The Albuquerque Public Schools have been talking a lot lately about expanding choices and opportunities for students living in Albuquerque.
One way we have done this for many years and will continue for many more is through the district’s special education programs. I recently had an opportunity to visit one of the district’s newest initiatives, the three-year-old Autism Center housed at Highland High School.
At the Autism Center, which provides services for students in kindergarten through high school with autism-spectrum disorders from around the district, I saw an example of how the district’s special education staff is committed to supporting students’ academic and social development no matter what obstacles they may face.
I also got to spend time with students who were able to demonstrate to me that they are able to learn academic skills with the help of not only their supportive parents and teachers, but also with the assistive technology that enables them to communicate and function in a school setting. I won’t soon forget one student who wanted to talk to me about football and a ring I was wearing. Making that connection helped him continue his work, and I was glad to be a part of his day even for just a few minutes.
April is National Autism Awareness Month and as more youth are diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorders, schools and school districts are at the forefront of providing these youngsters the assistance they need to prosper not only academically, but also socially.
These students and others in APS’ special education programs are becoming more and more successful. Last year, Albuquerque Public Schools saw the four-year graduation rate among special needs students increase almost 14 percentage points to 63.1 percent. For students with disabilities who make it to their senior year, the results are even more dramatic with 94 percent of those students graduating in 2013, up from 79 percent in 2011.
These gains come as a result of more research-based explicit instruction programs in reading and math and more programs for students who are very low-functioning academically. The district also is doing more training to help both regular education and special education teachers become more effective in helping the district’s 13,477 students with disabilities.
APS also has added assistant principals at schools with large special education populations. This year, there were 17 APS schools with assistant principals dedicated to guiding students, parents and teachers as they navigate their way through the special education programs designed to help them.
The staff of the APS Special Education Department also helps schools serve these students by providing rigorous reviews of each student’s individualized education plan or IEP, going over graduation requirements with parents and developing transition plans as students move between classes and schools and into the world outside of school.
So as the district seeks to expand its Schools of Choice, it has not forgotten the many students with disabilities and their families who choose Albuquerque Public Schools to get the support they need to be successful. The district is planning to open a second Autism Center in the northeast area of the city in the next two years, while at the same time continuing to serve all special needs students, no matter where they attend classes.