Why I think there is a disproportionate number of Latinos and Blacks in Special Education

All studies show there is a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos in special education. Being a Latina who attended ESL as a child and a special education teacher I have unique and comprehensive views on the issue.

I was born in Flushing, Queens. Shortly after my 4Th year, my parents relocated our whole family to their native country, Paraguay, only to move is all back to the United States 5 years later. I was placed in ESL in 4Th grade, for I did not speak a word of English. I had always had a keen awareness of my social surroundings, and I became very aware of teachers’ perceptions of me through the way they addressed me. Because I was a well-behaved child I walked the schools like a ghost, unnoticed unless of course I would make a mistake while attempting to communicate, in which case I got a lot of negative attention. I once heard a teacher laughing at my incorrect spelling structure right before me. I did not feel safe experimenting and using the language and I believe it took me a very long time to grasp it due to my lack of practice. Although there were other Latinos and non-natives in the class, I never heard anyone utter any words in Spanish or any other language. It became tacitly understood that it was not acceptable or “cool” to speak Spanish.  Although I was an extremely curious child and wanted desperately to become involved in all school activities, I was treated as if I was cognitively impaired and was never guided into any activities to make me feel successful.

I believe this issue about dis-proportionality of Latinos and Blacks in special education has a lot to do with expectations. As a child I was seen as somewhat impaired only based on the fact that I did not speak English, and the expectations for me were too low to spark any sense of success or curiosity. Children, regardless of their ability or disability are incredibly intuitive creatures. They know immediately whether you believe in them or whether you expect them to fail. Which brings me to the topic of teachers.

For 4 years I taught 2ND grade inclusion class at an amazing charter school in DC called School of Arts In Leaning (for short, SAIL). Children who would not succeed in the regular public school setting would find a place at SAIL. Children were still expected to absorb the grade level curriculum yet could be taught using the arts and multi sensory techniques. Lessons were taught through dance (movement), music (auditory), art or theatre (visual and movement). In addition, plenty of opportunities for lesson repetition and creation of interdisciplinary connections were built into the day.  I witnessed before me at-risk and special education children who loved learning, who felt successful and safe daily and who met the grade-level curriculum through these non-traditional methods.

Perhaps we could analyze this dis-proportionality issue by looking at how safe and comfortable our children feel within the class environment as well as recheck our expectations of how much material they could absorb. A child with a special need can learn just as much as any child in the regular education setting,  they just need a lot more repetition and many more opportunities to succeed built into their day.  This type of responsibility should not be solely carried by special education teachers, but by all teachers. 

Any ideas why this is so? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

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