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Special Education & Equity in Connecticut

Mary Beth Bruder, UConn; Marisa Halm, Center for Children’s Advocacy; Catherine Holahan, EducationCounsel; and Betty Sternbger, CCSU took part in a panel moderated by WNPR’s David DesRoches.

As with other areas of public education, when it comes to special education there are big disparities between districts. How do we make sure all students and families receive equitable special education services? 

That was the topic of a panel discussion at a recent Special Education in Connecticut Summit sponsored by the UConn Neag School of Education and the Klebanoff Institute.

“Early identification and early screening are so important,” said Catherine Holahan, senior legal and policy advisor for EducationCounsel.

“If we had all three- and four-year-olds in high-quality preschools, we wouldn’t be talking about this as much,” said Betty Sternberg, the director of the Teacher Leader Fellowship Program at Central Connecticut State University and a former state commissioner of education. “We need to put more resources in at the front end. High quality programs have teachers with degrees and training.”

Many at the summit said that better training for educators is a crucial piece.

“Teachers and administrators are crying out for help,” said Marisa Halm, the director of the TeamChild Juvenile Justice Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy. “They are facing big challenges when it comes to classroom and behavior management.”

Too often training for teachers is seen as solely the responsibility of teacher prep programs, but panelists agreed that pre-service training really doesn’t meet the need that exists around the state.

“Without extended coaching for new teachers who are working with an actual classroom of students, whatever we do in the prep programs will not be enough,” Sternberg said. “We have to think of systemic ways to support teachers in the art of teaching.”

“We need to change how professional development is done,” Holahan said. “Embedded coaching and professional support, especially from experienced teachers, are really key. It would help with teacher retention if new teachers were better supported.”

Beyond the classroom

“One of the concerns I have is the civil rights issue,” said summit attendee Typhanie Jackson, New Haven’s special education director. She noted that there are a disproportionate number of African-American males identified as in need of special education services.

Jackson said that to fully address issues of equity in special education, “We need to break beyond the school walls, especially in a large urban district, and look at economic development and issues of poverty and trauma. We know that schools are a microcosm of society, so as we pursue this issue we need to think about how we’re stabilizing urban centers.”

Sternberg agreed that many issues go beyond schools, using as an example the lead paint still frequently found in urban housing.

“In terms of truly serving Connecticut’s children, we need to be talking about access to health care, mental health services, housing, and more,” said Halm. “If we can get diverse groups together on the statewide level that would go a long way.”

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