Integrated Special Education at Rocketship: He Needed to Be Included
by Krystina Hermes, Rocketship Rise Academy Integrated Special Education Teacher
One word answers. Distracted play. Lack of engagement. That was Devin when I first met him during summer training in August 2016.
Devin could barely write his full name and was unable to access most of the written or verbal content in front of him. In a room full of activity, he played with a pencil, uninterested in the world around him.
Devin was starting first grade but his mom was nervous. She wanted a change for him because she knew what he was capable of. She knew exactly what Devin needed and what she wanted from a great school. So when she came to us in September with the pediatrician’s concern that Devin may be a child with autism, we started the process of re-evaluating him the next day. The school evaluation confirmed that Devin is on the autism spectrum.
It was only my second year of teaching and at first I had little idea of how to best support Devin. But I knew what good teaching could be. I knew that Devin needed access to grade level content and other students as much as possible. And I knew that Devin needed structure. That meant we set rules about expected behaviors that he could work to follow. Instead of making loud, repetitive sounds that disrupted his class, he could ask for a break to meet his sensory needs. Instead of laying on the carpet or across his chair, making grunting noises or sighing “oh man” when it was time to work, he could work to earn points on his chart. Devin needed, and still needs, clear rules about what was expected and what was unexpected – with both of these lists still growing all the time.
With a lot of research about Batman, a behavior chart and a great team, things started to change. The days got better and there was more good news for Devin’s mom about both academic and social progress. It wasn’t easy to provide wrap-around services, but an incredible team of adults put in the work needed to ensure that Devin was meaningfully included every minute he could be. Devin’s mom worked at home to implement every strategy we had to give.
Devin is a different person since he came to Rocketship – he’s happy, he’s involved and he’s thriving. Now can identify feelings of others and even gives spontaneous compliments to peers and adults. He seeks out peers, he loves their jokes, he actively wants to make faces to get them to laugh. He wants to engage with all of his teachers – he’s been working out and wants to show off his “muscles,” and now he knows to ask first if people want to see them.
Today – about to start third grade – Devin is reading on grade level. He’s made 3 years of growth in STEP since he arrived less than two years ago. He is performing in the 78 and 79 percentile in NWEA MAP reading and math, respectively. At the end of last year, he showed me that he can multiply, which he learned in his math class with Ms. Jones.
Devin didn’t need to be pulled out, he needed to be included.
Devin’s mom and I have had a lot of conversations about how far he has come over the last two years, but now we get to talk about what the future holds, too. What middle school, high school and college will best support him and his incredible trajectory of progress? I get to stay up late researching the work being done at schools like the University of Maryland to support students with autism.
Devin and his family have shown me how powerful true, meaningful inclusion can be. Devin could not have made this growth without high expectations, rigorous practice with grade level content and a mindset that every student can achieve. Our inclusion model strives to give students with disabilities maximum time in their general education classroom for exactly that reason. We give them time and space to grow into their community, because they can’t become part of the community being separated from it. This isn’t without challenges, but it’s what our kids deserve. The bar is never lowered for Devin or any of our students with disabilities. Instead, we provide stepping stones for them toward the same goals that all Rocketeers have.
I can’t wait to see Devin in the class of 2032 graduating from the college of his dreams.
Krystina Hermes is a Founding Rocketship Rise Academy teacher. She teaches kindergarten and second grade integrated special education.
Published on August 2, 2018