Not Just Teachers: Supporting Students’ Success

As summer ends and the school year begins, we often think about teachers and students heading back to school. While teachers prepare lessons and students learn new concepts we can’t forget the service employees who provide support that enable the schools to run efficiently.

Instructional support in schools can play a key role in student success. Paraeducators –– support staff responsible for assisting in the delivery of instruction — help provide such support by assisting with classroom management, organizing instructional materials, helping in libraries and media centers, and translating, to name a few of their responsibilities. Perhaps most importantly, paraeducators reinforce the efforts of teachers in the classroom, and help increase student outcomes.

This is why, as President of the California School Employees Association, I want to take the time to tell the story of one school employee in the Golden State who really shines.

Paraeducator Michele Delao, a 2011 California School Employees Association Member of the Year, uses her knowledge and warmth to help special education students learn. For the past eight years as special education paraeducator at Bear River School in Wheatland, California, she has brought light-heartedness and laughter to the serious mission of showing special education students that they can thrive.

The staff of Bear River School laud Delao’s ability to help students focus and grasp instruction.

Michele Delao helps a student on an assignment.

Michele Delao helps a student on an assignment.

“She has a very striking sense of humor that comforts the kids and takes the pressure off,” explains Angela Gouker, principal of Bear River School. “Most of these kids know they’re a little bit behind or struggling in some areas. She makes learning fun so that they forget that pressure.”

Delao says it’s satisfying to see the students’ progress. With her help, the students can attend mainstream middle school classes even as they’re working to master the basics.

With budget cuts and fewer staff dedicated to special education, the paraeducators at Bear River School  have taken on a larger load of students with a broader range of learning disabilities. Despite the challenge, Delao tailors her approach to fit each student.

“They’re having great difficulties and there are great variations in each person,” she says. “But because there are only three of us, our groups are really not as targeted as we would like. I have to find a middle ground and at the same time try to meet individual students where they are.”

Understanding  the needs and challenges of working with diverse learners, including special education students, Delao comes to work each day fired by  the energy, compassion and will to give the students she mentors a boost toward academic success. And, she does it all with a smile.

“She really cares about what she does – she cares about people – and that sense of humor comes through,” Gouker said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Michael Bilbrey  is president of the California School Employees Association.

 

i3 Arts-Integration Project Delivers Content in Special Education Classrooms

Cross-posted from the OII blog.

For teachers in New York City’s District 75, which serves more than 20,000 special needs students across the city, an innovative arts-integration approach to instruction is improving students’ social-emotional and communications skills and helping students and teachers to achieve both individual and classroom goals.

Supported by a $4.6 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from OII in 2010, the Everyday Arts for Special Education (EASE) project is also being adapted by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), where special education leaders are using the project’s arts-integration techniques to help achieve a system-wide goal of reducing the number of self-contained classrooms and schools. The Urban Arts Partnership, which manages the EASE grant for District 75, began leading professional development sessions for LAUSD teachers two years ago, and this year is working with 45 teachers in L.A. and nearly 350 in New York City.

The EASE arts-integration approach is “simple yet elegant,” according to Kathy London, the arts instructional specialist for District 75. “These are things anybody can learn,” she told Education Week recently. The arts, rather than being just an add-on to existing lessons, become an organizing framework for lessons. The arts are “a vehicle for delivering content,” noted London.

Participating teachers in grades K-5 have two dozen arts activities that are adapted to fit with content in other curriculum areas. Most District 75 students have behavioral goals — following directions, exercising self-control, and communicating with other students, for example — and EASE is proving very effective in achieving those outcomes. In the 2012-13 school year, for example, more than 75 percent of participating students made progress in each of five of the social-emotional goal areas.

EASE evaluation researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University are analyzing substantial amounts of both quantitative and qualitative data gathered during the past four years, and plan to issue two impact studies, one based on the state’s alternative assessment for students with disabilities, when the project concludes in 2015.

