Here’s how one California school district challenged traditional ideas about special education and cut its dropout rate by more than half.

Special education in the U.S. is in crisis, with programs across the country struggling to meet national averages for academic performance. For example, while the most recent federal data shows a 65% four-year high school graduation rate for students with disabilities, that pales in comparison to the national average of 83%.

Frustrated by the failure of more traditional teaching methods to close this gap, some educators are adopting innovative new approaches to teaching students with disabilities. One school district in southern California sought to boost graduation rates in its special education department by testing a simple idea: that students who feel more accepted by their school community will thrive in the classroom.

Underserved and Underestimated

In 2010, Covina High School in the Covina-Valley Unified School District mirrored the rest of the country, with a 13% dropout rate for special education students that doubled the rate for the general student body. High school can be a tough experience for any student, but due to insubstantial resources and social stigmas, students with disabilities are at particularly high risk of dropping out.

Ryan Parry, a Covina-Valley administrator who taught special education for many years in the district, recalls walking into classes with underdeveloped curricula and materials, including textbooks designed for students at much lower grade levels. It was immediately obvious to Parry why these programs were having so many problems: if they spend all day in a classroom learning rudimentary ideas from shoddy old textbooks, it’s hard for students to feel connected to their schoolwork. “It’s a lot easier to…drop out of something you don’t feel you have a connection to,” he says.

Special education classes at Covina were separated from the rest of the school, and not just in terms of academic rigor. The classes took place in what Parry calls a “horrible little classroom in the back of the campus that no one knew existed.” This arrangement sent a message to special education students that their needs were secondary to those of the larger student body. All these factors combined to create a pervasive sense of isolation that resulted in widespread tardiness and poor morale throughout the district’s special needs population.

A Bright Idea

But in the past seven years, Covina-Valley has taken a number of critical steps towards addressing each and every one of these problems. Administrators and teachers have revised the curriculum for all but a few subgroups of students so that special education classes could engage with content just as challenging as that of general education classes. Many of the students read all the same literature and explore the same scientific concepts as their peers in general education, but are given access to additional resources and accommodations. “We don’t look at special ed students as anything but general ed students with support,” says Parry.

Special ed classroom spaces have been physically integrated as well: the growing practice of co-teaching allows special and general education students to learn in the same classes while granting both groups access to resources specifically tailored to their needs. Co-taught classes have two teachers, one specializing in special education and the other in general education. The arrangement has proven far more attractive to special needs students that the prior setup, as they now find more opportunities to get help with material they find challenging in general education classes.

Building Futures

The effects of these reforms have been profound: Covina High School’s class of 2016 saw an 85% graduation rate and a <5% dropout rate for students in special education. Institutional changes at this pace and scale, however, don’t come cheap. Covina-Valley reformed its special education program with the support of $90,000 in grant funding from the State Department.

As Parry puts it, “Special education is not a placement. It’s a service.” Even without the kind of state funding that Covina High was able to secure, school districts owe it to their students to invest in that service. Districts have to provide special needs learners with the resources and support they require to graduate and attend college — that’s why districts should do everything they can to maximize the funding they get from the state through accurate reporting.

Vinson helps school districts streamline and optimize K-12 districts’ reporting processes, and our CheckPoint platform even has a module designed specifically to ensure that each student enrolled in special services has an up-to-date individualized education program (IEP). The better your reporting, the less likely it is that you leave critical funding from your state department of education on the table — funding that could be used to integrate, encourage, and assist special education students in your district.