by Tyania Freeney
Imagine walking into a classroom where your child attends school and finding everything in disarray. At a glance you notice that there are building blocks on the floor, disheveled papers everywhere, and several students who appear to be extremely bored. They are not showing signs of being aware that they have anything to do. You spot two students lying on the floor on opposite sides of the room crying. One is rolling around in a corner near the door; the other is picking up a chair while screaming at the top of his lungs. The only teacher in the room is trying her best, however her attention is being pulled in too many directions. You turn your attention away from this chaotic scene and locate your child in a desk towards the back of the room. She looks dismayed, pencil in hand. She is one of the quiet students who is not getting any one-on-one help. There is a worksheet in front of her, and as you look through the problems on the page you realize that they are fairly simple, however she doesn’t seem to know how to solve them. Your heart begins to break for the students in this classroom because you realize that they are not getting the help that they need. You conclude that this is the norm for this classroom, and you are correct. This may sound like a classroom that may be in a low income side of town. The sad fact is that this is the setting that can be found in several special education classrooms in the Muscogee County school district.
The classroom scene depicted in the previous paragraph was described to me by Darci Burden, one of my colleagues who works for the Muscogee County school district, “Let me tell you about a low functioning spec Ed class I worked in yesterday: 1 aide to 13 kids, 2 in wheelchairs, no actual curriculum. The students aren’t even divided by their actual learning disabilities. I was horrified.”
What is even more horrifying is the amount of teachers who are not qualified to work with the array of disabilities in order to meet the needs of low functioning special needs children. There are just too many disabilities and there aren’t enough teachers who fit the bill when it comes to being able to effectively teach these children. Many of the teachers are equipped with only a four-year degree, very little experience with the vast spectrum of disabilities they are expected to work with on a daily basis, and maybe a part-time teacher’s assistant (usually an intern student who is just getting their feet wet). Classrooms are often understaffed because it cuts down the cost of paying educators. The supply of materials is slim. Teacher budgets are stripped to the bare minimum, leaving little room for creative activities in the classroom.
Perhaps one of the most shocking facts is that the classrooms often times do not have to follow a daily curriculum. Without a curriculum, special education classes are nothing more than nurseries; they are where the child goes while their parents go to work. By not teaching the students, we are reducing them to the expectations of toddler aged children and are not preparing them for their future. A curriculum must be enforced in order to prepare these young people for the real world. Without a curriculum, there is little to no chance that the students are actually learning. They are not being challenged to reach their fullest capacity. There is an urgent need for improvement in special needs classrooms in order to increase the development of positive learning and behavioral patterns.
The focus on education in special needs classrooms has been overlooked time and time again because of the amount of money it would take to implement effective practices that are dedicated to developing a strict day-to-day curriculum for these classrooms. The budget has placed special education as a lower priority, falling far behind school sports and the arts. This is apparent by the student to teacher ratio in many classrooms. It is a sad reality that there aren’t enough experienced teachers in the classroom, and consequently the student suffers. It is also apparent that the teachers are not equipped with the knowledge to adequately teach students who demonstrate such a wide variety of behaviors. It would be more beneficial to separate the students based on the disorders they have to assess what would be the
best methods of education. However, it is apparent that the school system has not been willing to dedicate its resources or time to solving this problem.
It is time for the school district to take an interest in educating all students. Sure, some might say “there are alternatives to the public school system, such as private schools and home schooling methods.” However, the alternatives are usually either too expensive or extremely inconvenient for most households. Enrolling your child into a special needs private school has been found to range anywhere between $50,000 to $68,000 per year. On the other hand, homeschooling would require either one or both parents to opt out of working in order to teach their child. Moreover, parents of the average student with no learning or behavioral disabilities are able to send their child to a public school and expect a quality education. They expect extracurricular activities to be available. They expect sports opportunities to be made available. They expect scholarships to be made available. It should not be “asking too much” for the parents of special needs children to expect the same opportunities for their students’ special education classes. Somehow though, the odds seem to be stacked against them.
The purpose for sending any child to school should never be for “free day-care” services. Unfortunately, special education programs across the Muscogee County school district, and the country for that matter, has reduced the education of many students as exactly that. The value of education is limitless because it prepares a student for the future. If special education programs do not improve and a curriculum is not enforced, these students have a slim chance of attending college, succeeding in the real world, and becoming productive members of society.