting and delivering mail and running an array of office machines, while often being pulled away from his own duties to help others in the office who are in a pinch. From a deficit-based perspective, an observer could point out that it took him longer to learn his job tasks compared to others whom his company might have hired, and he has continued to require more direction and coaching on the job than most other employees. He might never had been hired had the focus been placed solely on these challenges.
Instead, his strengths were taken into consideration and he has proven to be an excellent, long-term employee. Although he could not learn job tasks as quickly as others, this was not a weakness that kept him out of the job market. Rather, his commitment to learning helped him master the duties his job required, and once he learned them he learned them well. The fact that he needed more direction and coaching than others did not prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to job success. Rather, his job required someone who was willing to follow directions from others, and it was important to have someone who could be counted on to do job assignments as directed. His eagerness to help others and his flexible disposition were strengths that served him well in a job that required him to step away from his normal duties and assist others who found themselves in a time crunch. Perhaps his most important talents were his cheerfulness and ability to bring out the best qualities in others. These personal strengths had a positive effect on the office climate, which enhanced everyone’s productivity and motivation.
It would be a mistake, however, to limit consideration of people’s strengths and talents to only those that are directly relevant to success at school or on a job. Most people want to embody and share different sides of themselves; that is, they seek multiple ways to demonstrate their strengths and make contributions to the world. Having a multi-faceted life may even be essential to living a fulfilling life. Can we envision people with extensive or pervasive support needs in non-vocational and non-student roles? Can we envision them as artists, preachers, chefs, gardeners, travel enthusiasts, athletes, sports fans, or in any other culturally valued role that grows and asserts itself from an inner passion? Can we encourage people with extensive or pervasive support needs to develop their strengths in ways that enable them pursue life experiences that truly enhance their quality of life? A story from Psychology’s history shows what can happen when people with intellectual disability are allowed to discover their dormant/hidden/undervalued strengths.
In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, a group of adolescent girls and women with developmental disabilities were living at a state institution in Iowa with nearly 2,000 other residents. Near to the institution was a severely overcrowded and understaffed state-run orphanage. The orphanage was in dire straits due to a perfect storm of an increasing number of destitute women who simply did not have the means to take care of their babies, a decreasing number of families that were in any economic position to adopt, and a dearth of public funding for human services. Infants at the orphanage were failing to thrive physically and intellectually due to a lack of stimulation. With literally no room to place another baby, two infants (15 and 18 months old) who showed signs of significant developmental delays were temporarily moved to women’s cottages on the grounds of a state school in Iowa. Dr. Skeels (1966), who chronicled the events, recalled, “The youngsters were pitiful little creatures. They were tearful, had runny noses, and sparse, stringy, and colorless hair; they were emaciated, undersized, and lacked muscle tonus or responsiveness. Sad and inactive, the two spent days rocking and whining” (p. 5).
Six months after placement, Dr. Skeels (1966) visited the wards of the institution where the babies had been left. He observed two toddlers “smiling, running about, responding to the playful attention of adults and looking like any other toddlers” (p. 6). He did not recognize them as the two “pitiful” babies that had been sent from the orphanage a little over a half of a year ago. He returned to the orphanage, which was in every bit of disarray as it was six months earlier, and concluded “There seemed to be only one alternative, and that a rather fantastic one; namely to transfer mentally retarded children in the orphanage nursery, one to two years of age, to an institution for feebleminded in order to make them normal” (Skeels & Dye, 1939/2002, p. 21).
Dr. Skeels convinced the State of Iowa to allow him to identify the infants with intellectual disability in the orphanage. Half were sent to the institution (the experimental group) and half remained at the orphanage (the control group). A follow-up two years later showed the experimental group infants were thriving while the control group infants were languishing (Skeels & Dye, 1939/2002). The experimental children lost their diagnosis (i.e., they no longer met deficit criteria for intellectual disability) and 12 of the 13 were adopted by families. When the children from the two groups were contacted 25 years later, all of the experimental group children were found to be self-supporting adults, compared to only 4 of the 12 control group children (Skeels, 1966).
Psychology was still a relatively young field at the time of Dr. Skeels’ study, and by today’s standards his research was significantly flawed in terms of scientific rigor. Many would suggest it was flawed ethically as well (How could they leave half of the children in the orphanage, knowing that they would be neglected?). From a research standpoint, the biggest problem was that data collection and analyses were overly focused on IQ score changes; infant and early childhood IQ scores are notoriously unreliable, and therefore IQ was not valid as a dependent measure. However, despite questionable data, Dr. Skeels’ main conclusion was spot on. Namely, babies need stimulation and human contact (e.g., touch, affection) to flourish. Neglectful early environments can result in a failure to thrive with long-term effects. Dr. Skeels deserves credit for influencing a line of research targeted to understanding how experiences and conditions early in life can affect future physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development.
