KIPP DC’s New Approach to Special Education

KIPP DC’s New Approach to Special Education

Michael Cordell

Founding School Leader, The Learning Center

I am a lifetime educator: I had turned schools around in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore; I had been on the founding team at schools designed to educate underserved students; I had overseen academics for school networks. But I wasn’t prepared to help my own daughter.

As a first-time parent, I had a copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and a team of four opinionated grandparents. These resources, however, didn’t help me pick up on signals that my daughter was not following a normal developmental pathway. Missed signals became a full-fledged fire when she was kicked out of her private preschool when she was three years old.  

My daughter went to three preschools schools in two years, and we had to hire our own private teacher to have her accepted at the final one. My wife and I enrolled in multiple classes for parents of struggling students and brought our daughter to a series of experts to figure out what was causing her problems. We made small gains, but we knew that there was something we could not figure out.

Carrie Walton Penner talks with The Learning Center school leader Michael Cordell 

We were working with an occupational therapist, a psychologist and an advocate, but no one could agree on a diagnosis. Finally, we thought she was going to get an individualized educational program (IEP) for special education services and remain at her public school. Instead, the system decided to send her to a program for emotionally disturbed students, even though her official category was “Other Health Impaired for ADHD.” We didn’t feel the ED cluster program was appropriate, and we were forced to fight the decision.

Eventually, my daughter was placed into a non-public school that was thankfully located near our home. Working with the school team and four or five outside experts, everyone finally agreed she had Asperger’s Syndrome. Today, she is in sixth grade and thriving, but it’s been hard. The financial and emotional costs to my daughter and our extended family through this process were enormous. We also have continual anxiety about my daughter’s future: not knowing what will happen to your child when public education ends can be a great source of stress. Thankfully, we do see signs that one day she will be able to succeed in a less restrictive setting, and we’re hopeful about that.

The journey my family took made me question what I knew about educating children with special needs, and it made me wonder how we, as educators, could do a better job of providing opportunities to children like mine. 

At the time, I was the Chief Academic Officer at KIPP DC, which served more than 5,000 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. We offered a traditional continuum of special education programs. As I worked with my team, I realized we were struggling to ensure that our special education students were making yearly growth. Even with a team of service providers and teachers, students often weren’t receiving the tailored supports they needed and their teachers often felt isolated. 

In 2015, after a few years of studying the problem and trying to make incremental improvements, we realized we needed to do something new and innovative. We needed to reevaluate our practices and create a new program that gives all students the opportunity to succeed. That realization led to The Learning Center, a school that is completely focused on educating children with a range of profound needs.  

We designed the school based on best practices from successful non-public schools, as well as insights from nationally recognized experts. Our school’s theory is that we can educate students with profound needs, give them access to experiences and resources they wouldn’t otherwise have in traditional classrooms and prepare them to succeed in less restrictive environments — either their “home” KIPP DC schools or at other schools they choose to attend when they leave us. We believe every child, regardless of his or her special needs, requires and deserves a top-notch education.

Michael Cordell, Founding School Leader, The Learning Center

We are unique in a number of ways: 

  • At The Learning Center, social workers, behavioral analysts, mental health counselors, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists and our clinical psychologists are present every day, working side-by-side with our teachers. 
  • We have more adults in each classroom than at typical schools. With two teachers and one teaching assistant in a classroom, we can more seamlessly and effectively serve every student.  
  • We ensure that our students receive a full educational experience, including art, physical education, field trips and assemblies — “specials” that our students had often been denied at other schools. 
  • We also partner closely with expert external advisers, including some of the most esteemed private special education schools in Washington, D.C., to learn what works and what doesn’t from schools that have been successfully educating students with similar needs for years. 

I am encouraged by our progress in our first two years. We retained 88% of our staff, which is an important accomplishment when compared to national averages. We continue to see an increase in staff satisfaction as measured by the TNTP Insight Survey, which is giving us a chance to learn and grow as a team. 

We have experienced an increase in daily attendance, a dramatic decrease in suspensions and an increase in parent satisfaction on our annual KIPP DC survey.  Maybe most importantly, we’ve seen improved student academic performance: The majority of our students have demonstrated growth on KIPP DC performance assessments.

I hope what we’re doing can serve as a model for others as they consider how to better serve students with special needs so that the progress we are seeing can become the norm for all students with special needs.

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