Freshmen John Hanson (left) and Robert Doobay (center) work together on their final papers for their Composition 1 class, while Daniel Hamilton (right) studies for his final in Intro to Health Professions. “Studying outside is a much better environment compared to being cooped up in the library or in our dorm rooms,” said Hamilton.
Children with disabilities are consistently challenged in the classroom to make strides in their education, and now with an increase in special needs independent club sports, they challenge themselves to excel athletically.
Competitive cheerleading is a sport that has been around for decades and incorporates stunting and tumbling. It is a sport which takes a tremendous amount of coordination and ability. Competitive cheerleaders range from children in first grade all the way up to seniors in high school, some divisions even allow college students and adults to compete.
But each year special needs competitive cheerleading teams are increasing in size, number, and popularity. There are special needs competitive cheerleading club teams across the state of Florida, and many more located in other states across the nation.
Florida Top Dog All-Stars is a competitive cheerleading gym located in Clearwater. Athletes of all ages and skill levels come in and out of their gym, but one group of kids in particular is especially important to them. The team goes by Top Dog Too, a team devoted to children with varying disabilities.
Top Dog Too holds practices once a week for an hour and a half, and like the other teams in the gym, they attend various competitions throughout the year. They have five scheduled competitions to attend this season. Dawn Graham, a former athlete of Florida Top Dog All-Stars, has a younger brother Chad, who has a special place in everyone’s heart at the gym. Graham was on the original Top Dog Too team, and is still going strong as well as playing on a special needs bowling league.
“For him to have the chance to participate in this is truly amazing,” Graham said. “It is extremely beneficial, keeps him active, but most importantly he has fun and loves performing in front of people.”
David Hoppey, special education professor, says these club sports are enormously helpful, even for children with more significant disabilities.
“I believe they should be allowed to participate on the level they can compete whether it be Paralympics, Special Olympics or on regular youth, high school, or college sports teams,” he said.
According to USA Gymnastics, sports that are especially fundamental and movement education based sports provide tremendous benefits for children with special needs.
The coaches and other athletes who assist this team are well trained and know each particular athlete’s limits. With this information, they try to incorporate everything into their routine so that every child feels special.
Co-teaching is an approach using two teachers in each class that was first made popular in the 1990’s. Recently, it has resurfaced in special education.
According to the Council for Exceptional Children, interest in co-teaching is higher than ever due to the No Child Left Behind Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act authorizing greater access, a less restrictive environment, and highly qualified teachers.
With co-teaching, there are two teachers in each classroom. One teacher’s main concern is the general education of students and the other teacher specializes in working with students with disabilities. The general education teacher’s main focus is what information and lessons will be taught, while the special education teacher’s responsibility is how to get that information across to the students.
David Hoppey, a professor in the Department of Special Education, has mixed feelings about the co-teaching process.
“It is not always done effectively,” Hoppey said. “But, when done properly, it can really help students.”
There is no concrete data on the effectiveness of co-teaching. Most information available on co-teaching is what the concept is and what the steps are to make it effective. However, there are testimonials and reports available to the public that contain great feedback from students. More complex answers come from the teachers. Some teachers comment that they worry about the appropriateness for the non-special education students in the class.
Many factors in the classroom can affect the statistics and studies of co-teaching. The ages and schedules of the students can play a major role, as well as the teacher’s knowledge and experience in the field.
Special education major Greg Berkowitz believes that a major factor in the effectiveness of co-teaching is the chemistry between the two teachers. If the two teachers cannot work together, it will affect the classroom and learning opportunities for the students.
“I see co-teachers as radio or TV show co-hosts,” Berkowitz said. “They play off each other’s strengths and make up for each other’s weaknesses.”
The students majoring in special education at USF got an opportunity to run a summer school program for elementary and middle school students at Pepin Academy in Tampa. The college students were put into classrooms where they would be co-teaching together. Berkowitz had the opportunity to work with someone with whom he had excellent chemistry. His strength was explaining the content to the students, while his co-teacher’s strength was making it enjoyable and fun.
“The students enjoyed these games immensely and learned from them,” Berkowitz said. “I loved working with someone who had a different teaching style to bounce ideas off of.”
In Hillsborough County, about 75 to 80 percent of public schools participate in co-teaching, and that number is growing. There are many workshops available for teachers and administrators on scheduling and incorporating co-teaching into the classroom.
Sheryl Koscso works in the Department of Exceptional Student Education for Hillsborough County Public Schools and believes co-teaching can go either way.
“There are concerns for teachers who have not been properly trained for co-teaching,” she said. “But, I think when it is implemented and done properly, there are a lot of strides for students not only academically, but socially.”
A shortage of special education teachers has been apparent for years, but recent changes in federal and state educational guidelines may be making the situation worse.
Students majoring in special education at USF have noticed a change in their program. It began with 45 enthusiastic students but has recently dropped to 30 students with varying concerns about their career choice. Students are reconsidering their choice due to their fear of the lack of jobs on the market when they graduate. One professor, David Hoppey, warns that recent legislation reforming education is particularly tough on special educators.
“Since students with disabilities often struggle with learning, and teachers will have to show how students have improved over the year, this is problematic,” he said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill in March stating that tenure would be eliminated in Florida. Teachers will be paid based upon their classroom attendance and their student’s performance on tests. This stirred up controversy and questions among teachers. On one hand, it could reduce the number of teachers who have not received proper education and training, but on the other, a teacher cannot control which students they have in their classroom and what a particular student’s outlook is on the importance of education.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act specifically frustrates current and prospective special education teachers due to the standards that are expected from schools and students. Teachers are not always able to choose their school. When teachers are placed in a school whose students come from unstable and poverty stricken homes, they are at a disadvantage.
Kelly Cassidy is a senior majoring in special education. With no fears about her career choice, she is more than excited to jump into the field and touch the lives of her future students.
“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for people with disabilities and I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “But I wanted a teaching job that I could learn from as well, and everyday I learn something amazing from my special needs students.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, excellent job opportunities are expected because of the increase of enrollment of special education students nationwide, and the amount of special education teachers switching to regular education classrooms.
While students with disabilities excel, it is just not in the same timely manner as general education students. With the provisions in the act, this may portray special education teachers to be unqualified, where it is merely just the pace of the students they are educating. It may look as if special education teachers aren’t doing their jobs, rather than rewarding the small strides their students are making.
According to the U.S. Department of Education for the 2011-2012 school year in Florida, there is a lack of teachers for students with disabilities ranging from mentally handicapped, speech/language impaired, physically impaired, emotionally handicapped and students with autism spectrum disorder.
Special education classes are offered for all ages. Adarius Payne currently works at Wiregrass Ranch High School. He is one of the staff members who help with the special needs children. While the revisions to education policies have alarmed him, he found this group of children an admirable group to work with and grew a lot from his experiences. But he wasn’t the only one who learned from them.
“Students in the regular education classes are more than thrilled to help educate and spend time with their fellow peers,” he said. “Many students begged me to write them notes to get out of their class to come to my classroom and go on trips with my students.”
Education for special needs children may not be all about standards and scores. If imposing stricter government regulations on those remarkable schools and teachers who choose to work with special needs children runs the risk of them making a different career choice, we all lose.