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NEWARK, N.J. — Four boys and four girls sit quietly along a cafeteria bench, focused on their trays of lunch: turkey with gravy and sweet potatoes, and cartons of 1 percent milk. They are 10 and 11 years old, but one still needs a reminder to use a fork or spoon rather than his fingers with the gravy. Around them, other children glide in and out of their seats, giggling, playing hand-clapping games and otherwise socializing. Occasionally, accidentally, someone running through the aisle bumps one of the eight pupils from behind.

special education programs
Charlette Givens supervises students Ashley McGee (left) and Déja Harper as they play a game in the cafeteria. (Photo by Amanda Eagen Brown)

“Girls, girls, are you playing nicely?” a protective Charlette Givens asks in a telling sort of way. Givens teaches the joint fourth- and fifth-grade “multiple disabilities” class here at Quitman Street Renew School. With an aide on hand to supervise, Givens is technically on break now, but she places her plastic container of homemade macaroni salad on the yellow-topped table nonetheless. Every day, she volunteers to join her students for lunch and recess alongside their non-disabled peers, gently encouraging interaction whenever she can.

All eight of Givens’ students are new to Quitman this year, and the 36-year-old teacher—whose career was inspired by her son’s speech and academic delays—wants to be sure they make the transition smoothly.

Her class is part of a citywide program that moved to Quitman in September following the closure of Eighteenth Avenue School. The program serves students from around Newark who have a variety of cognitive and physical disabilities and are typically several grade levels behind. The school had already been housing a separate citywide program for young children with autism.

A Promise to Renew
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Quitman’s 558 students, in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, include 136 in special education, 24.4 percent of the enrollment, according to school data. That compares with 15.8 percent citywide in Newark and 13.1 percent nationally. Last year, Quitman served 89 students with disabilities.

Quitman is one of eight historically low-performing sites in Newark designated as “renewal schools” this academic year. Renewal schools received an influx of resources, including iPads for the autistic children, and principals were granted autonomy over most staffing decisions. In exchange, the schools received students from failing, under-enrolled schools that were shut down, and they agreed to turn themselves around to avoid the same fate. Nearly all the students transferred to Quitman have significant disabilities.

Housing such a vulnerable population has added challenges for an already challenged school, where test scores have been among the lowest in New Jersey and more than half of the teaching staff was new this year.

The school has had a teaching vacancy since September that means 14 middle school students with disabilities get their math intervention from an untrained substitute. Despite his increased autonomy, Principal Erskine Glover needs the central office to fill the position with a teacher from the district’s “employees without placement” pool. The district sent two candidates in November and December. Neither one showed up. District officials say they are aware of the problem and working to resolve it.

special education programs
Charlette Givens gives up her breaks to help her fourth- and fifth-grade special education students, all new to Quitman this school year, adjust during lunch and recess with non-disabled peers. (Photo by Amanda Eagen Brown)

With special education students bused to Quitman’s Central Ward location from all over Newark and pickups routinely late, transportation is a logistical headache. So is keeping 40 programmatic and personal aide positions staffed with qualified applicants.

Nonetheless, Quitman clearly has had success in creating a nurturing, engaging environment where many parents of students with disabilities—on the whole more involved than the general parent population, especially at the younger grades—feel their children are well-served. Families are seeking placements there, something Glover wants to eventually see as a trend for the school at large, instilling hope for the school’s potential for transformation.

Lana Sanders-Hughes is beyond thrilled that her 4-year-old son Syshé, in Celita Green’s pre-kindergarten autistic class, has learned to count to 20 and speak in complete sentences. Her husband and two older daughters live in Texas, where she had intended to rejoin them after a brief stay in Newark, but Sy’s success at Quitman has caused her to rethink that plan. “I don’t want to move him away from the school,” she said.

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Celita Green plays with Zakhai Demby, a student in her pre-kindergarten autistic class. Zakhai’s mother is excited about his progress at Quitman. (Photo by Amanda Eagen Brown)

When Zakhai Demby started at Quitman in the fall of 2011, his mother had tried everything she could think of to potty train him. Within a month, he was in underwear. Now in Green’s class, the 4-year-old has learned to draw a straight line and trace his name from dotted letters—and he’s starting to speak. “He comes home singing these songs,” said Denisha Mason, who first did a Google search for autism symptoms when her son was a year and a half old because he wasn’t talking like other kids his age. “Half the time I don’t know what he’s saying, but I’m like ‘OK, sing it!’”