Unfortunately, very little is known about the women who cared for these neglected babies. But, what is known is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Skeels and Dye (1939/2002) reported that each child was placed on a ward that included 30 institutional inmates (this was term used at the time for institutionalized adults) who they described as older girls, and one attendant (there a was staff hierarchy, with matrons and assistant matrons in charge of the wards, and attendants were the lowest level of employee). We also know that “in the case of almost every child, some one adult (older girl or attendant) would become particularly attached to a given child and would figuratively ‘adopt’ him” (p. 25). But, everyone contributed. The girls would spend a great deal of time with the children, teaching them to walk, talk, play with toys and play materials, and in the training of habits. Most of the clothing for these children was made by the older girls. “The girls were so fond of the children that they would actually spend their small earnings and allowances to buy them special foods, toys, picture books, and materials for clothing” (p. 24).
The pitiful infants certainly brought a priceless gift with them to the institution. Namely, they offered those who were willing to love them the opportunity to discover their own strengths and talents, and to find additional meaning in their own lives. What a delightful change of pace it must have been to have a baby on the ward to love and to hold. What joy these babies must have brought to their temporary mothers. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl (1992) explains how he survived the Holocaust by finding personal meaning through his experiences. He writes:
Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself (p. 115).
After 2-3 years at the institution, the toddlers were removed and returned to the orphanage because they were now perceived to be promising candidates for adoption. Did the mothers take pride in the work they had done? Did they celebrate the fact that they had provided their child with an opportunity for adoption by a family? Were they even aware that this was the child’s likely fate? Or, was a child, who was loved dearly by a group of women, taken away from them without much explanation? Did any of them question why, despite their efforts and success, they were no longer considered to be worthy to be mothers, or even provided opportunities to maintain their relationships with these children?
Skeels and Dye’s (1939/2002) famous study offers little to us today in terms of guidance in regard to child development. There is far more solid research documenting the importance of optimizing the early years of a child’s life. The most relevant lesson we can take away from their study concerns the importance of understanding people with disabilities by their strengths and seeing their potential to enhance the lives of others with whom they are associated. The women from the Glenwood State School were briefly provided an opportunity to discard their identities as institutional inmates, and discover their strengths as healers and mothers.
In the Strength Based Inclusive sequence the efforts of students and faculty members coalesce around research agendas that bring to light the strengths and gifts of people with extensive and pervasive support needs. We strive to prepare future educators to see past disability labels while recognizing and fostering the talents of their students. As long as the faculty and students in our doctoral program sequence remain true to these ideals, it is probably OK if we continue struggle to correctly recall the full name of our sequence.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Frankl, V. E. (1992). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy (4th ed.). Beacon Press: Boston, MA. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/MansSearchForMeaning-English
Skeels, H. M., & Dye, H. B. (1939/2002). A study of the effects of differential simulation on mentally retarded children. Proceedings of the American Association on Mental Deficiency, 44, 114-136. Reprinted in J. Blacher & B. Baker (Eds), The Best of AAMR: Families and Mental Retardation: A Collection of Notable AAMR Journal Articles Across the 20th Century. American Association on Mental Retardation: Washington, DC.
Skeels, H. M. (1966). Adults status of children with contrasting early life experiences: A follow-up study. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 31 (3, Series No. 105).
James R. Thompson, Ph.D. has over 30 years of experience in the field of developmental disabilities as a direct support professional, special educator, rehabilitation counselor, teacher educator, and researcher. He has authored or co-authored over 70 books, book chapters, monographs, and articles in professional journals, and has directed multiple federal and state funded research and model demonstration projects. His primary research focus for the past 15 years has been on support needs assessment and planning with children and adults with intellectual disability and related developmental disabilities. He is the lead author of American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities’ Supports Intensity Scales (both the adult version and the children’s version), the first assessment tools to provide standardized measures of the support needs of people with disabilities. The Supports Intensity Scales have been translated and published in 13 languages, and are being used throughout the United States and world. Jim serves as Editor of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
Dr. Thompson serves as a Professor in the Department of Special Education, Senior Scientist at the Beach Center on Disability, and Associate Director of the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities. He has previously served on the Board of Directors for the AAIDD and the Council for Exceptional Children’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Division. He currently serves as Editor of the professional journal, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
By Barbara A. Kerr. Williamson Family Distinguished Professor of Counseling Psychology, University of Kansas (KU) School of Education.
Teachers, you know the old story. A guy is walking along the beach where a tsunami has swept thousands of starfish ashore. He is throwing one starfish at a time back into the sea. Another guy walks up to him and says, “So many thousands of dying starfish. What do you accomplish by throwing one back in the sea? What does it matter?” The first guy says, as he throws another one, “Mattered to him.”
Sometimes, I am sure you feel like you are surrounded by struggling starfish. Decades of reduced funding, blaming teachers for students’ failure to meet test goals, and school closings mean that teachers, students, principals are demoralized by the long siege of the “reformers”. You’re tired of building seawalls against the tsunami… writing letters, organizing, going to meetings, speaking out… and I know that sometimes you just want to quit.