To read the Education Week article, Arts Program Shows Promise in Special Ed. Classes, click here.

Special Education is Not a Place

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Imagine living in an institution as a child with disabilities. You are isolated from your peers, your abilities are underestimated, and you are deprived of the special attention and education that you deserve. You are separated from other kids who live on your same street, only because you have a disability. After living in segregation for years, a law is passed that gives equal education rights to you – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

When people see our website that we created for the competition, we want them to go forth with the knowledge of how much IDEA has helped children since 1975. The law has changed the lives of countless children in the United States. When Isabel, Chloe, and I originally made our website for the National History Day (NHD) competition, “Special Education is Not a Place: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” we would never have guessed we, three 7th grade girls, would end up with a guest blog on the Department of Education website. It’s been a long journey for us; we have learned so much! However, it has been an even longer journey for children with disabilities to gain educational rights.

We go to George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, Va., which participates in the NHD competition. This year, the theme is “Rights and Responsibilities.” We chose the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as our topic for several reasons. We were inspired by “Including Samuel,” a video about a boy with disabilities and his struggles and successes of inclusion, told by his father. Between the three of us we have three relatives who are involved with special education, but we realized many people have no idea what the IDEA stands for and what it does (even us!). We also realized that though civil rights and women’s rights are taught in school, the rights of people with disabilities are mostly left out.

As part of our website, we interviewed the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) Acting Assistant Secretary Michael Yudin to gain additional information on IDEA and special education. We enjoyed speaking with him so much and learned more during the interview about placing and educating students in the “least restrictive environment” and making sure children with disabilities are not discriminated against in the schools.   This interview will be available on our website soon.

We are proud that our work has been recognized and we won first place in our category at the National History Day competition at our school, in regionals, and in our state! Now, our goal is not only to do well in the National competition (fingers crossed!), but to teach as many people as possible about the law that gave everyone the right to learn. IDEA will be 40 years old next year—that’s a lot older than we are! We are so happy that it has helped many before our time, and that it continues to make education better for all of us!

Lily Clausen, Chloe Marsh, and Isabel Frye are 7th grade students at George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, Virginia.

Early Screening is Vital to Children and their Families

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The Unity Sunshine Program of Unity House of Troy in Troy, New York, offers an inclusive early learning program.

How a child plays, learns, speaks, moves, and behaves all offer important clues about a child’s development. A delay in any of these developmental milestones could be a sign of developmental challenges, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Early intervention services, like those services that help a child learn to speak, walk, or interact with others, can really make a difference and enhance a child’s learning and development. Unfortunately, too many young children do not have access to the early screening that can help detect developmental delays.

Additionally, the CDC states that an estimated one in every 68 children in the United States has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. Unfortunately, most children identified with ASD were not diagnosed until after age four, even though children can be diagnosed as early as age two or younger.

While it is imperative that all young children have access to screening and appropriate services, research highlights the need to ensure developmental screening in low-income, racially diverse urban populations, where the risk of delay is greater and access to services can be more difficult. Studies found that by 24 months of age, black children were almost five times less likely than white children to receive early intervention services, and that a lack of receipt of services appeared more consistently among black children who qualified based on developmental delay alone compared to children with a diagnosed condition. The research suggests that children of color are disproportionately underrepresented in early intervention services and less likely than white children to be diagnosed with developmental delays.

Statistics such as these can help us raise the awareness about the importance of early screening. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children receive developmental screenings with a standardized developmental screening tool at 9, 18, and either 24 or 30 months of age. Children who are screened and identified as having, or at risk for, a developmental delay can be referred to their local early intervention service program (if they are under 3 years of age), or their local public school (if they are 3 years of age or older), for additional evaluation to determine whether they are eligible for IDEA Part C or Part B 619 services. Further, screening young children early may help families to better access other federal and State-funded early learning and development services, such as home visiting, Early Head Start, Head Start, preschool, and child care.