Glover said he is pleased with the way most of the school’s 10 self-contained special education classes are running, though he said not all teachers are as nurturing as Givens, Green and others. He actually asked for the district to grow Quitman’s autism program, which for years served only preschool, to avoid a disruptive move for the youngsters come kindergarten. The autistic classes, serving six to eight children each, now run through first grade with a plan to continue adding a grade a year.

The presence of two special education programs drawing from a citywide population has added some racial and ethnic diversity to Quitman, which is otherwise almost entirely African-American: Six of the school’s 10 white students are in special education, according to data the school provided. Latino students, a small but sizable minority, make up a greater share of the population in special education than in the school at large. Eight of the 20 children in the autism program are Hispanic.

But the autistic classes in particular are extremely imbalanced from a gender perspective, reflecting the disproportionate share of boys diagnosed with autism worldwide. In six years teaching autistic pre-kindergartners, Green has never had a girl in her class.

special education programs
Charlette Givens supervises students Ashley McGee (left) and Déja Harper as they play a game in the cafeteria. (Photo by Amanda Eagen Brown)

Quitman has found itself at the forefront of Newark’s special education reforms. Like most districts in New Jersey, the city has long educated students with disabilities in separate classrooms more than alongside their non-disabled peers. Research overwhelmingly points to inclusion with necessary supports as the preferable model, and federal law requires that students be served in the “least restrictive environment” appropriate for their individual circumstances. New Jersey’s schools are among the nation’s most segregated in the teaching of children with disabilities and faces a five-year-old lawsuit in the discovery phase. (Special education litigation around the country is notoriously long and costly.)

Lauren Katzman, hired last spring as Newark’s new special education director, faces a mammoth task in changing the way the district serves its disabled children. Citywide, half of them are educated in segregated environments, compared with a quarter nationwide, and the national consensus is that a quarter is still too much, Katzman said. She wants to see special education considered a service rather than a place.

At Quitman, 77 of the 136 special education students, or 57 percent, are in self-contained classes located throughout the building, school data show. The remainder receive pullout instruction in particular subjects such as reading and math, get supports in class, or have services like speech therapy outside class.

Glover and several of his teachers are proponents of moving more students toward inclusion to encourage them to meet their potential—provided the district can provide the necessary support.

Many Quitman parents, meanwhile, want their children in the comfort of a self-contained setting. Forleasadon Harper moved her family back to Newark after two years in North Carolina specifically because she could get a self-contained placement here for her 11-year-old daughter, Déja, who is now in Givens’ class. In Raleigh, the girl was mainstreamed into a fourth-grade class without enough help.

“Last year was a horrible year for her, and I never wanted her to go through that again,” said Harper, a stay-at-home mom. Under Givens’ tutelage and attending a communications disorder clinic at Montclair State University after school, Déja has gone from grunting to speaking complete sentences. She recently challenged a visitor to her classroom to a game of Hangman.

“Children are cruel—we know this—and you don’t want to be the child that’s picked on all the time because you’re behind,” Harper said. “The name calling, it hurts. For my child, this class setting is what’s best for her…. She’s at a comfort level where she’s able to excel.”

A mother’s determination

It is an emotional experience for any mother to discover that her child has a disability, and learning to navigate a web of services and placements is often overwhelming. Charlette Givens understands this all too well.

Thirteen years ago, she was working as a social worker when her son, her only child, was born with a cleft palate. A major surgery left him unable to speak properly and in need of academic intervention by the time he entered preschool in Jersey City, where Givens has lived nearly all her life. Trying to help him, she ran into one frustration after another.

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Celita Green works with Daniel Sanchez. With three aides to assist her in a class of eight children, she can spend time teaching students one on one. (Photo by Amanda Eagen Brown)

“When my son was diagnosed early on—and I hate to say this but it’s the truth—there were so many teachers who told me what he couldn’t do, I almost gave up,” she said.

Instead, she harnessed a mother’s unstoppable determination. She went back to college at New Jersey City University to get what would become two masters’ degrees: one in early childhood education and one in special education. “I used to say, ‘If this is what he can’t do, what can he do?’ and that’s the part they didn’t tell me,” she said. “As I went to college, I would come home and I would tutor him and I would teach him things that I learned.”

