TEQ #16: We SPED Through the Ages – Judy Margolin

“Great teachers empathize with kids, respect them, and believe that each one has something special that can be built upon.”- Ann Lieberman

Believe in children and watch each individual claim ownership of their educational milestones. As a learning specialist for nearly 50 years, primarily at the secondary level, special education has taken on many forms and changes. Often, the so-called changes are merely renamed, and tried again, where once they were either unsuccessful or didn’t meet the outcomes expected at the district level. My career has taken me on an adventure across a variety of models. It began in complete isolation of all special education students, hidden in basements, asbestos-lined tunnels, or way beyond the school structure secluded by the all mighty Oaks at the back of the parking lots.

Classroom environments have moved from resource centers, where students were set up with individual basic skill packets, to English and Math classes taught by special education teachers aligning curriculum with general education requirements. This version transitioned students into general education classes once their confidence and skill levels met proficiency.

Co-taught classes, in which general education and learning specialists share the teaching of an integrated classroom, were the next step in the progression of support models. The goal of this format was to enable special education students to fully participate in general education academic classes alongside their non-handicapped peers. In the development of successful co-taught classes it is essential to maintain a strong voice over the number of IEP students within your classroom; in my experience 33% of your classroom enrollment is an ideal SPED to general education ratio. The co-teaching model provides teachers time to develop lessons in which learning expectations are set through daily and long-term targets, not only for the class as a whole, but for students needing SDI (specially designed instruction) in order to meet set targets.

Students’ learning milestones are adjusted to meet their ability to succeed; through collaboration teachers ensure specially designed instruction is made available to a diverse population of students targeting individual skill levels, whether it be adjusted grade-level of reading material, availability of audiobooks and/or use of online tools such as a word predictor or speak to text program.

The co-teaching model has provided students with equal experiences, gains in self-confidence, and the want to take risks and collaborate with peers. Students are encouraged to strive for success, no matter how long it takes to reach their goal.

Encouragement comes through teacher comments and conferences, not a letter grade, which tends to deflate confidence towards progress. Positive mindsets are developed, and we can hear students state, “ I’m not there yet, but almost!” Formative and summative assessments are used to measure overall gains, and when students are provided mini steps and small group re-teaching, gains fall in place. Most of all they feel included, independent and noticed, which speaks volumes above “Did the overall % of SPED students pass their state tests, if not co-teaching must go.”

This leads to the latest change in SPED services, the “Collaborative Teacher” or “SDI Coach”. As a learning specialist, my primary role will be to develop SDI for HS SPED juniors and seniors in 15 English classes. The opportunity to meet with the 3 instructors once per week to review lesson plans, targets and ensure materials are within the performance levels of students is an exciting pathway. Within this model, though not a new one, the learning specialist has the opportunity to design their own weekly schedule, focusing on classes and/ or students in need of the most assistance, and station or parallel teach within the classroom along with the general education teacher, as needed.

Personally, I want to make sure I am connected to “our “students, seen as an equal, continue to have the ability to “notice” each one, and encourage the continuation of growth in confidence and academic gains.

Belief in children and watching each individual claim ownership of their educational milestones is a pathway upon which we must continue – no matter how the current trend of services is provided.



Judith Margolin has been a learning specialist for the past 46 years. She began her career in NYC teaching extreme behaviorally challenged preschoolers and other health impaired primary students, before moving to Oregon in 1976. She retired from the Reynolds School District in 2003, teaching at Reynolds Middle School.  While at Reynolds, Mrs. Margolin initiated the first inclusion program in Oregon, which was considered a model for the rest of the state. During this time period she also acted as a consultant at Portland State University, speaking to up and coming special and general education teachers on the ins and outs of IEP accommodations/modifications and designing an inclusive classroom. After retirement, she has been employed through the Evergreen School District in WA, at Heritage High School. Throughout her 15years at Heritage, Mrs. Margolin has experienced numerous transitions of service models.

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