At Queens High School of Teaching, Liberal Arts and the Sciences, every child has the chance to grow and develop to their fullest potential because no child has to struggle to simply belong. Queens is an amazing school where seniors help a wheel-chair bound classmate to mount and ride a horse; where a student with special needs is selected prom queen; and where one female classmate invites a male classmate with challenges to the prom because she doesn’t want him to be left out. Forty years after the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law’s spirit, not just its letter, is alive and thriving at this extraordinary school. “Inclusion is the cornerstone of our school culture,” says principal Jae Cho. “Our philosophy of respect and acceptance for all students is a non-negotiable one that impacts every aspect of our school’s life.”
First opened in 2003, in partnership with the Institute for Student Achievement, Queens has a student body of 1,200 students, 21% percent of whom have special needs. “Our students’ disabilities run the gamut,” explains Cho. “They are not screened for admission; this is an opportunity high school, and we take all levels of students from the highest performing to the lowest performing. The only consideration for not accepting a special needs student would be the student’s safety.” Queens also supports about 30 students from District 75, which serves some of the New York City Department of Education’s most severely challenged students. “It is important for our special needs students and our general education students to be fully integrated,” Cho states. “All of our sports, arts, and after school activities are full inclusion.”
The high school is organized in small learning communities of 400 students each in grades nine through twelve. These three communities operate as semi-autonomous small high schools with their own leadership team and professional staff. Within each community, students are grouped into cohorts by grade level, and teachers are assigned to their specific cohort of students. This structure promotes strong teacher-student, teacher-teacher and student-student relationships. “It is these relationships that make it possible for us to personalize the school experience for every student’s academic, social, and emotional growth,” says Cho.
A valued member of every grade-level teacher team is the special education teacher who is an integrated co-teacher for students with an individual education plan (IEP). The cohort teacher teams, including the special education teacher, work and plan together at least three times per week;and the special education teachers from all of the cohorts come together six times per year for professional learning and improvement. The teachers design effective co-teaching strategies, ensure that they all have shared expectations of special needs students, and decide which skills and knowledge will be the priority for students who are also served by the special education teacher in the Resource classroom. “If the student’s IEP calls for additional support outside of the general education classroom,” Cho explains, “the special education teacher is also the resource teacher for that cohort and can easily connect and reinforce the general education classroom instruction.” The cohort teacher team meetings also guarantee that the special education teacher is up-to-date about the current focus of the general education curriculum and her students’ understanding of it so that she can support their learning in the inclusive classroom setting. If the curriculum is challenging for some special needs students, the special education teacher uses strategies such as pre-teaching and tailoring lesson plans to differentiate instruction so that each student will continuously learn and grow. It is apparent that the collegial professional learning at Queens flows both ways. Many of the general education students who may struggle with mastering certain concepts or skills benefit from the strategies that special needs teachers share with their general education colleagues. “You cannot create and sustain this kind of inclusive culture and truly live it every day without exemplary, committed staff members,” Cho stresses.
The cohort model fosters understanding and friendships among students as well as collegial relationships among staff. The culture at Queens encourages genuine acceptance of differences, not just tolerance of them. If some general education students enter ninth grade unsure or hesitant about how to interact with classmates with special needs, they have shed their hesitancy by 12th grade and no longer see classmates as having or not having special challenges. They see them as individuals and as friends.
Parents are also a key component of the school and its culture. Queens makes sure that parents understand its mission from the very beginning. All materials and initial conversations with parents are transparent and clearly emphasize that the school is fully inclusive. Every class and every activity include special needs students. “Most of our parents fully embrace our philosophy,” Cho says. “They want their children to be able to accept, understand, and interact with a diverse population of students and adults, including those with special needs.”
The data bear witness to the success of the school’s philosophy, approach, and structures. Among its many achievements the school can tout a:
- 90.4% graduation rate. (The borough graduation rate average is 71%.)
- 92% college enrollment rate
- 97% teacher attendance rate
- 93% student attendance rate
- 95% parent satisfaction rate
The school also received a “Well Developed”, the highest rating a school can receive, on all the School Quality Reviews.
Maya Angelou’s poem “And Still I’ll Rise” could easily be the mantra for this inspiring high school for: ‘Just like moons and like suns; with the certainty of tides; just like hopes springing high’ every student at Queens has the chance every day, despite their challenges, to rise to their full potential.