Shaker Schools’ special education programs redefine achievement and success.
By Jennifer Kuhel
Nathan Levin’s journey to Shaker Heights and through its public schools has been exceptional, in every sense of the word.
Nathan’s story begins in 1997 in his native China, when his parents, Mark and Estee Levin, travelled there to adopt him. Mark Levin still carries the picture of baby Nathan he’d been sent beforehand in his wallet. His future son is seated, full of baby charm, and wearing his still-unmistakable smile.
At their first meeting, the Levins delighted in learning Nathan was as pictured: a happy, healthy boy. Nathan had even earned the nickname “The Little Emperor” because he would pat his belly when he was hungry. “It was obvious to everyone that Nathan was special,” Mark says.
But by the time Nathan was two-and-a-half, there were signs that he wasn’t developing like other typical children. For one thing, he wasn’t walking. Although the pediatrician insisted he was fine, the Levins took him to a new doctor, who ordered an MRI. They learned that Nathan had a kind of brain damage called periventricular leukomalacia, or PVL, which, in Nathan’s case, doctors speculated was caused by a difficult childbirth.
“Since that diagnosis, we realized the future would be difficult,” Mark says.
To determine the starting point for Nathan’s future, the Levins brought him for an evaluation by a school psychologist with the Shaker Heights Schools. “She announced that he’d scored a zero on the test,” Mark recalls candidly.
He understood the results weren’t an indictment on Nathan’s potential. Rather, it was a recognition that he qualified for and would receive special education support from Shaker Schools Pupil Services, a department with a longstanding reputation for excellence in serving students with disabilities.
The Shaker Standard
Today Nathan is a charming, chatty, enthusiastic 21-year-old who will graduate from Shaker Heights High School next June (by federal law, special education students qualify for services through high school or until age 22). He is among the District’s estimated 790 students who are on an Individualized Education Plan, a legal document that details the special education services a public school student will receive, along with measurable goals for his or her achievement.
This group of students comprises 15 percent of Shaker’s diverse student population. Many of these students sit alongside typical peers for the entire school day in general education classrooms, receiving support from a tutor, aide, co-teacher or assistive technology. Others participate in the curriculum in a more restrictive environment where they also receive special services such as speech, physical therapy, and occupational therapy in a dedicated Resource Room that serves students with similar needs. There are others who spend some of their school day in a general education classroom and another portion in small-group instruction with tutors and specialists.
“Shaker Heights is a premier District that accepts best practices, not minimum compliance in special education,” says Steve Rogaski, M.Ed., director of Human Resources and Pupil Services at the Educational Service Center of Cuyahoga County, which provides special education services, student programs, and professional development, and helps school districts in Cuyahoga County and Northeast Ohio support the implementation of federal and state regulations.
“The District has also focused on closing that achievement gap between students with disabilities and special needs and typical students. Shaker does what’s best for children. That’s its standard,” says Rogaski. The District’s standard is rooted in its mission: to nurture, educate, and graduate students who are civic-minded and prepared to make ethical decisions; who are confident, competent communicators, skillful in problem solving, and capable of creative thinking; and who have a career motivation and a knowledge of our global and multicultural society.
“The mission applies to all students, regardless of their station in life and where they stand in terms of ability,” says the District’s parent mentor Holly Palda. “What unites us as parents is that we all want our children to succeed and share a sense of well-being. The idea of having specialized support is important because it allows parents whose children are on a different path to make decisions about their child’s education in an informed way.”
Specialized Support at All Levels
Regardless of their ability, the District maintains high expectations for all students, and in accordance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), ensures access to the general education curriculum in regular education classrooms, to the maximum extent possible.
To that end, there are multiple points of entry for students with disabilities in all of Shaker’s schools, and the continuum of services is available to all preschool-age and school-age students who live in the District.
Some students, like Nathan, begin their formal education as preschoolers on an Individualized Education Plan and are enrolled at the Early Childhood Preschool Program, an inclusion preschool that combines children with developmental delays and disabilities with typical children. Currently, more than 60 students are enrolled in the Onaway School-based program, which offers morning and afternoon sessions.
“Shaker Heights is a premier District that accepts best practices, not minimum compliance in special education.”
“In special education, we talk about educating children in the least restrictive environment,” explains Noreen Smyth-Morrow, school psychologist at Onaway School. “The research has held up that if you can take appropriate supports and bring them into a general education classroom, then that’s the best way for kids with a variety of needs to learn.”
The additional benefit of the Early Childhood Preschool experience is that children are exposed to the District’s International Baccalaureate (IB) Curriculum, emphasizing inquiry-based learning from the very beginning.
At the elementary level, children who have not previously been evaluated to receive special education services are often identified through assessments and collaboration between parents and teachers. This collaboration, Smyth-Morrow explains, is essential to student achievement.
“We really strive to connect with the parents,” she says. “We don’t want parents to feel like they have to fight for their children alone. We always take a team approach. It’s helpful that a lot of our teachers have expertise in early childhood development and they know the IB curriculum, so it makes for a strong program. Plus, our related services provide a lot of direct intervention and support.”
