The Notebook

A Great IDEA
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A Sea Change in Supporting Students with Special Needs

by Paul Stein, Executive Director, Schools for Children and 
Rebecca Altepeter, Head of School, Dearborn Academy

On December 2, 1975, President Ford signed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) into law. Schools throughout the country have seen a sea change in the ways in which students with special needs are serviced and appreciated. These students were guaranteed a free and appropriate education and, over time, schools learned to offer them the accommodations they needed to succeed in school and to reach their full potential.

These accommodations, in turn, proved to help all students – not just the students with identified special needs. The law empowered parents and educators to work collaboratively, as a team, in the best interests of each child. It also fostered a belief system that highly valued inclusivity, respect, and a focus on each individual’s strengths (as opposed to viewing students as if they were defined by their disabilities).

December 2nd has been celebrated as National Special Education Day since 2005. In our estimation, IDEA resulted in remarkable changes that took place over the ensuing decades through the work of tireless educators, parents and advocates. It is an aspect of American education that, although not perfect, is clearly a point of distinction and pride.

Providing preferred seating in a classroom, professional services within the context of a learning center, co-teaching in a fully inclusive classroom, or intensive support offered by an out-of-district placement -- these represent just a sampling of how school systems service students with special needs. We can attest (through direct experience having worked in or with the Newton Public Schools for years) to the outstanding services offered throughout Newton's schools. The continuum of services is quite impressive.

On occasion, school districts (including Newton) decide that a student can be best served by referring them to a school outside of the public schools. Sometimes this occurs because there are not enough students with similar needs to start an in-district program. Dearborn Academy – a school for students in Grades 3-12 who require more structure and therapeutic supports than in a traditional school – is one such program.

A year ago in July, Dearborn Academy moved from Arlington to its new space at 575 Washington Street in Newton. Dearborn is a school in which students identify their learning challenges and develop lifelong strategies to overcome them. In addition to providing individual and group counseling, its clinicians are an integral part of students’ classroom experiences. This support helps students integrate the skills they learn in therapy into real-time situations. Programs like that at Dearborn reinforce students’ use of coping skills to manage distress and social skills to build relationships. 

Dearborn and similar programs provide robust educational experiences. By way of example, in addition to English, math, social studies and science, Dearborn students take Spanish, music, art, physical education and computer programming. Students also receive specialized instruction from reading specialists, speech and language pathologists, and occupational therapists to teach them how to access and master rigorous coursework. They extend that learning through unique vocational programming in jewelry, metalworking and woodworking.

The challenges faced by students with special needs, along with their families, teachers, and service providers are myriad and should never be minimized. We write in recognition of these challenges, as well as to mark National Special Education Day and the passage of the IDEA. We wish to celebrate the subsequent progress throughout public education and within the Newton Public Schools in particular, as well as the contributions of specialized independent school programs. These milestones, alongside the many joyful accomplishments of the students themselves, just made us want to stop and give thanks.

Dearborn Academy is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.
Join us on Thursday, May 2nd at 6 p.m. for our annual Dearborn Benefit: Dearborn Reborn, Celebrating 70 Years of Innovation in Education.