In the first KIPP classroom, over 20 years ago, a large banner read, “ALL OF US WILL LEARN.” That phrase remains at the heart of what our teachers and students believe and prove every day. We are particularly proud that the 18% of our KIPPsters who receive special education services are on the path to and through college. To date, 90% of our students with IEPs have graduated within four years which is double the statewide four-year graduation rate of students with IEPs. Our students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are transitioning to and persisting in college at the same rate as their general education peers.

To learn more about special education at KIPP NYC, we sat down with Craig Varsa, our Director of School Psychology.


How is KIPP NYC supporting students with IEPs?

Craig: In elementary schools our primary model is Integrated Co-teaching (ICT) or Collaborative Team Teaching (CTT), which means there are two teachers in every classroom. One is a general education teacher and one is a certified special education teacher. The best classrooms are the rooms where you walk in and you don’t know who the general education teacher is or who the special education teacher is. They are completing each other’s sentences. They are hitting all the needs of the kids.

In our middle schools, the structures are evolving. At some schools we have a robust ICT model and at other schools we have a few ICT classrooms for the 5th and 6th grade with the support waning, or at least changing format, as students progress. We want to insure our students are adequately supported and also build their independence at the same time.

At the high school, we do SETSS (Special Education Teacher Support Services) with a variety of specialized supports for students who have unique needs, including smaller classes for some students. They have the staffing and structure to truly differentiate and individualize programs for students.

What are some of the tools and programs you use for students with special needs?

Craig: We use a variety of programs, such as Read 180 and System 44, which are specialized reading program for kids with significant reading comprehension or word reading delays more commonly known as dyslexia. When kids come to us as new 5th graders, regardless of whether they’ve been formally identified as having a disability or not, we often put kids in those programs so they can get the specialized form of reading help. We don’t want them to fall farther behind and we don’t want to wait for us to refer for an IEP to see if kids really need this. We just want to give them what works, and kids are doing really well in that program.

How do we support our teachers to do this work?

Craig: We build time into our teachers’ schedules to co-plan. If you try to do integrated co-teaching without co-planning, it’s like you walk into the class and you’re fighting fires; you don’t have a road map. So we give teachers time in their schedules to sit down and think through what the lesson plans are going to be, which kids are going to have challenges in that day’s lesson, and try to modify it so that 100% of the kids are accessing the materials.

Additionally, our staff has ongoing professional development workshops with SPED Directors or Deans of Teaching and Learning who also go into the classroom to provide real time instructional feedback.

Aside from teachers, what are some of the roles and functions of your team?

Craig: We have six speech and language therapists who are creating a preventative program through a response to intervention model. They work with kids who show early signs of literacy delays at the K-2 level. And instead of waiting to refer, these students get flagged and we try to get them to a point where they don’t have a bona fide disability. We can prevent them from sliding further behind.

We have a school psychologist who does functional behavior assessments and behavior intervention plans when a student’s behavior starts to get in the way of their own success. She really puts a lot of deep thought into why kids are doing this. Some of our schools have a Collaborative Problem Solving initiative. There is a philosophy that “kids do well if they can.” They are not purposefully avoidant or purposefully defiant. It’s environmental demands overwhelming their capacity to negotiate their environment. It’s up to us as adults to meet them where they are and have them develop the skills that they need such as executive functioning (organizing, planning, language, social skills). Through conversations and relationship building, we help them develop these skills so that we are not saying this is you, you, you, but rather it’s really about “us” working together with kids and families.