She became a teaching assistant in special education classrooms in Jersey City, keeping that role for a decade, long after she was fully certified to lead her own classroom, because she wanted to have enough time for her son. “I worked hand and foot to help him master the skills at each grade level,” Givens said. Two years ago, when the boy was mainstreamed into regular seventh-grade classes, she decided she was comfortable enough with his progress that she could dedicate herself to teaching full time. That’s when Glover hired her at Quitman.

Her first year, she did math and language arts intervention for fourth and fifth graders. Last summer, with the multiple disabilities program headed to the school, Glover asked her to take on a self-contained class. “My eyes lit up like Christmas,” Givens said. “I said, ‘Um, Sir, what do you want me to do again?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, Ms. Givens. I’m going to show you.’”

Glover, who was hungry for teachers with Givens’ enthusiasm and work ethic, walked her through the furniture arrangement and what to put on the walls. “You can’t hang it up if the students didn’t do it,” Givens said. They went over how she would keep a data binder to continuously assess each child’s progress and to determine when to re-teach material.

Today, little empty wall space exists in her third-floor classroom—“the penthouse,” she calls it. There are Givens’ handmade posters from a geography unit (“Where is New Jersey?”) and a recycling unit (“Our Planet Earth”), math papers where students earned high scores for correctly adding such problems as 56.3 plus 22.1, and artwork including a boy’s first name in blue glitter. A standup poster outlines the plot and characters of “When I Am Old With You,” a book about a small boy envisioning his life with his grandfather that the publisher suggests for ages 4 to 8. Books lining shelves include “The Hungry Kitten” and “One Tiny Turtle.” By late February, the class was halfway to a goal of collectively reading 1,000 books this year.

Déja, who carries a Little Mermaid purse and is one of the most advanced children in the group, wrote in pencil on a student accomplishment board alongside her drawings of a star and a stick figure: “I wanted to read better. I practiced everyday and now I can read.”

One morning late last year, the class worked on spelling the word “December.” In black pants and a black headband, Givens showed a new aide how to help a boy make a p into a b (“-ber”): He is a visual learner, so the aide needed to write something for him to copy. Looking over another boy’s shoulder, Givens gently reminded him: “Capital D because it’s a special word. It’s the month.”

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Charlette Givens helps Déja Harper learn multiplication. Déja’s mother moved her family back to Newark from North Carolina to get her a spot in a special class for students with disabilities. (Photo by Amanda Eagen Brown)

Moving on to vocabulary, she instructed all children to look at the alphabet chart on the wall. They reviewed the difference between letters and sounds: “A-apple-aah, B-bat-buh, c-cat-cuh” and so on. She helped the boy who was confusing p and d point to letters with a purple wand. Then it was time for a quiz on beginning and ending sounds. “In the word ‘school,’ what’s the first beginning letter?” she asks. “Sound out SCHool. School. You’re not sharing. This is a quiz…”

Givens evaluates students based on how they converse, interact with peers, write words, draw pictures and use technology. She appointed Forleasadon Harper the classroom parent ambassador and arranges for other parents to come in regularly to volunteer. She arrives at 7 a.m., often stays until 7 p.m., and takes work home nights and weekends. “Planning takes time, especially when you’re just starting out like myself,” she said. “As the years go on, it’ll be much easier.”

Several of her students are showing great strides: A boy who began the year frequently crying and accidentally urinating in his pants now goes weeks without doing either. Another can now recognize the letters of the alphabet and write his name, surpassing the yearly goals set in his individual education plan, or IEP.

Still, they are far from grade level. Yet in April and May they all will take the state’s grade-level standardized tests.

New Jersey schools are allowed to count up to 1 percent of their populations as exempt from the exams and provide an alternate assessment. But the school teams that create each child’s IEP, which include parents, have determined in virtually every case at Quitman to administer the regular test with approved accommodations such as extra time and questions read aloud. The individual reasons for those decisions vary, but in general, the teams want students to experience the challenge of the exams even though they are unlikely to pass.

For the most part, their scores won’t count against Quitman in its overall results: Those who live outside Quitman’s attendance area and are sent by the central office for a special education program will have their scores included in home school tallies. On the flip side, Quitman is marked down for the results of a few dozen children in its attendance area who are placed elsewhere.