Last month, I was pleased to announce that the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services worked together to launch Birth to 5: Watch Me Thrive! This initiative encourages early developmental and behavioral screening and follow-up with support for children and families by providing a compendium of research-based screening tools and “how to” guides for a variety of audiences, including parents, doctors, teachers, and child care providers. Research shows that early identification can lead to greater access to supports and services, helping children develop and learn.

I’ve seen first-hand how States and local providers are working to ensure that some of our most at risk children get the supports and services they need…early. I’ve met with providers of early childhood services from Las Cruces, New Mexico to East Boston, Massachusetts. The Unity Sunshine Program of Unity House of Troy in Troy, New York offers a fully integrated and inclusive early learning setting for young children with disabilities to learn alongside their typically developing peers. I’ve also learned how critical it is for States and local providers to engage, support, and empower families of young children with disabilities.

Early screening and identification are critically important steps towards giving young children with disabilities a strong start in life. Check out Birth to Five: Watch Me Thrive! and learn how you can support some of our most vulnerable children and their families.

Michael Yudin is Acting Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education

 

Celebrating a Disability Rights Pioneer

Ed Roberts is one of the most important pioneers of the disability rights movement. Roberts was a talented athlete with dreams of playing professional baseball when he was disabled by polio in 1953 at the age of 14. Having a disability taught him many things, not the least of which was the importance of a good education. He could only move a couple of fingers and a couple of toes, yet he attended three years of high school by phone while lying in his iron lung at home.

After a senior year back in the school building, Roberts still had to fight to be allowed to graduate, but eventually he received his diploma with his mom Zona by his side. When he went to college and graduate school, he had to find a place to live on campus that could accommodate the iron lung he slept in every night.

Roberts also started using a power wheelchair while he was in graduate school. If you’ve ever used a curb cut to help you cross a street with a stroller, a rolling suitcase or a wheelchair, you can thank Ed Roberts and his allies with disabilities. His iron lung and his power wheelchair are now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution here in Washington, D.C.

Besides his advocacy for educational rights, Roberts was a founder of the Independent Living (IL) movement and director of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) in California. Both IL and VR have been part of the Department of Education since it began, and the programs operate in all 50 states and DC. Later in his life, Roberts took time to speak to hundreds of young adults with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities across the US. That’s where I met him, when my son Charlie was only seven years old. Roberts taught what nobody else did: that people with disabilities belong everywhere; that a student with the most profound disabilities has a lot to offer in any classroom; and that my job as a parent was to ensure that my son could make his own choices, and make his own voice heard, even if he couldn’t speak. Ed showed every day that charisma is not limited to able-bodied people, and that just being present is a form of advocacy. No wonder he won a MacArthur fellowship “genius” award: he helped us all understand that learning to thrive with disability was about expectations, education, employment, and empowerment above all else.

In January, the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services invited current and emerging leaders of the civil rights movement of people with disabilities to celebrate Roberts’s life. Guests discussed their own experiences in the civil rights movements of people with disabilities, the impact Ed Roberts had on their lives, and the importance of sharing his story with future generations of students.

Many students and families still don’t know about the civil rights movement of people with disabilities. Empowerment comes with knowledge. Learning about Ed Roberts is a great place to start.

To learn more about Ed Roberts and the civil rights movement of people with disabilities the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities website.

Sue Swenson is deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Keeping Students with Disabilities Safe from Bullying

As Secretary Duncan has noted, the Department of Education is committed to making sure that all of our young people grow up free of fear, violence, and bullying. Bullying not only threatens a student’s physical and emotional safety at school, but fosters a climate of fear and disrespect, creating conditions that negatively impact learning—undermining students’ ability to achieve to their full potential. Unfortunately, we know that children with disabilities are disproportionately affected by bullying.

back_to_school_billboardFactors such as physical vulnerability, social skills challenges, or intolerant environments may increase the risk of bullying. Students who are targets of bullying are more likely to experience lower academic achievement, higher truancy rates, feelings of alienation, poor peer relationships, loneliness, and depression. We must do everything we can to ensure that our schools are safe and positive learning  environments—where all students can learn.

