Designing Education for Special Populations

Designing Education for Special Populations
Posted on 07/02/2020
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As DeSoto ISD plans for the 2020-2021 academic school year, the district established a Back-to-School Taskforce Committee and divided it into several subcommittees, including the Educational Continuity for Special Populations subcommittee, who are responsible for developing area-specific plans in accordance with the guidelines from entities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Texas Education Agency, and Dallas County Health and Human Services.

DeSoto ISD recently announced that it will utilize a more robust version of the Anytime, Anywhere Learning (AAL) platform, originally developed as a response to the campus closures at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, as the primary format for its curriculum and instructional delivery for the 20-21 school year. With this new awareness, the Educational Continuity subcommittee on Special Populations proposed plans to make the AAL platform more effective in providing instruction to students.

This subcommittee complements the general Academic Continuity subcommittee and is specifically tasked with developing plans for students who receive specific services and educational supports outside of the general population of students. The goal is to ensure that these students continue to receive high-quality and equitable educational experiences amid the new learning conditions. Special populations include students who receive special education, 504 and other related services and those who are receiving instruction through the bilingual, ESL and LOTE programs.

Special Populations and Virtual Instruction

One aspect of focus for students who receive special education and related services is ensuring that students receive modifications, accommodations, and inclusion support services required in their various individual education plans. This commitment equated to the proposal of more direct teacher-led instruction and the creation of virtual class periods in the AAL platform along with pre-recorded lessons and independent style assessments. The pre-recorded lessons would be accessible for content review and on-demand learning scenarios;  a main component and mission of Anywhere, Anytime Learning.

DeSoto ISD Special Education Supervisor Tamika Williams, who is also a co-chair of the Educational Continuity Subcommittee on Special Populations said this would be a great addition to the current AAL platform components and would help to facilitate normalcy and connection.

“We want to ensure that students have an actual teacher in front of them. This will be a game-changer because students will receive the lesson, get the modeling, and have guided practice. They can also ask questions,” explained Williams. “It is like they are in school, but they are just learning online.”

The subcommittee believes that this addition to AAL will bring a greater aspect of instructional consistency, accountability, and help streamline the weekly learning objectives and goals for parents. The consistent interactions with teachers and classmates according to Williams will also help with the social-emotional aspect of the school day and hopefully lessen the feelings of disconnection and isolation noted with continuous remote learning and social distancing.

For teachers, Williams said that it would help the teachers organize their days between teaching and planning instruction.

In addition to the learning content, Williams shared considerations that must be made for students who are mandated to receive services from related services personnel practitioners during the school day. To meet this goal, Williams shared that the Special Education Department is already developing a plan to ensure services are provided to all students using various platforms. Any services that cannot be provided using AAL will be addressed during the student’s annual ARD Committee meeting.

Students in the bilingual, ESL (English as A Second Language) and LOTE (Language Other Than English) programs, currently learn through the use of instructional strategies such as cooperative groups or learning pairs in the traditional classroom setting. The learning is more student or learner-centered, which means that students rely on student peers to help with cognitive and social development, language acquisition and proficiency in addition to teacher-guided lessons. DeSoto ISD has recently shifted its bilingual program to the nationally renowned, research-based Gomez and Gomez dual language immersion learning framework, which is built on cooperative bilingual pairs. With the continuance of COVID-19, mandated social distancing and remote learning, DeSoto ISD Bilingual Education Supervisor, Helena Castañón-Vargas, who co-chairs the committee on special populations with Williams, is proposing a plan to ensure that the language learning programs continue virtually without much interruption.

“In the bilingual program, we would ensure that the language policy is still observed, meaning we will stick with the subjects taught in the specific languages. For example, math would still be taught in English and the Language Arts, which includes writing and reading in Spanish for pre-k to first grade. For grades second through fifth, we would do the language arts and social studies in both English and Spanish,” explained Castañón-Vargas. “We would ensure that happens by continuing with the Gomez and Gomez professional development for teachers and configure to the virtual setting.”

Depending on how the district’s Design Team develops the curriculum competencies for the year, Castañón-Vargas hopes to create what she calls the ideal instructional pairing concept for teaching students in grades second through fifth bilingual programs, which has the language of the day component. In practice, this would allow two teachers, one teaching subjects in English and the other in Spanish, to be assigned to the same class of students to provide instruction to students on the appropriate day and for the assigned subjects.

To address the instruction and continuity of the learning strategies, Castañón-Vargas is committed to using some creativity to adjust the virtual learning scape for students, especially for cooperative learning.

“We will set up small groups within the virtual learning platform to maximize language proficiencies. We will continue to use second language acquisition strategies such as cooperative learning and bilingual pairs and use the breakout rooms feature so that students can still do their peer tutoring and model language used by talking to each other,” said Castañón-Vargas. The learning pairs and small groups would be set up based on the students’ strengths in language proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing. Castañón-Vargas emphasized that teachers should be very contentious of correct pronunciation and annunciations during content delivery.

Castañón-Vargas also detailed the adaptations for ESL students in grades PreK-twelfth. The teachers will use the second language acquisition sheltered instruction strategies and practice a thorough and multi-faceted approach to vocabulary, including pictures, graphs, and text. There is also the possibility of taking a flipped-classroom approach to pre-teach or preview the lesson to help increase the likelihood of English acquisition. For the LOTE program, Vargas is proposing a somewhat similar approach of sheltered instruction, but the instructional language would be in Spanish instead of English as it is in the ESL courses.

Parent Connection to the New Learning Structure

With the adjustment of remote instruction and at-home learning, the multiple members of the task-force subcommittees agreed that there was a necessity of providing educational support to parents. While the instruction will be more teacher-led than in the previous months, parents will still be equipped to intervene, especially with the younger children and those in special populations.

Parents of the students in the district’s language learning programs can expect to have a series of beginning of the year “tech-ready sessions”, similar to parent orientation. This will allow parents to attend sessions that educate them on accessing technology, understanding the learning management systems and its platforms, ensuring they have active email accounts, understand electronic signatures, and completing online forms.

“We want to provide a higher level of support to ensure parents are connected,” said Castañón-Vargas who also mentioned providing continuous social-emotional touchpoints throughout the year.

“In addition, we will be hosting a start of the year parent orientation, we want to involve our parents and touch base with our parents with virtual town halls held completely in Spanish throughout the year, to touch base, answer questions, see the progression of the students and find out how they are adjusting,” said Castañon-Vargas as she explained this concept would be similar to the LPAC meetings held virtually last semester.

DeSoto has created a webpage to share information on its Reconnect plan. It is available at