As Glover evaluates his teachers and central office administrators evaluate Glover, all say they are measuring based on growth, not raw scores.

“If they pull down the school data, I’m at peace with that as long as we can show they grew,” Glover said. “Some can’t write their names much less sit for a two-and-a-half-hour test.”

He does not dodge responsibility for his students’ scores. “They’re here at my school,” he said, “and I’m responsible for educating them.”

The inclusion evolution

In the 1930s, New Jersey was one of the first states in the nation to establish laws mandating the education of students with disabilities. Elsewhere, they received no services at all. “Kids were literally at home, in institutions, attics. I’m not being overly dramatic. It’s our history,” said Ruth Lowenkron, an attorney for the Newark-based Education Law Center, which represents the plaintiffs in the state inclusion lawsuit and last year settled a long-running Newark case over the timely provision of special education services. “New Jersey, on the other hand, was realizing we have to educate kids with disabilities.”

The state began to serve children using what’s known as the medical model: Those with visual impairments went to schools for the blind, those with hearing impairments went to schools for the deaf, and so on. In the 1970s, Congress approved the first civil rights legislation creating special education nationally and required that segregation be minimized.

By that point, Lowenkron said, New Jersey had a “cottage industry” in special education programs to sustain. But not all motives were profit-based, she added: “Lord knows we don’t want to repeat our other part of history, when we took our adults and kids with disabilities out of institutions and dumped them in the community without support. The state’s heart is in the right place, but they just have not been able to get out from under to turn this around.”

Research has overwhelmingly showed academic benefits for all children in inclusive classrooms, which sometimes have a special education teacher working alongside a general education teacher. Parents like Forleasadon Harper know all too well the perils when inclusion is done wrong. But when inclusion is done right, students with disabilities grow socially and emotionally while their non-disabled peers gain appreciation for diversity, and everyone benefits from material being presented in multiple formats to suit different learning styles. Inclusion can also be less expensive.

Newark schools spend an average of $18,427 per year for every student in the district, according to district officials. Spending is higher for students with disabilities. Those with autism are most expensive to educate because of a required staffing ratio of one adult for every two students in autistic classrooms. (The state, by contrast, mandates a one-to-three ratio.)

Measuring the cost of special education at Quitman is difficult because some of the money comes out of the school’s budget, and various central office funds cover the rest. The school budget line item for special education is $544,000, 11 percent of the total, but that doesn’t include major items like preschool, transportation or personal aides. Katzman, the new special education director, said she is working to make reporting more transparent.

Even if widespread inclusion were a reality in Newark, there will always be some children who require a self-contained environment. Particularly at the elementary grades, Newark does a better job than many other districts in educating its most severely disabled students in house instead of having to pay for hugely expensive private school placements, Katzman said. In addition to multiple disabilities and autism programs like those at Quitman, schools elsewhere in the city house students with severe behavior problems and children who are medically fragile. All eight renewal schools have high special education populations.

Quitman shares a parking lot with Samuel Berliner School, which enrolls only 38 students, all with behavioral disorders. Berliner is targeted to be closed at the end of this academic year, with a district preference that even self-contained programs be housed in regular schools. Berliner’s students will likely be dispersed among several schools. District officials have not yet said if Quitman will be one of them, but Glover expects it will. He’s fine with that—even though that’s not a special education population Quitman now serves and would bring a whole new set of challenges—provided that extra support follows, including additional counselors and training for the entire staff on how to handle behavioral triggers.

In receiving new students this year, Glover said he would have requested more help had he known the extent of their needs, but deficits were understated in the information he received. He had to scramble to contract out for additional speech therapists and wishes another counselor was on staff to address the many self-esteem issues.

Transportation has been another difficulty. Coming from all over Newark, children as young as 3 ride the bus for up to an hour, sometimes even more. Glover describes the service as “inconsistent.” One bus company was fined for repeated tardiness.

“In a district our size when you have to contract out all of your transportation needs, there’s bound to be mistakes,” Glover said. “This year we’ve seen just too many mistakes with students not being picked up on time, students being brought to school late.”