To that end, today, ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued guidance to educators and stakeholders on the matter of bullying of students with disabilities. This guidance provides an overview of school districts’ responsibilities to ensure that students with disabilities who are subject to bullying continue to receive free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under IDEA, States and school districts are obligated to ensure that students with disabilities receive FAPE in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This guidance explains that any bullying of a student with disabilities which results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit is considered a denial of FAPE. Furthermore, this letter notes that certain changes to an educational program of a student with a disability (e.g., placement in a more restricted “protected” setting to avoid bullying behavior) may constitute a denial of FAPE in the LRE.

Schools have an obligation to ensure that a student with disabilities who is bullied, continues to receive FAPE as outlined in his or her individualized education program (IEP). IEPs, as well as 504 plans, can be useful in outlining specialized approaches for preventing and responding to bullying, as well as providing additional supports and services to students with disabilities. This guidance also offers effective evidence-based practices for preventing and addressing bullying.

“This guidance is a significant step forward for students facing bullying,” said Ari Ne’eman, President of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a leading national advocacy organization. “We applaud and commend the Department for reinforcing that when a child is being bullied, it is inappropriate to ‘blame the victim’ and remove them from the general education classroom. School districts have an obligation to address the source of the problem –the stigma and prejudice that drives bullying behavior.”

Bullying of any student simply cannot be tolerated in our schools. A school where children don’t feel safe is a school where children struggle to learn. Every student deserves to thrive in a safe school and classroom free from bullying.

Please see the Dear Colleague Letter on bullying and its accompanying enclosure below or on this OSERS policy letters page.

For additional information on preventing bullying, please visit StopBullying.gov and view ED’s “It Gets Better” video.

Michael Yudin is acting assistant secretary for ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

All Means All – Duncan Addresses IDEA Conference

All means all, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said during his keynote address to the IDEA Leadership Conference last week. “Children with disabilities are a part of, not separate from, the general education population,” he said.

IDEA Conference LogoThe annual gathering brings together Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part B State Directors, IDEA Part C Coordinators, Preschool Coordinators, Parent Center leaders, and other Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) technical assistance providers, and aims to support better outcomes for infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities and their families. There are more than six million children with disabilities in the U.S. and Duncan noted that there is still work still to be done to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities.

One of Duncan’s priorities during his second term is President Obama’s Preschool for All plan. Duncan said that through the plan “we have an opportunity to give every child in America an equal chance to succeed.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has a long, successful history of ensuring that infants, toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities have access to early education services. We will use what we have learned from those programs as we move forward in supporting the development of high-quality preschool programs for 4-year-olds.

Currently, of the nearly 746,000 preschool children served in IDEA-funded preschool programs, about 35 percent are in segregated settings. We want to see all children participating fully in quality, inclusive programs.

Duncan said that the Preschool for All proposal will result in more inclusive early education options for preschoolers with disabilities. This increase in options will help to identify children with disabilities earlier, giving them a strong start.

Read the entire speech by Secretary Duncan and visit the 2013 IDEA Leadership Conference page and the TA&D Network for more information and resources.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education 

Increased Access to Print Materials for Students Who are Blind and Print Disabled

On June 27, 2013, delegates representing over 160 member states of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), finalized an international treaty that, once ratified, will allow cross-border exchange of published works in specialized formats — braille, large print and audio — increasing access to the content of print materials for persons who are blind and print disabled.

Child ReadingThe Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or otherwise Print Disabled is unique in that it represents an international effort to address an issue affecting persons with print disabilities in all parts of the world. The treaty is a first step to eliminating the “book famine,” a phrase first used in a 1970 UNESCO study that addressed the lack of access to print materials in developing countries, but more recently used to describe the dire shortage of accessible texts for persons with print disabilities.

