I appear to have been working in a paper factory this week. I amassed no fewer than four paper cuts in extremely inconvenient places on both hands – on my finger joints, right in the middle of the fleshy part of my hand, both thumbs, on my cuticles, etc. These aren’t ordinary slivers, either; these are gaping slits from manila envelopes and file folders. Enormous gashes from very thick paper.
It is not unusual for me to end the week with ink-covered hands or sore feet from the insane heels I insist on wearing, but this many paper cuts in a week is different. I was initially at a loss to explain the Week of the Paper Cut. But I figured out, it’s because of a rapid and dramatic increase in special education referrals and 504 plans.
If this sounds wholly unrelated, allow me to explain: SPED or 504 paperwork, because of confidentiality issues, is kept locked up in a file drawer at all times. When someone adds a new student to the caseload, I put together a file on them with all manner of papers and file folders within hanging folders. The more files I have to put together, the more exposure to file folder, and the more likely I am to sustain a slash in the process of the file assembly. For example, let’s say that I injure myself on approximately 25% of files. If I make two new files, there is a very slim chance of unplanned skin incisions; If I make eight files, it is almost certain that I will slice my skin with the razor edge of the offending folder.
What do my file folder mangled fingers have to do with anything? My IEP caseload increased from four students last year to eight students in August, then nine in September. It is likely that it will hit eleven before April break. The 504 caseload jumped from three in January of 2011 to twelve at this point. SpEd referrals in high school are fairly rare. Waiting until a child is 15 or 17 to refer for special services is the opposite of early intervention. It’s probably not as uncommon to create 504 plans in high school, but an increase of 400% seems a bit high.
As I’ve mentioned before, there is an inherent tension in teaching special needs students in a college prep high school. Of course, not all students who have IEPs or 504s are intellectually disabled and unable to participate fully in the college prep curriculum, but a good number are. Also, a number of “regular ed” students aren’t performing so well in the rigorous classes because they arrived at our school far behind grade level. A student who came in reading on the 4th grade level probably isn’t going to catch up to grade level by the time they graduate. We, as a school, don’t seem to know what to do for those students, the ones who don’t have disabilities but aren’t on grade level. We seem to have only two options: create lower-level classes for students who are behind and compromise on rigor or declare that they have a disability and are not responsible for the same requirements as their non-disabled peers. It seems that we have chosen the second option. The school assumes that students who aren’t succeeding after they’ve been put through the requisite set of interventions must, then, have a disability.
This is a false assumption. Some students are quite simply just very far behind but have no disabilities. They will likely fail to meet the graduation standards. Here’s the issue: in order for tier I instruction to be valid, 80% of the students should be mastering the concepts without intervention. This is not the case. The texts are not at a readable level for 80% of the class, particularly freshman year. For that reason alone, we can’t really say that all intervention has failed because the most basic intervention – teaching students using texts at their instruction levels – hasn’t been implemented.
So we have, instead, a glut of referrals. And I have many, many paper cuts.