Ten-year-old Ashley McGee, a tall girl with red sneakers who is Déja Harper’s best friend in Charlette Givens’ class, lives only a few blocks from Quitman, so she was one of the last students to be picked up on the way to school. The problem was, the bus repeated the same route at the end of the day. “They would take her all the way across town like they were picking up the first kid,” said her mother, Linda McGee. After calling the bus company and not getting anywhere, “I had to call the school and say, ‘Look, I prefer if she just walks.’”

Quitman is Ashley’s third school in five years. Her mother hopes she can remain there through eighth grade even though she isn’t on the honor roll like she used to be at Eighteenth Avenue. Glover has struggled with how to grade special education students several years behind. For report card purposes, he is mindful of their individual goals but generally holds them to the same standards as others in their grade so as not to give them and parents an inflated view of their abilities that’s shattered come high school. While that often results in low marks, teachers emphasize student portfolios documenting their progress when they meet with parents, who are required to come in to pick up their children’s report cards.

Finding appropriate high school placements for students with severe disabilities is difficult in Newark. The majority of the city’s approximately 700 students receiving private or out-of-district placements because the district can’t meet their needs are in high school. (The city’s total special education population is about 7,000.) The district currently has no high school multiple disabilities programs. Glover hopes the problem will sort out as Superintendent Cami Anderson turns her attention to high school reform.

District officials are also working to reduce the frequency of school transfers for special education students. And they are examining Newark’s widespread use of personal and shared aides amid research finding that their work doesn’t yield substantial academic benefits. Personal aides are assigned to work with individual children and shared aides assigned to specific groups, while programmatic aides assist a teacher with an entire class.

Quitman had a few occurrences of teasing and bullying among older children at the beginning of the year, but school officials say that has declined as the staff monitors interactions between disabled and non-disabled students closely. Givens has a big purple net bag of foam balls, jump ropes and hula hoops for her students to use at recess, and others gravitate to play with them. A few of her colleagues also give up break time to supervise on the playground.

“The teachers play an important role,” Givens said. “Sometimes kids don’t know how to act with one another… In the beginning I feared that children wouldn’t treat children fairly. That’s just how children are. So we kind of facilitated the cooperative play and the fair play, and now it just goes smoothly.”

Beyond lunch and recess, students in Quitman’s multiple disabilities program interact with their non-disabled peers during non-academic classes such as music and gym. In January, the school lengthened its day by an hour for kindergarten through eighth grade, and older students come together for part of their extended learning time from 2:55 to 3:55 p.m. Givens’ class joins a general education third-grade class for a financial literacy program on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“We’re preparing them as college-ready students, and in order to give them that opportunity, we must give them the opportunity to grow in a variety of settings,” Givens said. With her son, “if the mindset were to leave him in a fixed environment, he never would have had the opportunity to advance out.”

In late February, Givens’ students performed in a play for African-American History Month alongside third- and fourth-graders. It was called “A Timeline of African-American History: Past, Present and Future,” and many non-disabled students had speaking roles as figures including Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack and Michelle Obama.

Déja initially prepared for a part as Maya Angelou, but she ended up joining the rest of her class in the ensemble, and her name was accidentally left out of the program. She was front and center in a West African Lamba dance performed by 10 girls—the four in Givens’ class plus six others—to the beat of djembe drums played by 10 boys. The dance, involving synchronized movements, is a custom to celebrate life and the spirit of happiness.

Givens solicited a professional dancer to help her choreograph the routine, which the students practiced for a month. She bought all of the drums and costumes herself, including bright patterned fabric that she sewed into headscarves and skirts for the girls and black T-shirts for the boys. Glover asked if she needed funding for costumes, but she said no because the school has so many other needs. She ended up spending $600 of her own money.

In the final act, representing the future, all 110 students participating stood on stage in white T-shirts on which they had drawn or painted the name of a college they wish to attend and their graduating year: Cornell University, Class of 2026, for example. For her eight students, Givens ironed fabric paper with college logos and the children’s photos onto the shirts. Ashley chose Fisk University and Déja opted for Spelman College, both Class of 2024.

Together, the students waved their hands in the air and sang the R. Kelly song “The World’s Greatest”: If anybody asks you who I am / Just stand up tall / Look ’em in the face and say / I’m that star up in the sky / I’m that mountain peak up high / Hey, I made it / I’m the world’s greatest / I’m that little bit of hope / When my back’s against the ropes / I can feel it / I’m the world’s greatest…

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