There’s a lot of talk about the need for more education funding at every level, but what does that really mean? What are the impacts of limited funding? How would significant new investments in education have an impact? What are examples of difficult decisions leaders make with stretched resources, and how does that affect students and the community? In our new blog series, Expect More Arizona staff connect with key stakeholders across the state to dig a little deeper into the funding issue.
EPISODE 4 – KAREEM NEAL, SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHER AT MARYVALE HIGH SCHOOL IN THE PHOENIX UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT
Expect More Arizona’s Central Arizona Community Engagement Manager Liz Salazar, a former classroom teacher and Arizona native, recently sat down with Kareem Neal to learn more about some of the issues he has been faced in his self-contained special education classroom. Listen to the audio interview or read a summary below.
Kareem Neal is the Arizona 2019 AEF Teacher of the Year and has been an educator for 22 years working with students who have moderate to severe disabilities in a self-contained classroom. In some cases, students with mild disabilities are in an integrated classroom, where general education and special education teachers work together. Regardless of the setting, there are costs specific to providing special education services in schools.
WHAT DOES A SELF-CONTAINED SPECIAL EDUCATION CLASSROOM NEED?
In his self-contained special education classroom, Mr. Neal works with his students daily on life skills, so there are additional costs for items that typical classrooms do not need. For instance, some students need help with feeding. They need special utensils and refrigerators to keep their food cold until it’s lunch time, then they need a microwave to heat their food.
Maryvale High School is located in a low-income community where all students get lunch provided for free through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s School Breakfast and Lunch Program. However, many of Mr. Neal’s students cannot eat the food from the cafeteria – some students need items blended and some students just have special diets.
He also needs a washer and dryer, which is pretty essential as many students need to be changed daily. They also have a kitchen and appliances that go hand-in-hand with many of the occupational therapy activities they do in the classroom, as well as other non-traditional items for the speech therapist services many students receive.
Additionally, Mr. Neal’s students often eat at various times throughout the day, so every student has a toothbrush and toothpaste in the classroom, plus it helps them learn and develop those personal hygiene skills. And most of his students also need wipes and pull-ups too.
However, many times the amount of funding provided to the school for his students doesn’t cover all of those needs, so he often uses donorschoose.org, looks for grant funding opportunities, asks his friends and colleagues for help, or has to track down other third-party resources to donate the things the school can’t afford for his students.
ARIZONA DESPERATELY NEEDS MORE SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHERS
The average lifespan of a special ed teacher is approximately 1.5 years. Several things play into the early burnout rate.
A lot of times special ed students come into high school not having gotten the interventions and services that they needed to become successful students. By the time these students get to a secondary setting, they have some really big issues. Some of these issues include behavioral problems and in particular what you see in a self-contained or emotional disability (ED) classroom are actually explosive behavior tendencies which can drive most teachers away from fear. When students aren’t prepared for high school, many of the ways that they show that they’re not ready to handle it is by acting out and that can be too much for any teacher.
“For example, I had teacher friend about 15 years ago whose husband actually told her that she can’t go back to work in that classroom. The bruises were too much.”
There’s also the added factor that many self-contained special education classrooms do not have what they need. For example, Mr. Neal spends an extra five hours a week trying to find things that he is missing that his students need. Whether it be on sites like DonorsChoose, where he can list projects that can possibly be funded by the public, or also asking friends for donations, writing emails and doing a ton of extra paperwork.
And then you add in the fact that there’s likely going to be higher behavioral needs because a student isn’t getting the services that he or she needs, and having to help students with meals and having to change them and wash their clothes during the school day. All of this is added on top of a setting where the student is supposed to be in their class and learning all day. Combine all of these with the fact that teaching is not an easy job to begin with and it can be overwhelming.
“These are the kinds of frustrations that make it hard for people to want to stay in this profession. I love my students and I love teaching. That’s never a problem. When my students are struggling with learning a concept, I am happy to go home and figure out where I went wrong in that day’s lessons and I’ll research other techniques or tools to help them learn academically. But when I get home after a full day of teaching in the classroom and then I have to figure out what to do to replace the broken refrigerator my classroom or think about how to we are going to get through tomorrow without any pull-ups or disinfectant wipes. That extra element that isn’t truly even related to teaching is what puts a lot of special ed teachers over the edge.”
EARLY DIAGNOSIS AND EARLY INTERVENTIONS ARE KEY TO STUDENT SUCCESS
Proper diagnosis of a child will help them tremendously on their path to academic success and even social-emotional learning, which is the case for a lot of students. Mr. Neal shares that his students who have had early interventions and services are much more prepared to learn, even at a high school level.
Occupational therapy is incredibly important for preparing Mr. Neal’s students with the skills they need to be able to work. Most of his students do not go to college after they graduate. They are generally placed in work programs or day programs, or a select few will go on to a job that only requires the skills they can learn in high school in his classroom.
If students get those early interventions throughout their elementary and middle school years, they are better prepared for high school and then much better prepared for their life after high school as a productive member of a society.
OVERALL IMPACT OF FUNDING ON STUDENT SUCCESS
If Mr. Neal’s students had all the additional things they need in the classroom, he would be able to focus on enriching and enhancing their lives outside of school. His students stay with him for four years (from ninth grade through 12th grade), until they graduate. Rather than hunting down resources from multiple sources, he could go and visit a day program to find out if would be a good fit for one of his students that is graduating that year or building better relationships with community members for a possible job placement. He would also spend his time meeting with employers to find out what skills they are looking for and then find ways to teach those in his classroom and setting up a time for his student to volunteer there before they finish up high school.
Expect More Arizona always encourages people who haven’t been in a classroom in a long time to ask to go visit their local school. A lot of people have an idea in their head about what school was when they were young. However, the needs of students and the profession of teaching have changed so much, even in just the past decade. On top of that, visiting a special education classroom is even more insightful.
“I really encourage you to not only go and visit your local school, but to also ask what the special education program is like and ask what do they need from the community and how you can help.” – Liz Salazar, community engagement manager for Central Arizona.
Editor’s Note: header image of Kareem Neal in his classroom courtesy of Raising Arizona Kids magazine.
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