Before you quit teaching, let me have a word. I want to implore you to save a starfish. I want to encourage you to find ONE creative kid. Wait – I heard your train of thought: Creative = gifted = elitism = one white kid from a middle-class family. Just stop. I’m not talking about that. Forget the labels and the complex identification procedures for gifted education that so often favor more privileged students who have been exposed to the kinds of experiences and opportunities that are often assessed as part of the formal processes for determining/labeling who is gifted who is not.
Creative students who have potential to become innovators in the arts, sciences, social vocations and entrepreneurship are some of our most neglected students. Creative kids are everywhere. In fact, creativity knows no boundaries of race, class, gender, disability or any other category devised to divide us. For example, a number of great inventors came from low-income families that had to make do, to fix things, and to tinker with an engine or a recipe until a solution is found that works. Some eminent women writers were considered at-risk.
All kids are curious, engaged in their own learning adventures, and in love with ideas. It might be the girl or boy who reads alone at recess or insinuates his or herself into the basketball game, or spends more time drawing the four square court than playing the game. It might be the kid who doodles no matter what. It might be the kid who knows everything there is to know about videogames but doesn’t do his homework. Curiosity and creativity is part of human experience. For some students, creativity trumps all other preoccupations. Writing, building, coding, drawing, and emoting make school livable.
Find that kid. Teachers are good at finding creative kids – yes, my research says so – look it up. (“Finding Tomorrow’s Innovators: Profiling Creative Adolescents”) Using your intuition and your knowledge will help you recognize the creative kids around you. You can look up our five categories of traits: Verbal and linguistic skills, mathematics and science, spatial and visual skills, interpersonal and emotional skills, and music and dance (Kerr & McKay, 2013).
I think you already know what a future inventor, artist, writer, or leader looks like. Curious, quirky, independent, single-minded, nonconforming, and sometimes a little weird – find that kid. Ask, “What are you drawing…that looks amazing!” “Tell me about that book you’re hiding in your lap. What’s it about? What do you like about it?” “How did you figure out how to make that – it works great!” That’s how the conversation starts. Then find out what he or she wants to know about that topic, and give the gift of knowledge. Slip her a book to read. Tell him where he can find an animation software program. Show him an article on Japanese cultural influences on early Nintendo games. Now keep the conversation going, every day. Share your enthusiasm for the student’s passions with the parents. Find a friend who knows something about that kid’s interest, and introduce that person to the family—that’s social capital. Look for after-school programs or a summer camp that fits, and find a local library, museum, or college where that child has never been – and get him or her there – that’s cultural capital. Find and raise scholarship money for those programs – that’s capital. Talk about careers, and help the kid develop their own agency to pursue their goals. Finally, follow up, even after the school year is over. “What are you doing now? What’s your latest project? I’d love to see it!”
Pretend you’re in the post-apocalyptic scenario that has seized the imagination of a generation, and find one kid to hold safely in your hands. Keep that child safe, shelter that child from the storm. One day, he or she will find, with your help, the creative community where ideas and new enterprises can thrive. Be an advocate for that creative child until that day comes when you can throw your starfish into the sheltering sea of like souls.
Maybe you will discover what I did. When you find one kid, when you see her or him, when you authentically collaborate with one kid, you learn something about yourself. Perhaps you will re-awaken your love for teaching. Perhaps you awaken your own curiosity and passion for learning and new ideas. When we acknowledge the mysterious human gifts of exploration and creation in others, we find it in ourselves. To rescue starfish is to rescue ourselves.
Kerr, B. A., & McKay, R. (2014). Smart girls in the 21st century: Understanding talented girls and women. Tucson AZ: Great Potential Press.
Kerr, B. A., Cohn, S. J. (2001). Smart boys: Talent, manhood and the search for meaning. Scottsdale AZ: Great Potential Press.
Kerr, B. & McKay, R., (2013). Searching for tomorrow’s innovators: Profiling creative adolescents. Creativity Research Journal, 25(1). 21-32. DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2013.752180
Barbara Kerr, Ph.D. holds an endowed chair as Distinguished Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Kansas and is an American Psychological Association Fellow. Her M.A. from the Ohio State University and her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri are both in counseling psychology. Her research has focused on the development of talent, creativity, and optimal states, while training psychologists and counselors to be talent scouts who provide positive, strengths-based services. She founded the Guidance Laboratory for Gifted and Talented at the University of Nebraska; was Associate Director of the Belin-Blank National Center for Gifted and Talented at the University of Iowa; and co-director of the National Science Foundation projects for talented at risk girls at Arizona State University. She is editor of the recent Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent Development, and author of Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness; A Handbook for Counseling Gifted and Talented; co-author of Smart Boys: Talent, Masculinity, and the Search for Meaning, Counseling Girls and Women and over one hundred articles, chapters, and papers in the area of giftedness, talent, and creativity. She currently directs the Counseling Laboratory for the Exploration of Optimal States (CLEOS) at the University of Kansas, a research through service program that identifies and guides creative adolescents. With Karen Multon, she has co-directed the NSF Project, Milestones and Danger Zones for STEM Women. Barbara Kerr specializes in optimal human development and positive psychology, counseling of gifted and creative people, gender issues in counseling, and spirituality. Web site: http://cleos.ku.edu/
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