Match Makers

Like teachers nationwide, educators at Greyfield School's Department of Special Services are facing demographic shifts, increased accountability, and challenges posed by scarce personnel resources. Faculty members work to assess student needs as a first step in providing ESOL and special education services.

Matthew moves west.

Ah, the simple life. Long roads laid out like ribbons on rolling hills, small communities nestled among farms and fields. This is what Matthew was after when he packed his bags and headed west, leaving his New Jersey roots and his job as Federal Programs Coordinator behind. He had long been looking forward to a fresh start in his new home and position as Supervisor of Special Services for Greyfield Schools.

A fresh start.

By mid-October Matthew had settled into the cabin he’d rented just outside of town, found the best groceries and hiking trails, and begun to understand what it meant to wear many hats in a smaller than small school division. With these gains in familiarity came an increased appreciation for just how diverse the Greyfield community really was. Because of its agricultural economy, Greyfield’s migrant and immigrant population was blossoming, and this was creating a lot of challenges for Greyfield schools—all two of them.

Greyfield had one elementary and one combined middle and high school serving just under three-hundred students in all. Matthew was beginning to grasp that although his title, which included the word supervisor, implied that he would have a sizeable staff to direct, in reality, his was practically a one man show. Matthew knew this would be a disappointment to his mother, who he imagined was looking forward to boasting about his new job, staff, and glitzy office next month over Thanksgiving turkey. In reality, Matthew’s office was a small section of a trailer behind the elementary school.

This particular Tuesday morning Matthew’s stack of special services referral files seemed to be growing, casting a long, grey shadow across his desk. He sat down and vowed to review each file. Just as he settled in he heard Beth’s chair squeak across the linoleum in her office next door. Their walls were thin as paper, affording little privacy for meetings or phone calls but allowing the opportunity to interact without getting up. “Good morning, Beth.”

“Hi, Matthew. Hey, if you’ve got a minute, can we look at a couple of applications I got for the secondary special ed opening?”

Beth was the elementary special education teacher, and Greyfield had been advertising for her secondary counterpart since the summer. Matthew headed over to see what she’d gotten.

“Anyone decent surfacing?”

She handed him the small stack of resumes just as the half-time ESOL teacher, Jennifer Harris, entered and plunked down some mini-doughnuts along with her Styrofoam coffee cup. “Am I missing anything good?”

The team reviewed the resumes and resigned themselves to the fact that at this point they couldn’t be too choosey. The case load in the upper school alone was over 20 kids. Beth and Matthew were supporting them the best they could, but there were only so many hours to go around, and the classroom teachers were nearing desperation. They agreed to interview everyone who applied.

Matthew reminded Jennifer and Beth of tomorrow’s meeting. They’d be reviewing student needs and fine-tuning special services schedules to match. Matthew felt hopeful as he returned to his side of the trailer, doughnut in hand.

See student demographic data for Greyfield Schools below:

Jennifer meets with two new English language learners (ELLs) and evaluates their reading and writing.

“These things are nasty,” Jennifer said, taking another bite of her doughnut and brushing powdered sugar off her cropped khakis. “I gotta run. Got some new students to meet this morning and a high school student visiting.”

Greyfield County was encouraging high school seniors to explore education careers by spending time shadowing teachers in their schools. Jennifer generally liked the idea, so she had volunteered to help. She headed across the parking lot to the secondary school, carrying her bulging tote bag on her shoulder, deep in thought. She was in a contradictory mood, feeling thankful that the district had finally funded an ESOL specialist and yet disappointed that they’d only come up with enough money for a part-time position. She felt frustrated by families that relocated six weeks into the school year while also feeling a tenderness toward whatever circumstances might have made their moves necessary.

Just as she entered the school she caught a glimpse of herself in the glass door and noticed that in her morning rush she had put on one white and one yellow sock. Nothing seemed to match that day! She chuckled to herself as she walked the hall leading to the sixth-grade wing to meet Suzanne, the high school student with whom she would spend the day. So far, Suzanne had been a helpful weekly companion, providing both another set of eyes and the ability to pose pointed questions in a non-threatening way.

“Hey, Ms. Harris. Nice socks!”

“Yeah, thanks. It’s been one of those mornings. Want a doughnut?” Jennifer pulled the now wrinkled paper bag from her tote along with her testing schedule for the day.

“No thanks. Who are we testing today?”

Jennifer and Marta work through Marta’s reading assessment.

