Disabled by circumstance
Children with learning disabilities ought to be provided the education they deserve
Earlier this month, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell spoke at Goochland Middle School about the importance of expanding educational opportunities for students across the commonwealth. He proposed a number of changes designed to empower parents and educators, including more informative school report cards, fewer administrative hurdles, and changes to the state’s teacher certification legislation that would pave the way for alternative certification programs like Teach For America to come to Virginia. I was encouraged to hear the governor address the importance of giving every child an excellent education because it is one of the most pressing issues facing our generation and one that we all have the power to influence.
When I was a fourth year at the University of Virginia in 2009, I would never have imagined that in just a few months “pretend play” and “make-a-letter yoga” would be among my top priorities. But such priorities are key aspects of my day now that I am teaching preschool and pre-K special education at Powell Elementary School in Washington, D.C. I joined Teach For America to ensure that every student, not just the ones growing up in affluent communities, has access to the excellent education that all kids deserve.
Now I have the privilege of providing special education instruction in four amazing classrooms of three- and four-year-olds at the outset of their educational journey. Most of the students with whom I work have developmental delays and disabilities, live in poverty and are entering school for the first time. Their relationships with their homeroom teacher and with me form the foundation for their future success in school and beyond. If I am able to help build their confidence, nurture a love of learning and develop the skills they’ll need to be active learners, they will set out on a path to realize their full potential.
For children who share my students’ background, the challenges of poverty mean that they start their academic careers already behind their peers in wealthier communities. These economic disparities cut across racial lines: half of the achievement gap between white and African-American children in 12th grade is present before kindergarten. If allowed to persist, that disparity develops into lower high school graduation rates, lower rates of college attainment and limited career and life options. But research shows that children who attend high-quality pre-K programs are more likely to achieve academically, earn more and avoid involvement with the criminal justice system later in life. With the right support from families, community members and dedicated educators, we can give children in low-income communities the chance to fight educational inequity before it takes hold.
This is the most meaningful work I can imagine because of students like Ariel. I met Ariel and his mother at a home visit before the start of school. When I asked his mother if she had any concerns about Ariel entering pre-K, she began to cry. She explained that Ariel had been kicked out of his past school because he was hitting and kicking teachers and students. She worried that he would be expelled for violent behavior again. If he could not be successful in the American school system, she would have to send him back to his grandmother in Peru. I assured her that the teachers at Powell Elementary would love her son, give him the support he needs to be successful and never give up on him. Despite a difficult transition to school, within six weeks, Ariel had learned appropriate ways to deal with his emotions. Thus with individualized support, regular breaks and one-on-one time with teachers, Ariel not only showed his kind, loving personality (he is the best hugger) but also began to excel academically. Ariel is now one of the highest achievers in the class and consistently surprises those around him with his memory and advanced reading comprehension skills.
Pre-K is a critical time for learning, one during which teachers have an especially meaningful opportunity to put their students on the path to a lifetime filled with positive options. Research shows that more than 85 percent of the brain develops before the age of five. To this end, I see my students, including Ariel, learning and growing every minute of every day.
Since I know that we can close the opportunity gap for our youngest learners, I simply cannot walk away from this work. Like many of my fellow Teach For America corps members and alumni, my experience will be a lifelong commitment to educational excellence and equity. It is more urgent than ever that we give all children, regardless of family income, an education that allows them to reach their full potential.
Kira DeMartino is a 2009 Teach For America alumna teaching in the Washington, D.C. region and a 2009 graduate of the University of Virginia.