- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Sitton Elementary fifth-grade teacher Julia Pugh moved around the classroom in the morning, helping her students with a writing assignment on how to craft topic sentences, find supporting detail and draw a conclusion.

Meanwhile, special education teacher Mandee Bish worked with a smaller group of students to improve their writing. One focused on fixing spelling errors, circled by the teacher.

Traditionally Bish’s students might have been pulled out of a general education classroom, she said. Now the school’s new instructional model keeps all students included.

“All students belong and have a place in their grade level class,” Bish said. “The sense of community can’t be built in a vacuum.”

Sitton Elementary is one of three Portland Public schools implementing an instructional strategy called co-teaching - teachers and specialists collaborate and share instructional duties, students and classrooms. The model follows a district emphasis on inclusion for all students, such as those with special needs or who are still learning English.

Sitton Principal Dana Nerenberg, in her second year, said her school’s team includes paraeducators, language specialists and special education teachers. Sitton doesn’t receive extra staffing for the program, but instead shifts how current staff members work together.

Nerenberg said moving to a co-teaching approach starts with the philosophy that teachers are responsible for the success of all students.

“All of our kids belong to all of us,” Nerenberg said. “Over time, it just becomes a way of teaching.”

Sitton staff members have the flexibility to work with students in multiple grade levels and collaborate on curriculum. About 24 percent of students at the school have special needs, and 34 percent are learning English as a second language, according to state data. District-wide, about 14 percent of students in grades kindergarten to three and 18 percent of students in grades four to five have special needs. Those figures are 15 percent and 16 percent for English language learners.

Teachers and specialists can work together to set different goals and modify assignments for individual students. In one class some students used a hand motion to show agreement instead of responding verbally. Other students might get worksheets with easy to understand checklists or with some information already filled-in.

Pugh is joined by a language specialist for writing time and another educator three times a week. Now some of Pugh’s special needs students may spend an entire day in her classroom, compared to half an hour last year, she said.

“You have to be there for every kid,” Pugh said. “Extra people are so important. Our kids need structure and consistency and you can tell when it goes away.”

Portland Public Schools is one of multiple districts in the metro-area implementing co-teaching techniques.

Beaverton schools also have some co-teaching teams and the district is considering expanding the practice for English language learners, said district spokeswoman Maureen Wheeler. Gresham-Barlow is also using co-teaching strategies at three elementary schools to help kindergarten students with language development, according to spokeswoman Athena Vadnais.

In Hillsboro, almost all schools have at least one co-teaching group, district student services executive director Elaine Fox said in an email. The practice helps ensure all students have access to high-quality instruction.

“Through the use of co- and collaborative teaching models, our diverse learners can experience and access their education in the academic, social, cultural, and linguistic context in which all students experience school,” she said. “We see co-teaching as an inclusion strategy that is a component of our districtwide equity and social justice work.”

Nerenberg, who worked with a co-teaching model at a previous job in Washington D.C., said it can also be a positive experience for general education students who are introduced to those of different backgrounds. Research has shown academic and social benefits in keeping special education students included with classmates.

Portland Public Schools is aiming to shift to teaching practices that are inclusive for all students, said district special education director Mary Pearson. Staff at Vestal and Irvington schools both received training on co-teaching as part of a pilot program launched this fall.

Pearson said the district plans to evaluate the pilot project before deciding if co-teaching should be put into place at other schools. The goal is to help district staff find practices that best fit their school community.

“It’s essential that you have a building administration that believes in it strongly and is on board,” she said. “We don’t really want a one-size-fits-all approach.”


Information from: The Oregonian, https://www.oregonlive.com

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