Although this was their second day testing together, Jennifer wasn’t quite sure how to include Suzanne in these reading assessments. She just figured Suzanne could watch now and ask questions later. They found Marta Perez’s name and class schedule in Jennifer’s notes and headed toward their first meeting with this new student. Marta’s transfer folder had arrived the day before, and it contained generally positive notes about work habits, neat handwriting, and reasonable English progress given the length of time Marta had been in the United States. When they arrived at her math class, Marta was seated in her desk near the window working on her warm-up exercises.

“Hi, Marta. I’m Mrs. Harris. I’d like to read with you for a few minutes to make sure we’ve got you in the right classes, OK?”

“OK. Should I bring my books?” Marta seemed happy for the distraction, gathered her things, and accompanied Jennifer and Suzanne down the hallway to the media center for her assessment.

While Jennifer finished making notes, Suzanne made an attempt to use something from her third period Spanish class, “¿Como te va en la escuela, Marta?”

“It’s fine,” Marta giggled.

“No, no. ¡En español, por favor!”

“OK,” Marta giggled again and offered a rapid-fire reply that left Suzanne wide-eyed.

“¡Mas despacio, por favor!”

Jennifer was glad that Suzanne could offer a little levity to what could otherwise be a stressful testing situation.

After a short break, Jennifer handed Marta a piece of lined paper. “Marta,” she said. “I’d like you to write a paragraph. It could be about anything you like, but lots of students like to write about a problem they had with a friend or a time they got in trouble. You can take as long as you like.”

Marta sat stolidly, chewing on her pencil, without writing, for several minutes. Jennifer glanced at her watch just as Marta sat up straight and asked, “Can I write about why I should get a present?” Jennifer nodded, glad that inspiration had hit.

See Marta’s writing sample below:

While Marta wrote, Jennifer and Suzanne checked the list to find the name of the next new student, Allen Ramirez. Like Marta, he had been placed in the remedial math class, and like her, he was newly transferred to Greyfield schools, but Allen’s arrival was more recent. “I don’t have any academic records for this one,” Jennifer told Suzanne. “All I know is that his teachers here are very concerned about him.”

Marta wrote quickly, stopping only to erase and rewrite a few words. She smiled proudly as she handed the paper to Jennifer and giggled as Suzanne attempted one more time to converse in Spanish. They walked Marta back to math class and asked her to point Allen out. Jennifer did a double-take as Allen walked towards them. He was so small and fragile-looking. It was hard to believe he and Marta were in the same grade.

Allen struggled to provide answers to Jennifer’s questions.

As they walked beside him down the hall, Jennifer made a couple of attempts at small talk and saw quickly that either Allen was a shy one or his English skills were minimal. Suzanne thought she might have better luck, so she slipped in between Allen and Jennifer, offering, “Hola, Allen. How are your new classes? ¿Que es escuela?”

Suzanne didn’t get more than a feeble, “OK,” in response. She dropped back a step, caught Jennifer Harris’s eye, and shrugged. They settled for a quiet walk with Jennifer wishing she could remember some of her high school Spanish.

Once back in the media center, Jennifer pulled out her assessment materials, glad that she’d brought a wide range with her. She had a feeling that Allen’s teachers were right to be so concerned about him.

Jennifer wondered if there was any point in attempting to collect a writing sample with Allen, but she didn’t think it could hurt to try. “Allen,” she smiled. “I’d like you to write something about your birthday party.”

Allen’s face remained impassive as Jennifer handed him paper and pencil. “Your birthday party,” she repeated, inadvertently raising her voice a bit. “Okay? What happened at your birthday party?”

Suzanne chimed in, hesitantly, “Your cumpleaños?

Allen looked even more uncomfortable, but he picked up the pencil, and began writing. After twenty minutes, he quietly placed his pencil neatly parallel to his paper. He was done.

See Allen’s writing sample below: 

On their way back to the library after dropping Allen off at his next class, Jennifer shook her head, saying, “That was a disaster.”

“How can you even tell if he understood what to do?”

“Good question…I don’t really know.” Jennifer was afraid she wasn’t being much help to Suzanne. “Let’s look at the summaries to make sure we covered everything.” Marta and Allen had nearly identical class schedules, but their reading assessment summaries didn’t match one bit, and neither did their needs. Jennifer wondered if Allen might have some special education issues and just how this might be determined.

See Marta and Allen’s reading assessment summaries below:

Beth visits with two fourth-graders who will soon be evaluated for special services.