These related services are administered through any number of the District’s special education staff. Currently, the District employs 62 intervention specialists (teachers who have earned a supplemental teaching license in serving children in need of special education) and 84 aides, who assist teachers and intervention specialists in implementation of Individualized Education Plan goals and/or behavior modification plans.
The Pupil Services staff also includes five occupational therapists, one physical therapist, six speech-language pathologists, nine school psychologists, one hearing-impaired teacher, and two part-time vision teachers.
Many students continue to receive interventions through their middle and high school years, though some, thanks to early intervention at the elementary level, no longer require special education. This is a decision made by each student’s Individualized Education Plan team – which includes a student’s teacher, intervention specialists, administrators, and parents – who assess a student’s progress on his or her education plan and decide on next steps through a collaborative effort.
Students who require more specialized instruction and modifications not available in a general classroom receive services in a Resource Room. Here, students with a variety of disabilities are served in the same special class. Among these students is 14-year-old eighth-grader Zumyah Thorpe.
When Zumyah was 10 years old, she suffered a traumatic brain injury, short-term memory loss and blindness when a drunk driver struck the car her mother was driving. Zumyah’s pregnant mother, Maria, and two younger sisters Zariah and Zyanah were killed in the accident. Only Zumyah and her older sister, junior Zulaikah, survived. After the accident, Zumyah’s grandparents, Ronda and Alonzo Thorpe, became her legal guardians.
The Thorpes moved to Shaker two years ago, specifically for services for Myah. “We felt she would have a better chance to progress and we were right. She has a phenomenal team and a Braille teacher who support and challenge her but they don’t let her get to the point where she says that she can’t do something,” says Ronda.
Zumyah is still adjusting to her blindness and Braille has not come easy. “They’re teaching her how to read Braille menus and other life skills, like finding a public bathroom, but there are challenging moments,” Ronda says. “But at school, she loves going to choir and to adaptive PE and she’s learned to swim. She also goes to the lunchroom and eats with everyone else and all her friends.”
Instruction aide Maurine Loveman worked with Zumyah when she first started at the Middle School. At first, Zumyah was timid, but then she began to take command of the school’s crowded hallways. Although her aide was never far, Maurine remembers watching Zumyah leave the auditorium and walk confidently beside her typical peers.
“We don’t want parents to feel like they have to fight for their children alone. We always take a team approach.”
“She is absolutely fearless. I’ve never heard her complain,” Loveman says. “There are times when I have to protect her from people who want to give her too much help.”
Loveman also works with Zumyah in the Extended School Year (ESY) program during the summer. The half-day ESY program helps students who qualify for services to maintain the life and academic skills through the summer months. “I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything,” Loveman says. “She is amazing.”
Mark Levin is hopeful about Nathan’s prospects after his final year at Shaker. In preparation for his future, Nathan’s education has included transition services, a coordinated set of activities for a student with a disability that facilitate the student’s movement to life after school. During the school year, Nathan spends his mornings at the High School in the Resource Room and then afternoons at the Cuyahoga East Vocational Education Consortium, where he receives workforce preparation and job training.
“I do the shredding and the golf tees,” says Nathan, which means he shreds paper and also counts golf tees into bags of 25, which are destined for sale at Dick’s Sporting Goods. On Fridays and during the summers, he volunteers at Jewish Family Service Association, selling challah and servicing vending machines.
“I want Nathan to be a good citizen. I don’t know what that’s going to look like or how he’ll make his contribution, but it’s still the goal,” his father says.
And as Ronda Thorpe watches her granddaughter transition through adolescence and eventually, through high school, her goals for Zumyah are no different than any other parent. “I want her to continue to grow into that beautiful young lady that she’s becoming and I want her to know that she can give it her best,” Thorpe says.
“Success is relative,” explains Palda. “There are some people who would define success as the number of obstacles someone has to overcome to achieve it. And that’s always a consideration for children with learning differences.”
Resources for Parents
The School District and Shaker’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) provide several supports for parents of children with disabilities.
Holly Palda, the District’s parent mentor, is available to help parents through the Individualized Education Plan process and to serve as a facilitator between parents and the District at a student’s education plan meetings. She estimates that each year, she assists approximately 200 families by answering questions and attending education plan meetings. She also distributes an electronic newsletter to those parents. Learn more at Parent Mentor Program. Contact Palda at email@example.com or 216-295-4372.
The PTO also offers a Special Education Parent Group, which meets monthly and is open to any District parent. The group often invites guest speakers from the District to address special education issues and to answer questions that parents may have. For more information about the PTO Special Education Parent Group, contact India Isaac-Curtis, firstname.lastname@example.org, 216-456-4512.
Last year, parent Jennifer Osborne founded the Autism Support Group. “We wanted a support group to help process and encourage open discussions about how we handle the challenges of having a child on the spectrum,” she says. Email Osborne to learn more about the Autism Support Group, email@example.com.