Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Beyond Special Education: A New Vision of Academic Support: A Massachusetts High School Demonstrates That a Mainstream Academic Support Program for Students with Mild Learning Problems Can Help Motivate Students to Learn and Improve Their Academic Performance as Well as Promise Long-Term Financial Savings at a Time When Special Education Budgets Are Increasing Dramatically

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Beyond Special Education: A New Vision of Academic Support: A Massachusetts High School Demonstrates That a Mainstream Academic Support Program for Students with Mild Learning Problems Can Help Motivate Students to Learn and Improve Their Academic Performance as Well as Promise Long-Term Financial Savings at a Time When Special Education Budgets Are Increasing Dramatically

Article excerpt

"I am going to college because of the Brookline High School Tutorial. The program saved my academic life; it's as simple as that."

--Danny

Unfocused and distracted, Danny was diagnosed with a learning disability during middle school. That diagnosis meant that Danny was placed in the special education program when he enrolled as a student at Brookline High School in suburban Boston, Massachusetts. By his sophomore year, he was struggling to pass his courses and complained to his mother that he was unhappy with being in the high school's learning center for special education students.

"I didn't have a learning disability, " he says. "I just couldn't focus, and didn't know why."

In 2002, during his junior year, his mother enrolled him in Brookline High School's new Tutorial Program, an alternative to the more traditional special education learning center. The Tutorial serves students with learning disabilities, replacing conventional special education support with academic guidance from regular classroom teachers. Tutorial students meet daily with a team of two teachers--usually one from the humanities and the other from math/science--in a regular C-block class. Meeting with regular academic teachers allows students like Danny to escape the stigma often associated with special education. These students have greater access to the general curriculum, prepare for the state-mandated standardized test required for graduation, and feel more like an integral part of the mainstream school community. While enrolled in the program, Danny's confidence and performance improved, and he made honor roll for the first time. He has already been on the dean's list for three semesters in college.

Educators' initial sense that too many students were being diagnosed with learning disabilities led to the creation of Brookline's innovative Tutorial Program in 2002. The Tutorial offered an alternative to a system that was stigmatizing too many students and costing too much money. Brookline High Schools is now better able to address the needs of students defined as special education students by moving them into a mainstream academic support program. At the same time, the program offers teachers a new, inspiring, and reinvigorating means of interacting with students and sharing their love of the subjects they teach. Parents also see the positive effects in their children's intellectual self-confidence and their ability to succeed in mainstream academics.

At BHS, over 100 students have left special education for the Tutorial. As the Tutorial becomes more established in the school, this promises a long-term shift in moving special education dollars into the regular education budget.

In recent years, many students have been diagnosed with disabilities because this was too often the only way they could receive academic support services. BHS psychologists reported, for instance, that they were at times ambivalent about diagnosing disabilities. In order to receive an Individual Education Plan (IEP), a student must have a diagnosed disability and must not be making "effective progress" in school. Students might well need assistance, but not necessarily "specialized instruction" provided by special education staff. The psychologists wanted to help these students and thus recommended special education services. The psychologists also reported that they felt pressure to recommend IEPs so that students could receive accommodations on standardized tests like the SAT (Miranda and Goldberg 2003). This dynamic is especially prevalent in more affluent communities where there is intense competitive pressure among students and their parents. As a result, the number of students on IEPs and 504 Plans is large and growing.

Educators, policy makers, scholars, and practitioners have long debated the most effective way to educate special needs students, both in financial and academic terms. Since the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a consensus has been growing that students are best and most efficiently served by having access to the mainstream general education curriculum. …

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