Charter Schools Can Serve Special Education Students Better with Self-Paced, Personalized Learning

As many charter schools re-open this week to staff and students for professional development and extended learning programs, it’s important to remind ourselves of the many different types of learners that walk into the classrooms each day.

Sajan George, CEO of Matchbook Learning, weighs in on how all students, but especially those with special learning needs, are able to perform academically when provided with a self-pacing, personalized environment.
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Charter schools are sometimes criticized for failing to serve challenging student populations such as those with special needs. No doubt, teaching children with special needs requires a certain level of commitment, but the experiences we are having at Merit Preparatory Charter School and other schools we operate may be providing a roadmap for increased success.

Regardless of whether a child is in special or general education, each student has a different learning style and processes concepts at different rates. If we cater our teaching to the “average” student, some students won’t be challenged and some will fall behind. To garner success for all our students, we must gear classroom instruction towards self-paced, personalized learning.

In a typical special ed classroom, for example, teachers may work with a group of several children at a time, teaching them an activity, practicing it together and then having them try it on their own. While the pacing of a “pull out” classroom is slower than a regular classroom and more personalized, the model still focuses on progressing a group of students at the same rate, and it wasn’t structured to account for each student’s unique pace for mastering different skills.

At Merit Prep, we’re improving outcomes by using a different model.

In a regular Matchbook classroom, because of our blended learning model and teachers utilizing a technology platform called Spark, every child – whether gen ed or special ed – has an individualized education plan, their own starting point and ability to progress at their own pace. In addition to lessons on Spark, students also receive one-on- one attention from their teachers and small group instruction.

This flexible classroom structure allows for more “push in” of special education students than in a traditional classroom. Special education teachers can pull out small groups, offer extended one-on- one instruction and goal setting without students appearing to be getting special or different treatment than their peers. Furthermore, this self-paced, personalized learning model allows each student to fully master a concept in a way that best fits their learning needs before moving on to new material.

For example, you might see students working with props or “manipulatives” such as blocks to learn concepts like subtraction and borrowing, while others use various computer applications or work on real-life projects. A second grader with autism who learns quickly might only need a week’s worth of repetition and practice with the blocks before he is ready to apply his knowledge to paper-pencil, computer or group work assignments. A cognitively impaired student, on the other hand, would process concepts differently and much more slowly; she might need several weeks filled with repetition and practice before she is ready to progress.

The results so far: Of the forty-three students in the special education program at Merit Prep this past year, 68% made at least 1.5 years of growth in reading and 53% achieved that much growth in math. If this growth continues, many of these students will be able to exit the special education program altogether.

Also, when tested on concepts they learned earlier that year, most of our students in the Merit Prep special education program retained the knowledge to a far greater extent than expected. For some of these students, this is monumental success. Being able to apply basic concepts like reading and arithmetic can be the difference between needing someone to take care of them and becoming a productive, independent member of the community.

Whether a student is in a “push in” or “pull out” classroom, the road to success for students with special needs can be quite bright if we meet them where they are and tailor our teaching methods to how they learn best. But above all, we have to show patience and give them the time they need for true learning to happen.

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