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Reframing the Narrative to Better Support Students in Special Education

August 27, 2019
In East Harlem, third-grade teacher Sheila Sullivan is preparing students with unique learning needs to be active citizens and critical thinkers.

At Democracy Prep’s Harlem Elementary, teacher Sheila Sullivan’s formula for student success is three-fold—unity, high expectations and routine.

Many children at this diverse Title I school face unique learning challenges—whether that be learning English as a second language or living with behavioral and learning disabilities.

Through personalized attention and innovative professional development, Sheila is helping each of her students fulfill the Democracy Prep mantra to “Work Hard, Go to College, and Change the World!”

What drew you to Democracy Prep?

Following a short period of training with NYC Teaching Fellows, I started my career in NYC District 75, which serves students with the most severe special needs. I also taught at a traditional public school in a “self-contained” unit for students with special needs.

What drew me to Democracy Prep was the sense of cohesion with other teachers and the rest of the school in regard to supporting all students.

Last year, I served as the ACT coordinator at the school. It stands for “Academic Collaboration Team,” and when you are educating scholars with disabilities it is truly a team effort. With ACT, we get to remove the stigma. It doesn’t feel like special education is something that only some students are a part of.

In my setting, we have 30 students. Twelve of these students have special needs and supports as outlined in an Individualized Education Plan. We set high behavioral and academic expectations for all our students. They are fully integrated into classrooms and, with the right level of support, we know they can reach the goals we set.

Teacher Sheila Sullivan plays jump rope with her students at Democracy Prep's Harlem Elementary school.

As a teacher, how do you help them achieve?

While the expectations are really high, I define success more as growth.

Even if some of my scholars aren’t at grade level quite yet, if they are hitting their personal benchmarks, they are experiencing success that can be built upon, and that is really exciting. Details and routine for students with unique learning needs are so important. Success builds from the little things, like where you want them to put their folders each day when they walk into the classroom. You have to really plan and articulate your lesson plans and how you want your classroom to function.

I have a student who was really struggling, and my co-teacher and I finally figured out that he loves Pokémon, so we were able to grab his attention through little references here and there. Getting to know your students at an individual level is so special, beyond just the practical benefits. I had wonderful teachers my whole life, but until I became one I didn’t realize what went into it.

How do you maintain your own skills as an educator?

What people don’t realize about teaching is that there are 1,001 things going through your head at one time, down to the smallest thing, like which kid needs a tissue.

I am fortunate to be at a school where feedback is a big thing, and if you want to become a better teacher, you have to constantly evolve, take the feedback and learn how to become more efficient, more engaging. We also have great professional development with other ACT coordinators in the region where we get together, problem solve and learn what’s working for other schools and other teachers.

On the flip side, I’ve returned to NYC Teaching Fellows as a lead instructor, helping to do what people had done for me. All of it has helped me as an educator find more of the ‘aha!’ moments that we are all looking for.

What makes the work you are doing at Democracy Prep unique?

We not only want our students to be successful, but to be active citizens and participate in their democracy. But to change the world, you need to know about the world.

Even with our youngest kids, we integrate a huge civics component into lessons. We organize Get Out the Vote activities, service weeks, and this year they worked with Harlem Grown!—a local organization that converts empty lots into community gardens to grow food for the neighborhood.

Our principal encourages the kids to write letters advocating for change within the school as well, and the students know that she will always read a thoughtful proposal. We want every kid who walks through our door—regardless of circumstance—to know their agency, to know that they can be the changers.

Teachers Inspire is a series of stories that highlights the talented professionals who are inspiring students across the U.S.
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