If ratified, the Marrakesh Treaty promises to benefit students and other persons with print disabilities in the United States. Among the potential beneficiaries of this treaty are the over 255,000 students with print disabilities, K-12, currently receiving accessible books through Bookshare, an online library of digital books for people with print disabilities, supported in part through a cooperative agreement with the Department’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).

The Marrakesh Treaty would also permit authorized entities, like Bookshare, and individuals with print disabilities to locate and obtain accessible books from holdings in other countries, including for example, materials in foreign languages, accessible versions of rare books, and specialized STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) texts and materials. Increased availability to a wide range of materials in accessible formats raises the floor for students and others with print disabilities by providing equal access to information, knowledge and education, the keys to meaningful careers and employment and full inclusion in the community.

The final treaty language and additional information about the Marrakesh Diplomatic Conference can be found at http://www.wipo.int/portal/index.html.en

Information on eligibility and accessing materials at Bookshare can be found at https://www.bookshare.org/

Glinda Hill is an education program specialist in the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education

Join the Conversation to Improve Transition from School to Work for Youth with Disabilities

Today’s young people must graduate from high school with the skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century global economy.  And that certainly includes youth with disabilities.  To that end, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy are working closely together to create opportunities for youth with disabilities to graduate college and career ready.

Our economy demands a talented and diverse workforce.  President Obama has called on the Federal Government to hire an additional 100,000 workers with disabilities by 2015.  Senator Harkin joined with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in setting a goal to increase the size of the disability workforce from under five million to six million by 2015.  Delaware’s Governor Markell, as Chair of the National Governor’s Association, has called on state governments to identify business partners who will work with them to develop strategic plans for the employment and retention of workers with disabilities.

We believe that all youth, including youth with disabilities, must graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills to be successful in the workforce. While in school, students with disabilities must be held to high expectations, participate in the general curriculum, be exposed to rigorous coursework, and have meaningful and relevant transition goals and services aligned to college- and career-ready standards. Research has shown that effective transition services are directly linked to better postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities. Research also tells us that to flourish in the workplace youth with disabilities must also be provided with the opportunity to develop leadership skills, to engage in self-determination and career exploration, and to participate in paid work-based experiences while in high school.  With only 20.7 percent of working age people with disabilities participating in the labor force, compared to 68.8 percent of those without disabilities, we must do better!

That is why we’re currently hosting, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Social Security Administration, the first-ever national online dialogue to help shape federal agency strategies for helping young people with disabilities successfully transition from school to work. We know that we cannot do this alone. To bring about lasting change, we need educators, service providers, disability advocates, policymakers, and youth with disabilities and their families to provide input. We want and need to hear from you!

Akin to a “virtual town hall,” this dialogue invites members of the public to help us learn what’s working, what’s not, and where change is needed, with particular focus on how various federal laws and regulations impact the ability of youth with disabilities to be successful in today’s global economy. This “Conversation for Change” started on May 13 and runs through May 27th. More than 2,000 people have participated, and we want you to join-in also! We encourage everyone who is interested in improving transition outcomes for youth with disabilities to contribute.

We hope you will lend your voice to our efforts to ensure inclusion, equity and opportunity on behalf of America’s youth with disabilities.

Join the online dialogue!

Michael Yudin is the acting assistant secretary of education for special education and rehabilitative services.  Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy. 

Technology Gives Students with Disabilities Access to College Courses

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Program Coordinator Jennifer Lang-Jolliff (green sweater) speaks about Mission Middle College program with guest Michael Yudin, seated on right.

Last week, I met with a group of high school students with learning disabilities who attend a dual-enrollment high school/college program at Mission Middle College in Santa Clara, California. The program emphasizes the use of technology, including the Bookshare accessible library, to help students earn college credit while still in high school.

The Mission Middle College educational program is a collaboration of Santa Clara Unified School District and Mission Community College. The program takes on a student-centered learning environment where seniors can complete required high school courses while accumulating college credits. Each student focuses on individual educational choices and academic and vocational studies relevant to future goals. The idea is to provide learning choices and empowerment for students.  The program is inclusive of all students, with or without a disability.