Her friends always said that Beth lived in a strawberry-shortcake world, and they were generally right. Not only did she possess a positive disposition, but she had remained an early-morning person throughout her ten years in Greyfield as well. Satisfied with her jump-start on the day’s work, Beth pulled on her sweater as she walked down the gravel path to the elementary building, whistling as she went.

Her first stop was the fourth-grade class to read with Jordan and Christopher. They’d been in school together since kindergarten and were pretty good buddies. Jordan was struggling with writing, was just a little behind in reading, and two of his teachers were pushing for a special education evaluation. Christopher was being evaluated for gifted services at the request of his parents. Their homeroom teacher, Joseph Spitz, greeted Beth at the door as his students arrived. “‘Morning, Mrs. Tigler,” he grinned.

“Hi Joseph. How’s it going? Hey, I’m hoping to pull Jordan and Christopher to read with me this morning. What time works for you?”

“Now is fine. They’re both here already.” Joseph motioned toward the back of the room with a nod.

The two boys were huddled over their Yu-Gi-Oh! cards when Beth interrupted. Just as she walked over she caught the tail end of Jordan belching the alphabet with Christopher bellowing, “Ew! Someone had eggs for breakfast! Hu-ee-vos ranch-ee-vos!”

Christopher fanned the air in front of his nose and Jordan belched an enthusiastic, “Yup!”

“I hate to interrupt the party, but I think I’d like to spend some time reading with you boys this morning.”

Jordan and Christopher managed to stifle their snickers, put away their cards and books, and follow Beth to the school’s conference room. They eventually settled down at its large table. Beth wished she’d picked a less formal setting, but there weren’t too many choices that time of day. “OK, let’s start by reading this book on lizards. How about if you take turns reading it so I can get an idea of how you’re doing, and then I’m going to ask you to write about what you’ve read? Sound OK?”

See Jordan’s and Christopher’s written summaries of the lizard passage below: 

In addition to hearing them read, Beth’s goal was to get to know Jordan and Christopher better. She wanted them comfortable with her before doing any formal assessments, and she was hoping for a deeper glimpse into each of their classroom challenges. She felt a little awkward peppering them with questions, but it was an effort to keep them talking otherwise. Their demeanors during these interactions contrasted sharply with their earlier playfulness.

“So, talk to me a little bit about school. What’s going well for you?”

The two boys looked at each other and both answered, “Recess!”

“Right! Me too. I love to get outside and play. But, think a little bit for me about the classroom part of your day. Let’s talk about that.” Beth waited for either boy to jump in with a reply. Jordan picked at the corners of the lizard book, and Christopher busied himself by shuffling his feet. Beth offered a more specific focus. “Talk to me about reading out loud and silent reading, or about your favorite subjects.”

Eventually Beth dismissed Christopher and asked Jordan to read some poetry for her. She thought he might relax more without his friend hovering around. She also wanted to get a grasp of his reading fluency. “Do you like poetry, Jordan?”

“Um, it’s OK, I guess,” he shrugged and took the book she offered.

Still trying for a connection, Beth asked Jordan what he thought of the poem. “Oh, it was pretty funny, I guess. It felt funny reading it over and over again, and I liked thinking about the little man slipping down the drain. It would be cool to be that little, maybe for a day.”

Matthew prepares to meet with Jennifer and Beth.

Typing an agenda for a meeting of three felt a little odd, but it helped Matthew organize his thoughts, so he did it anyway.

See a copy of the Student Support Services meeting agenda below: 

Even though he knew he was supposed to be the expert on NCLB, Matthew needed a refresher on special education students and Adequate Yearly Progress. It seemed that as soon as he had a handle on the legislation, someone would update it. He took another look at the special ed issues section of an education policy paper he usually read.

Click here to read the special education issues section of the education policy paper that Matthew used.

After gaining a little clarity, he pushed on to ELL issues. The pressure was mounting to get ELLs to show Adequate Yearly Progress. NCLB legislation mandated that they take these tests after one year in the US, so there wasn’t any time to waste. When Matthew reread the NCLB press release, something at the bottom caught his eye. It was that $13 billion amount. Elsewhere on that site he’d read that there are 5.5 million LEP students nationwide. He pulled out his calculator wondering how much money per school day that was for each student. Not much. They were going to have to be creative to match student needs and services.

Click here to read about NCLB, English Language Learners, and Adequate Yearly Progress.