Our New Orleans school system is unlike any other in the United States. We have a school district that provides accountability and support to a portfolio of over 80 independent schools who each have autonomy to determine their programs and staffing. Students enroll through a centralized common application system without geographic school assignments.
As it relates to special education, each school is given responsibility for providing the full array of special education services to all children with disabilities who enroll, whereas in most other cities, this responsibility lies with the district. In turn, children with disabilities navigate enrollment in a disability-blind process that matches them to schools. For children with more significant disabilities who need specialized services from staff with specialized expertise, navigating the way to those appropriate programs is a challenge. Schools must arrange special education programming beyond what individual schools typically plan for, and beyond what is affordable with allocated school-site level funds, for small numbers of students.
New Pathways New Orleans (NPNO) founded the Special Education Consortium (SpEC) to bring together non-profit and government special education stakeholders to catalyze our shared work in systemic improvements for students with disabilities. SpEC’s members are: NOLA Public Schools, Center for Resilience (CfR), Special Education Leader Fellowship (SELF), New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) and two school-based special education leaders representing the school community. SpEC’s shared goals are to: strengthen special education programming in all schools; increase availability of specialized programming for children with severe and profound disabilities citywide; improve the skill sets of existing educators; and develop a more robust special education talent pipeline for New Orleans schools and students with disabilities.
To achieve our goal of increased specialized programs for students with significant disabilities, NPNO first needed to understand how many programs currently existed across our system – an analysis that, to date, no one had ever conducted. We comprehensively catalogued current specialized programs within the public schools, and leveraged expert analysis about existing student needs to put forth a realistic citywide plan for scaling programs to better meet students’ needs. As a result, NPNO determined that citywide, students with significant disabilities would benefit from twenty additional classes offering specialized programming, situated within our public schools and open to children from anywhere in the city who need it. Reaching shared understanding about our programming needs enables all stakeholders to work together in a comprehensive fashion to achieve it.
New Orleans is grappling with a teacher pipeline crisis. Illustrating our local challenges, national data confirms a special education teacher shortage and attrition rates that are 2.5 times higher than general education teachers. We need citywide goals for how to grow our special education workforce, driven by existing student need. NPNO is leading a data project to identify needs in the city’s special education workforce – inclusive of educators, paraprofessionals and the array of related services professionals that deliver services to students with disabilities. With defined, concrete needs, NPNO can coordinate partners in pursuit of targeted opportunities for filling existing workforce gaps in a comprehensive and coordinated fashion.
Throughout the 2019-2020 school year, NPNO, our SpEC partners, and a working group of local schools are producing a plan for scaling a network of specialized programs for students with significant disabilities. This plan will include mechanisms for facilitating student enrollment into these programs, as well as expert recommendations for improving public funding mechanisms in support of these settings. With a comprehensive plan agreed to by stakeholders, we can pursue any local school board or state policy changes necessary for its enactment and fundraise additional private dollars to off-set schools’ one-time costs for program scaling. SpEC hopes to expand existing specialized settings in at least one or two charter schools, adding nine to 16 additional seats for the 2020-2021 school year, and defining a long-term plan for adding more classrooms and seats at additional charter schools over a three-year period.
Additionally, SpEC will pursue a targeted workforce strategy to staff and support educators in these new specialized settings – specifically, coordinating the launch of a dedicated professional learning community that links staff working in these programs to specialized support and ongoing professional development tailored to the unique programming they provide to students with significant disabilities. The goal of this strategy is to ensure special educators in these settings are delivering high quality educational services to students with significant disabilities, as well as supporting educators in these settings to improve teacher retention.
Through collaboration, aligned strategies and communication amongst members, SpEC will ensure that New Orleans schools are able to offer exceptional special education programming, support, services and opportunities that meet the diverse needs of students with disabilities, thus preparing students for further education, employment, independent living and community involvement. Our shared efforts will ensure that we maximize public dollars in supporting sustainable programs, in turn more strategically leveraging philanthropic investments to offset one-time costs.