Some of the students have print and learning disabilities that impede their ability to easily read and comprehend grade-level text and complex curricula in print. Many of these students felt stuck and considered dropping out of school. Their instructors believe in every student’s learning potential and set high expectations. They teach students first to choose appropriate reading technologies for their learning needs, and then to find the reading assignments in digital accessible format, such as DAISY text and DAISY audio.

“We expect high standards from all students,” said Jennifer Lang-Jolliff, the Program Coordinator at Mission Middle College. “And we provide them with the instruction, tools, and resources to rise to the challenge of learning rigorous curriculum. Individualized instruction and timely access to curriculum in digital formats enable many students to feel more confident and prepared. Our high expectations and the e-literacy services available to students helped to shift their views of themselves personally and academically. They see their way through to college, community service, and good careers.”

Indeed, I was pleased to learn that starting with the graduating class of 2009, 100% of graduates at Mission Middle College had a viable postsecondary plan that included a college or university. This is right in line with President Obama’s key goal of being first in the world in college completion by 2020, and Mission Middle College is helping America meet that goal.

The students at Mission Middle College with print disabilities (including visual impairments, physical disabilities, and severe learning disabilities) are empowered to find the right assistive technology, computer software application, or device to help them achieve academically.

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A senior demonstrates technology for Michael Yudin (center) and Benetech’s GM, Betsy Beaumon (standing). Kate Finnerty observes the tech demo.

The students I met are members of Bookshare, a free and federally funded online library from the U.S. Department of Education. Bookshare is an initiative of Benetech, a Palo Alto, CA-based nonprofit that creates sustainable technology to solve pressing social needs. Bookshare provides timely access to curriculum in digital formats and offers a large collection of eBooks (currently over 190,000 books and growing) as well as reading technologies to enable students to experience multimodal learning—the ability to see and hear text read aloud.

I met Kate Finnerty, a high school senior with dyslexia, who qualifies for Bookshare. Kate has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that requires technology accommodations to aid her in her studies. She told me, “The library is very helpful. I use it to keep up with reading and research. Without it, I would have fallen behind.”  Kate is pursuing graphic design—she received acceptance letters from five U.S. colleges!

During the roundtable discussion, students, educators, parents, and administrators explored how Mission Middle College’s use of assistive technologies (AT) helps each student face their learning challenges with individualized approaches, which include digital books and reading technologies. Roundtable takeaways include:

  • The emphasis on self-advocacy. The students set clear goals and high expectations for their future.
  • Teachers give each student individualized attention, creating plans for their future and how to get there.
  • Students who qualify with print disabilities can receive timely access to curriculum and feel more independent and empowered in the reading process through Bookshare and the AT it provides.
  • Many of the students will be doing internships at Benetech this summer and will get work-based experience that will help prepare them for college and career.
  • Technologies can deliver flexible instruction based on learning needs and preferences, including multimodal reading (to see and hear text aloud) that may unlock the reader’s ability to decode words and more fully comprehend information.

Programs like this at Mission Middle College are about making sure every student graduates from high school and is college and career ready. Students who once had to wait for books now receive timely access to the curriculum in alternative formats. Many activities are streamlined for students who may not fit traditional models, and those who once felt like academic failures are now completing high school courses and are on track to college.

I often speak about the broad values of inclusion, equity, and opportunity for youth with disabilities to actively participate in all aspects of school and life. Programs like that of Mission Middle College, which use assistive technologies and digital accessible books provided by Bookshare, are truly models for others. They promote high academic standards for all, enabling more students to be college and career ready.

Michael Yudin is acting assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.  

Every Child, Every Day, Whatever It Takes!

Michael Yudin Meets Student

Michael Yudin, the Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) talks with students in Sanger, Calif.

