Texas District Makes Gains With Special Education

Christina Samuels:

When leaders of the North East Independent district realized some students weren’t succeeding, they rolled up their sleeves and went to work. The results were dramatic.
The North East Independent School District, serving part of the city of San Antonio, cherishes its image as a diverse system of high-achieving students bound for college. But two years ago, the 61,000-student district received a jolt when 10 of its 61 schools failed to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. At each, the performance of students with disabilities tipped the scale downward. Four were considered “academically unacceptable” under state standards, a rating that was successfully appealed but still a blow.
Superintendent Richard A. Middleton, who has led the district for 17 years, said the results were demoralizing: “When we have a school that for the large part is very successful, if a smaller cell of student scores creates a low ranking, there’s an air of disbelief and confusion.”
The plan required both a practical and a philosophical change for district professionals. Principals, in partnership with district-level data-coaching teams, dug deeper into student achievement data than they ever had before. All students, particularly those with disabilities, had to be taught the most rigorous classwork teachers believed they could master. Administrators were asked to internalize a belief that all students could learn—no excuses.
Not every school leader was immediately on board. Linda Skrla, an associate professor at Texas A&M University, in College Station, and a graduate school classmate of Ms. Thomas’, gave a presentation to district administrators the summer after the 2005-06 test administration. Along with James J. Scheurich, Ms. Skrla wrote a book called Leadership for Equity and Excellence, contending that unconscious biases can lead administrators to have low expectations for students. The authors urge administrators to confront those biases and institute reforms.