‘The gift of complex learners’

Educators serving students with dyslexia, autism, and other special needs can learn from this school. See how this XQ school is taking special education seriously.

By Team XQ

Educators serving students with dyslexia, autism, and other special needs can learn from this school.

Charles, a 9th grader in New York, was a bit of a puzzle. He could solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than 30 seconds but had trouble focusing in class, poor grades, and an individualized education plan. In short, he was brilliant in some areas but often languished in others.

But after he enrolled at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School, Charles’ educational journey changed course. Working as a team, Charles’ teachers helped him with his social development, focus, and accuracy. They set goals for him. When he finished a 45-minute math assignment in a few minutes, for example, they gave him other assignments that were more challenging and suited to his interests.

Within a few months, his grades improved to A’s and B’s. He even started a competitive debate team, exercising social skills and self-confidence that would have been unthinkable a year or two ago.

“Typically, when students have an IEP, everyone thinks, ‘Oh, you’re failing,’ ” said BB Ntsakey, school director at Brooklyn Lab. “But that’s not true. Special education isn’t one-size-fits-all. At least at Brooklyn Lab it isn’t. Our goal for every student is growth, propelling toward mastery. We believe every student can succeed. It’s a challenge we welcome.”

Taking Special Education Seriously

Brooklyn Lab, an XQ school, takes special education seriously. Thirty-two percent of its student body, compared to about 20 percent for New York City schools as a whole, has some kind of learning difference, ranging from mild dyslexia to severe autism. And many more have learning differences but no IEP.

Tailoring lessons to each individual student is a key part of Brooklyn Lab’s philosophy. Each classroom has at least two teachers, and every teacher is either certified or in the process of becoming certified in special education. Teachers work with students in small groups for two hours every day after school to help them keep up. And all students, regardless of their learning backgrounds, take college-preparatory and advanced placement classes.

“We Have a Plan”

“All students are unique,” said Greg Rodriguez, school director. “There’s no silver bullet, no magic curriculum that addresses every student’s needs. So we look at each student as an individual. We tell kids, ‘It’s going to be OK. We have a plan. We’re going to commit to this. And we’re going to push you.’”

The school’s intense, focused approach has yielded promising results. Test scores have improved, more students meet proficiency standards, and every year the school moves a few students out of the special education classification and into the mainstream. In 2017-18, Brooklyn Lab middle school students with IEPs outscored their peers in both the district and the state in proficiency tests.

“Our vision for special ed is that it’s not supposed to be permanent,” Rodriguez said.

Looking Beyond Initial Labels

Teachers take a holistic approach to each student, looking at the variety of factors – such as stress and trauma – that might be affecting their learning. They also work closely with parents and the student, ensuring everyone understands the expectations and is motivated to meet them. They give regular feedback and updates through an online personalized learning platform, so everyone can track the student’s progress.

Teachers also try to look beyond initial labels. If a student has trouble in biology, for example, they’ll try to determine if it’s really a problem with reading comprehension, or academic vocabulary, or sequencing, or memory. All of those obstacles can be overcome, said Eric Tucker, Brooklyn Lab executive director.

“Something might start out as a behavior issue, but if you scratch the surface you might find it’s an attention issue. And if you keep looking, you might find it’s something else entirely, like a memory issue,” Tucker said. “If you can get to the root of the problem and address that, you get to actual learning.”

“It’s a Gift to Work with Complex Learners”

Most of these challenges are not difficult to solve, he said. For memory problems, for example, students can enhance their understanding and retention by marking up texts, highlighting, crossing out, paraphrasing, underlining the hypothesis and the conclusion, creating checklists, re-reading, and taking notes.

For writing skills, he said, students can start answering simple prompts with one or two sentences, and then gradually work up to paragraphs and whole pages. Eventually, as their self-confidence builds, the task should become easier.

Not all students will end up writing doctoral dissertations, but all students can grow, he said. The journey of Charles, from socially awkward loner to founder of the school debate team, is a perfect example.

Brooklyn Lab embraces its special education students, and views them not as a challenge but as an asset to the entire school, because all students can benefit from after-school tutoring and extra teachers in the classroom, Ntsakey said.

“It’s a gift to work with complex learners,” he said. “When it clicks, when you start to see growth, it’s just amazing. You see them come out of their shell. It’s beautiful.”