Jennifer Gaviola, director of special services for Madera Unified School District, wrote the following article for EdCal. Gaviola serves as a consultant in the ACSA-CASP RtI Project.
It is common in education to hear, and say, phrases like, “I believe all children can learn,” “All means all,” “We must close the achievement gap,” “No Child Left Behind.” But do these phrases or philosophies have any truth in a public education system? A system where there can be 25 percent mobility rate, children with no place to live, children who do not speak English, children with special needs, parents working 14-hour days in the fields and unable to support their child’s learning: This is a system full of reasons, or excuses, why these phrases cannot be accomplished.
In the small town of Madera in the middle of California, these reasons are prevalent, yet they do not inhibit the most challenged population – students with disabilities – from doing what some believe is the impossible. They are closing the achievement gap, creating a culture of inclusion and demonstrating the statement, “All our kids, are truly ALL our kids.”
Suburban Madera is 20 miles north of Fresno. The K-12 Madera Unified School District has a student population of 18,700. The major attraction to this small town is its affordable living and large agricultural community. The district is roughly 50 percent English language learners and every school in the district is a Title 1 school due to low socio-economic status.
Madera USD, like many districts around the state, entered Program Improvement for special education in 2004. Only 4 percent of district students with disabilities were proficient in English language arts and only 7 percent were proficient in mathematics. This was clearly not acceptable to staff or the community. Madera school leaders began to examine their practices in special education and really ask, “What makes special education ‘special?’”
In four work-filled years, Madera Unified found the answer to its question and the data to support the belief that its program was indeed special, and so were the students and staff. Now, the special education students and staff truly feel that “all” does mean all, that there is no child in Madera left behind, and that the elusive achievement gap can – and is – being closed.
In looking at Madera Unified students with disabilities, they are accelerating faster than any other subgroups and actually closing the achievement gap in both math and English language arts. In 2004, students with disabilities performed 19 percentage points lower in ELA than their non-disabled peers. In 2008, as both groups increased levels of proficiency with great gains, the students with disabilities increased at a faster rate, closing that 19-point gap down to 8 points. In math there is a similar trend, reducing the gap from 20 points to 9 points.
The keys to Madera USD’s amazing success came in a three-pronged approach, along with a few special ingredients, such as dedication, teamwork, and true belief in all children.
The first key was to give children access to core curriculum and assessments. Previously, children were taught with out-of-level textbooks and not expected to make district benchmarks. Teachers were left to their own decision making on what curriculum and interventions to use. Now, all children are taught with core textbooks and given the appropriate accommodations and modifications.
Secondly, the district made another commitment to equal access. In this, it was defined as access to talented core general education teachers. Madera students would be included in general education whenever possible, with appropriate support from both special and general education teachers.
Lastly, the district invested in training for its special education teachers in a multi-sensory literacy intervention program called Lindamood-Bell. All special education teachers would remediate skill deficits in the areas of phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension and writing. Students would have a blended program of inclusion and remediation with research based intervention.
Depending on the individual child’s needs, an appropriate balance of inclusion and remediation services are now designed through the Individual Education Plan process. In addition to these key components, the district office set schedules for special day classes, monitor inclusion and clustering, and always put every individual child’s needs first.
Data shows MUSD special education student achievement has grown by leaps and bounds. As previously noted, in 2004, district special ed students were only achieving 4 percent proficiency in ELA. By 2007 that number had jumped to 20.2 percent. In 2008, Madera special ed students were at 33 percent ELA proficiency. And that’s compared to a statewide proficiency level of 24 percent.
Madera Unified special education scores continue to climb, as do the district’s expectations for all students. In a community with all the reasons “why not,” Madera has decided that showing the “why” is more important. Madera, like every district, answers, “The why is because we want to make a difference in the lives of all our kids.”
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