Earlier this week, Sanger Unified School District (Sanger, Calif.) had the opportunity to host Michael K. Yudin, the Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), and what a great day it was! I met Michael several years ago when I was invited to share the Sanger story while I was in Washington, D.C., to celebrate being recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School. After a two-hour conversation with a large group of Department staff, the conversation continued with Michael and a small group of others for another two hours.

That day’s conversation was centered on our efforts to transition into a Professional Learning Community district and the outcomes of that effort. The staff were very interested in the journey we were on and in particular the outcomes.  Michael, in particular, was truly impressed by the broad-reaching significant improvements and outcomes made by all students, including students with disabilities, in academic achievement, graduation rates, and scores on accountability testing. Michael told me he had to visit Sanger to observe directly a district making dramatic and meaningful improvements in student outcomes.

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Kicking Off the Special Olympics Winter Games in South Korea

Special Olympics Opening Ceremony

Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, was on hand for the Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics World Winter Games in South Korea. Photo courtesy of the Special Olympics.

Participating in sports – through both training and competition – promotes physical, psychological, and social well-being. Special Olympics not only provides the opportunity for individuals with intellectual disabilities to realize these benefits, but promotes dignity, respect, and the opportunity for fuller social inclusion.

Over the past several days, I’ve been fortunate to join more than 2,300 athletes and their coaches from over 110 countries in PyeongChang, Republic of Korea, for the 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games. The Games, which include competition in events such as skiing, skating, snowboarding, and floor hockey, is also a celebration of the spirit of the Special Olympics.

I have had the privilege to meet athletes and their families from towns and cities across the United States, as well as athletes from Morocco, New Zealand, Egypt, Uzbekistan, South Africa, and of course Korea.

One athlete here in Korea is Chase from Salt Lake City. Chase, from the day he was born, wanted to play sports, yearned to achieve and excel in sports. But the community programs just didn’t cut it for him. According to his mom, with Special Olympics, his whole life changed. He has far exceeded her expectations and truly is a “rock star,” she said.

Vivienne from Montana is also representing the United States during the Games. Vivienne’s parents set the bar high for their daughter. The phrase “can’t” was simply not acceptable. As the Olympic torch made its way toward Yongpyong Dome for the Games’ opening ceremonies, Vivienne was there to carry the torch on one of the final legs of the flame’s journey.

While sports provide great benefits, Special Olympics is much more. Special Olympics’ Project UNIFY supports schools in becoming more inclusive to those with disabilities through athletics and other activities. The U.S. Department of Education reinforced this mission last week with new guidance clarifying a school’s existing obligations to provide students with disabilities opportunities to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics and clubs.

Here in Korea, thousands of athletes, families, students, educators, advocates, and politicians convened to do more than just play sports. It’s a call to action.

Global Youth Summit Participants

Participants at the Special Olympics Global Youth Summit.

It’s estimated that there are approximately 200 million people with intellectual disabilities globally – and too many of them experience poverty and exclusion.

World leaders, such as Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi from Burma and President Joyce Banda from Malawi, addressed barriers and social hurdles people with intellectual disabilities face, and importantly, solutions to end the cycle of poverty and exclusion that they and their families face.

During the Global Youth Summit that accompanied the Games, we learned about the latest developments in innovative sports programming for young children with intellectual disabilities ages 2-7, helping these children strengthen physical development and self-esteem. I am truly inspired by the young people from around the world, both with and without intellectual disabilities, who are committed to inclusion and acceptance in schools and communities.

The Summit provided youth with opportunities to acquire and enhance leadership and advocacy skills for themselves, their peers, their schools, and their communities. The summit also included a rally with over 900 young people from Korea and around the world celebrating Special Olympic athletes, and children with and without disabilities around the world.

In a moving speech during the Summit, Rahma Aly, a Special Olympics athlete from Egypt, summed up the spirit of the games and the mission of the Special Olympics. “Love, understanding, believing and willing to accept others, no matter how different they are is my message,” Aly said. “Don’t consider us different, we are part of this society, we can help, participate and succeed.”

Michael Yudin is acting assistant secretary for ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services