Eight-year-old Jared Teel-Drayton hops into the room, hands flapping, eyes darting, smile alight. He’s been painting—his class went to the art room today—and his teacher, Farida Mallah, patiently combs through a plastic drawer for a clean tee-shirt, which he dons happily. It’s his favorite one, navy blue with the word “grit” stenciled in front, usually awarded as a prize.
Jared’s got something special, and it’s not just a new tee-shirt.
“Can you tuck it in?” Mallah asks.
With a few more jumps and a spin, he beams at his mother and pushes the shirt into his elastic-waisted jeans and beams.
“Tank ooh,” he says, and gives a visitor a hug.
Jared has a diagnosis of autism. He attends a self-contained class for children with moderate to severe disabilities in KIPP New Jersey’s “Pathways” program, which opened in Newark two years ago in order to accommodate an increasing enrollment of children with complex special needs.
Jared attends one of two Pathways classrooms within the K-4 Life Academy, located in a century-old South Ward building that used to be the K-8 Bragaw Avenue School. The district turned the school over to KIPP in 2014 due to chronic poor performance; it is the charter network’s first turnaround.
There is another Pathways classroom at BOLD Academy, a KIPP middle school. Next year Pathways will comprise three elementary classrooms, two middle-school classrooms and one classroom at its high school, Newark Collegiate Academy.
Parents of children with multiple disabilities know that schools, regardless of their system of governance, typically struggle to provide effective services. In New Jersey, special education is an expensive endeavor; 10 years ago the state’s School Boards Association put the annual cost at $3.3 billion per year and costs have only risen.
Part of this disproportionate expense is due to the state’s fragmented school infrastructure: a plethora of tiny districts impedes the scale needed to create high-quality programs.
Example: Let’s say a typically small elementary school has only two children with similar developmental levels and learning styles. Creating a classroom for those two children in their home school would be prohibitively expensive, requiring appropriate equipment, specialists, a certified teacher and a separate classroom. In most cases the school sends those two children to an out-of-district school—a robust industry in New Jersey. But a larger school with five or six children with similar needs who can be grouped into a classroom? That’s a different story.
And that different story, that scaling-up, is what has happened at KIPP New Jersey, which began in Newark 15 years ago with 80 students and now enrolls 4,500 students in Newark and Camden. As KIPP’s footprint has expanded, so has the diversity of student need and, concurrently, the charter network’s ability to group students appropriately. Jared’s story represents not only his own growth, but KIPP’s as well.
Dreya Teel recounts her youngest child’s entrance into kindergarten at another KIPP school in Newark called SPARK Academy. Five-year-old Jared, who was nonverbal, had never been in a classroom before but Ms. Teel already knew he was autistic because her oldest son is also on the spectrum.
“I first picked up that something was weird with Jared when he was 3,” she recalls. “He was eating toothpaste. He would line up all our CD cases and line up all his toy cars.” His emerging speech regressed and “all this sensory stuff started kicking in. I knew I was seeing the signs of autism.”
At SPARK, Jared was placed in an inclusion class with a general education teacher and special education teacher. Of the 18 children in the classroom, four had Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s), which means they had already been identified as eligible for special education services.
But in short order, alerted in part through the home visits traditionally made during the summer to all new students, KIPP’s Child Study Team identified an additional four children in the class who qualified for IEP’s. One was Jared.
Jared struggled in such a large class, even after he was assigned a one-on-one aide. He was distracted and seemed to glean little from instruction. “We were tag-teaming him and meeting with the social worker every day,” Ms. Mallah recalls.
Ms. Teel would ask her, “how many times did he run out the classroom today?” Jared’s lack of speech made him hard to assess—evaluations came back “inconclusive”—and so his IEP listed goals appropriate for a 2- or 3-year-old, consistent with his verbal delays.
Mallah, who started as an aide at KIPP and went on to get her special education certification and graduate degree at Rutgers and Relay, was at the time assigned to SPARK as a learning specialist and spent much time observing Jared.
“It was so difficult to ascertain what he could and couldn’t do,” she said.
Then one day on a whim she introduced him to an iPAD math program called STMathand Jared was entranced.
“He just loved playing it,” she said. “Watching Jared use that program helped me teach him, let me see what he was capable of if offered a different modality of learning.”
She leaned over towards Teel: “You know, he’s incredibly brilliant.”
Teel beamed. “They saw he had the ability,” she said. “It just needed to come out.”
That first year his speech therapist and occupational therapist started working with him as a team and, Teel said with pride, “I saw his potential. He started blossoming. He would come home and want to read. Ms. Mallah was showing him how to count.
“By the end of the year,” she continued, her eyes wet, “he was actually speaking in two-word sentences: ‘please,’ ‘thank you.’ My sister was in tears.”
Yet Jared still struggled. His sensory system was easily overloaded and he panicked at loud sounds, so the school purchased him noise-cancelling headphones. However, his teacher remembers, “he was still overwhelmed” and the headphones were socially isolating.
“We couldn’t leave him alone for a minute to look at a book,” she recounted. “He would just fall on the floor and throw the book.”
Two years before Jared entered SPARK, special education coordinator Kerry Boccher had been gathering data to support a new program that would exclusively serve children with moderate to severe disabilities. Jared became one of her case studies.
She presented her findings at a board meeting and the creation of a new program, to be called “Pathways,” was unanimously approved, with the first two elementary classrooms at Life Academy.
Transitions are hard for most children, and especially disruptive for children on the autism spectrum. However, Teel felt strongly that Jared would be best served by a move to Pathways’ more supportive environment.
The transfer, she said, “has helped him grow a lot. People have misconceptions about people on the spectrum, that they don’t know much about themselves. But that’s a myth. He’ll tell you. And if he wants to learn something he will.”
The program has “started introducing him to different settings, teaching him to be more mindful of the things he needs to be independent.”
Today Jared is in a classroom with six other children taught by two teachers, one of whom is Mallah, as well as an aide. His academic progress continues to impress his teachers and his family. When he was in kindergarten he couldn’t write his name; now he is writing two- and three-word sentences. His IEP for 2016-2017 specified that he should meet 70 percent of second-grade math goals and he’s met 86 percent.
He has moved up six levels on KIPP’s language arts internal assessments since he started Pathways, a remarkable achievement for someone who was nonverbal three years ago. Headphones are unnecessary (although he still is averse to loud noises) and Jared has started socializing appropriately with other students.
Teel looks towards her 8-year-old as he bops out of the room with an aide, happily smoothing down his new tee-shirt.
“This is the best place for Jared,” she says. “This is a family.”
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