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Getting to the core of the matter

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Elementary school creates model to ensure Iowa Core access

Fort Dodge’s curriculum director Stacey Cole pondered one day whether students on Individualized Education Programs were receiving instruction through the lens of the Iowa Core.

teacher
Curriculum Director Stacey Cole and Principal Pat Reding discuss the school’s success.

“Do all kids receive core instruction in the classroom?” she asked one teacher.

The teacher responded, “‘No, why would we do that? Their needs are met in special education.’”

Cole got her answer, though it wasn’t the answer she hoped to hear.

At about the same time, two teachers across town at Duncombe Elementary School were working on a plan to ensure their students – special and general education – were engaging in the Iowa standards. Their solution? Co-teach. That was last year. By year’s end? A full 93 percent were proficient in reading. That included six Level II students, comprising 25 percent of the class.

“We knew that with the necessity of including the kids in the core for more of their day, that co-teaching would be best for the kids with Individualized Education Programs,” said Jody Halverson, a special education teacher. “The end result was that it was best for all of the students in our class.”

Tricia Dohrn
Tricia Dohrn

General education teacher Tricia Dohrn said co-teaching just made sense.

“Let’s look at a kiddo who can’t count past 39,” she said. “Traditionally it would be determined that he does not have the prerequisite skills to find success in second grade math. So he is then pulled from grade-level content to focus on the skills he doesn’t have yet. While he works on the prerequisite skills, he misses more and more grade-level content, and therefore the gap continues to widen. Take that same kid and allow him access to grade-level content in an environment that has adequate support and scaffolding and allow him the opportunity to build problem-solving strategies that work for him, and the gap shrinks.”

When Dohrn and Halverson first approached their principal Pat Reding with the co-teaching plan, he was justifiably skeptical.

“I have seen special education and general education teachers cohabitating in a room before, but that was the extent of it,” Reding said. “It was anything but inclusion.”

But Reding was impressed with the teachers’ plan, and gave the go-ahead.

“It turns out that they were powerful from day one,” he said. “They are tremendously powerful educators in their own right, but combining their efforts created a solid team.”

“This truly was an equal partnership,” Halverson said. “We could plan every second of the day.

“At the beginning, it was Mrs. Dohrn’s class, but that changed after a while. And we also had one of the best paras in the world, Kim Gordon. The kids really had three teachers.”

The educators built a lot of reading into science and social studies, and used an hour each day for small-group instruction.

Jody Halverson with students
Jody Halverson works with a couple of her students.

“Trish pulled some of the kids to work on comprehension, and Kim was able to roam around,” Halverson said. “We grouped the kids based on their abilities and needs, not on their labels.”

And the duo made sure all of the students’ needs were met.

“The kids had a chance to be involved in everything,” Dohrn said. “But Jody might bring three kids over to a table, IEP or not, in which they needed extra scaffolding. The goal is always to build skills.”

The curriculum director initially saw the co-teaching as a means of ensuring access to the Iowa Core for all students.

“We had a lot of conversation about the Iowa Core, and how all kids need access,” Cole said. “But if you are having kids go somewhere else for instruction in, say, reading, then access to the Iowa Core is eliminated.”

And there was another benefit Cole didn’t foresee.

“When I think about this through the lens of a critical educator, I believe our general education kids really benefited from this model,” she said. “When we started the inclusion, it was from the perspective that it would benefit students on IEPs. But I would argue that it was a great benefit for our general education kids. Our general education kids were 100 percent proficient – if you want to talk about who benefited.”

Dohrn and Halverson heartily agree.

“We think co-teaching was especially beneficial to students who are not identified” as having a learning disability, Dohrn said. “We know we kept some kids from having to enter special education, and we challenged the kids who were highly proficient because of the level of differentiation we were able to accomplish.”

Dumcombe’s needs this year put the full-time co-teaching model on hold – something the teachers and principal are hopeful will return. It is, they agree, a model that needs to be eventually made permanent.

For Dohrn, it hits close to home.

“My oldest son has learning difficulties,” she said. “If my son’s teacher doesn’t believe he can fully learn, what would that mean to me? It is our job to find out the way to learn. Each kid has a different way to learn.”

“Agreed,” Halverson said. “You can’t place limits on kids.”