Vice Versa


When she arrived from Ecuador two years ago, Juanita, who barely spoke ten words of English, was placed in a special education class. Today she is a sixth grader who speaks English well but she is still in a special education class. Her teacher and I are wondering why.

Juanita is a real person, though that is not her real name. She is charming, funny, friendly and hard working. Aside from the remnants of her accent she seems like any number of other girls in our inner city middle school. Juanita smiles easily, tells a good joke and occasionally gets a little cranky. Her classwork and grades are not spectacular, but they are not terrible either. They are on the level of a middling general education student.

So why is Juanita in special education?

I don’t know for sure, but it looks like she was placed in special education because there was a seat available there and none in an ELL or bilingual class. Perhaps there wasn’tt even a bilingual class in her elementary school.

Her initial IEP, written four months after she arrived in New York, notes that Juanita read and did math well below her grade level, but it did not note that all the testing was done in English, a language Juanita did not speak. Juanita’s mother has never attended school. She says she was unaware of what special education is; she thought it was an extraordinary class to help her daughter learn the local lingo.

Juanita did not learn much social studies, science or math because she did not understand what her teacher was saying. The social English she was rapidly picking up from her classmates was not a lot of help academically. Juanita should have gotten ESL or bilingual instruction. She did not because the school was more focused on what worked for them instead of what worked for her.

Let’s look at another case.

A month after he came to the US with his parents Robert was enrolled in kindergarten in a multi-ethnic, mixed income suburban district. This district has a policy that all students born outside the US must be placed in ELL classes, no exceptions.

Blanket policies are rarely a good idea, even if that policy would have helped Juanita. Here’s why.

Robert was born in South Africa to British parents. English is not only his native language, it is his only language. He speaks it with better enunciation and grammar than the school aid who insisted she had to enroll him in the ELL class.

These events occurred in different school systems, but there’s a fundamental problem in education when the student who needs ELL instruction can’t get it and the student who does not need it is forced into it. Common sense would help, but it is not enough. Basing education decisions on the needs of the student is also required.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009