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Special Ed Best Practices Inspire Successful Expanded Learning Time for All Students

Edwards Middle School

Grades 6-8 | Charlestown, MA

Craig Haas

Licensed Special Education Administrator, Edwards Middle School
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Felix, an eighth grader at Edwards Middle School, credits the extra hours he spends learning with his renewed conviction "to take the work seriously so you can be successful in life."

In assembling the plan for expanded learning time (ELT) at the Edwards Middle School, we drew inspiration from our own special education department. Too often, special education is viewed as a place or a static state, when the truth is that special education is a series of interventions, modifications, and accommodations afforded to students who are unable to access a curriculum under routine circumstances. ELT, too, is a series of interventions, and so, in applying some special education principles, we gained some valuable insights.

We began with a key premise in special ed, that each child is an individual who learns differently. We discovered that this idea applied seamlessly to our entire student body in ELT. Because our goal for the first hour of ELT was to provide relevant academic support to each individual student, we had to focus tightly on the specific area of concern or need for each student. In building these plans we relied on teacher observation, student reporting, student work products, testing, and parent communication. At no point was disability factored into the equation. The same applied as we built our selection of extracurricular enrichment activities, so as to get the right mix of relevant and engaging art, athletic, and other activities. Every child with an IEP participates in both the academic and enrichment activities of ELT.

Throughout the ELT portion of the day, you can walk into any classroom and expect to view a diverse spectrum of students. You will find students with and without disabilities; native English speakers and students who speak English as a second language; and students from varying socio-economic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Rather than treating ELT as a continuation of the school day, teachers have the freedom to address the underlying factors that may have limited students' overall academic success. Whether it is rules-based reading instruction, comprehension strategies, or math intervention, every student is able to benefit from targeted and individualized instruction that ordinarily could not be accomplished during the standard school day.

Enriching the School Community

By integrating the students based solely on academic focus, the Edwards staff has been able to eliminate old stigmas. By designing groups based on need and not achievement, students who once never interacted with each other during the core day are now sitting side by side with the understanding that, no matter their differences, they share a common academic challenge.

Additionally, the extracurricular portion of ELT has proven to be a great source of student engagement, pride, and community. In the past, our programming allowed for only a small group of students to participate in any after-school activities. The students that usually chose to participate were those who demonstrated more self-confidence, stronger interpersonal skills, and a greater commitment to school and self. ELT, by requiring every student to participate, allowed the school to create and offer a wide variety of activities, making it possible for every student to explore a wide variety of interests.

Here, too, ELT flourished in its inclusive design. Students who had once viewed themselves as having no value within the greater educational community, or who had viewed school as a place of no personal relevance, began to explore and demonstrate their strengths. Students diagnosed with emotional or intellectual impairments now work side by side with their non-disabled peers in areas such as rocket design, break dancing, football, art, poetry, music, theater, and cooking. It's no accident that our attendance rates have increased by 38 percent.

As an educator, when you see friendships being forged, student achievement growing steadily, and school becoming a place where almost all your students feel they belong, you know you are doing something right. More important and even more satisfying, you know you are making a difference in their lives.

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Craig Haas

Licensed Special Education Administrator, Edwards Middle School

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Ricki's picture
K-5 Life Skills Teacher from Lancaster, Pennsylvania

I think that it is amazing that students are required to participate in extra curricular activities, giving all students equal opportunities to be a part of the school community! I wish more school districts would look at the ELT model. It seems like a creative way to add hours onto the school day without burning out the teachers and students.

Laura Hammer's picture

What a wonderful way to provide intervention for ALL students. All too often students are taught in the same way, and if they "don't get" the material, they are left behind. I love the fact that with ELT, each student essentially has the equivalent to an IEP (whether special ed. or not), where the focus lies on each child as an individual who learns differently. The usual line of thinking is that if a child doesn't have an IEP, they must be able to follow the pacing and learn the information provided in the curriculum guide in a way that may not compliment their learning style. With this line of thinking, no child is singled out, no child is looked upon as having a disability. I am also impressed that every student is required to participate in extracurricular activities, allowing everyone to "fit in" and gain confidence.

Monica Sandrell's picture

This is the first time I have heard of ELT. I find it interesting that all students must participate in the program. I love the idea of creating activities that students are interested in. The best part is that the program is individualized to each student. ELT allows Special Education students to become active members of the learning community and feel valued. The program would be a huge undertaking to get started but it seems that it would be well worth the time.

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