Setting Big Goals For Scholars With Disabilities: Laying the Groundwork for High-Quality Programs

Like any successful endeavor, defining the goal at the start of a new program is critical to achieving success in the end. At Collegiate Academies, this philosophy holds true for planning Intervention and Special Education programming. We work passionately to create schools that prepare all scholars for college success. Throughout our network, we believe that every scholar, no matter their current abilities, barriers, lagging skills, or diagnosis, is able to achieve and deserving of a rich life. We work to ensure that every scholar has the maximum opportunity to become active, independent, prosperous, and happy citizens in our community and the world at large.

At Collegiate Academies, we serve one of the largest populations of high school students in New Orleans with low incidence disabilities, including autism and intellectual disabilities. As the Director of Scholar Support for our network, I am frequently asked questions about our college prep programming and goals, our vision for all scholars, and what I mean by “maximum opportunity.” These are among my favorite questions to answer about our schools.

So many thoughts race through my brain when planning a response.

First, I believe it is extremely urgent that our country adopts the philosophy that meaningful post-secondary education for scholars with disabilities is critical to the success of diverse learners. This philosophy is similar to the way of thinking taught by our esteemed colleagues at Think College. Think College is an organization that, “is dedicated to developing, expanding and improving inclusive higher education options for people with intellectual disabilities.” They are doing wonderful work to advance this cause across the country.

As we wait for this innovation to be the new normal, my thoughts simply land on rigor.

We strive to provide our scholars—especially our scholars with low incidence disabilities—with an appropriate level of difficulty in tasks, or rigor. The right level of rigor in the classroom produces maximum scholar learning and therefore prepares kids for maximum opportunity in their post-secondary worlds and, later, in their adult lives. The Intervention and Scholar Support Department at CA adopted a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG), an idea promoted by Jim Collins in his book Built to Last. The BHAG for our department is: “All diverse learners attending a Collegiate Academies school will achieve their most rigorous post-secondary outcome and prove what is possible.”

This BHAG is more than an inspirational statement. It drives our work daily. We think about it when planning a lesson, facilitating an IEP meeting, and when launching new programs. This BHAG is our North Star, our motivation, and what we strive to achieve in our work with diverse learners every day. We ground our work in the belief that no matter a child’s current abilities or lagging skills, it is our responsibility to teach them to lean on their strengths and to push them to constantly grow, exceeding the expectations of what their perceived potential may be and preparing them for their most dignified post-secondary outcome. Rigorous outcomes equal dignified opportunities and prosperous life outcomes. This is what we want for every scholar at the culmination of their time with us.

We believe that the most rigorous outcome for the majority of our scholars is college. For some of our scholars, though, it may be anything from career and technical training to supported living and employment. When a scholar with a more severe disability walks across our graduation stage and signifies the end of their time with us, we must be able to say that the scholar completed rigorous tasks, worked toward their maximum potential, and that an engaging, dignified opportunity is available to them post-graduation. We will celebrate with them just as we would with their classmate heading off to the best liberal arts college, confident that both students are going on to pursue rigorous and dignified outcomes.

We recognize that this mission is large and ambitious, and in a world of individualized education where scholars have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), this mission can often seem extremely overwhelming. At these times, we remind ourselves that our mission is also incredibly motivating, helping to connect us to our beliefs and reminding us why we do this work. To help turn our ambitious mission to action, we let the following tools guide us:

Our BHAG: What are we trying to achieve? We constantly return to our BHAG to guide us and our work.
Mindsets: We are confident that ALL scholars can and will grow with the right support, instruction, and programming.

Outcomes Matrix: Our Outcomes Matrix is a roadmap for our programming in each school to ensure that we are providing the appropriately rigorous academic and social learning opportunities individual scholars need to effectively work toward their rigorous outcomes, and thus maximum opportunity.

Data: We collect data constantly on every scholar, every program, and every skill. These data points show us where our scholars currently are on their path to where we believe they will be.

Once you establish your BHAG, I am a firm believer that it is critical that you cultivate a growth mindset and deeply believe that every scholar is capable and will achieve his or her maximum potential. Teaching can be really challenging at times, and it can test this belief even for the most committed educators. I think it is our responsibility and honor as leaders of intervention and special education programs to acknowledge this challenge for our colleagues, scholars, and families, and reassert our confidence in our scholars’ capabilities. They will inevitably struggle along the way. We must consistently support them and allow them to do the same for us, in a style that cultivates constant growth.

We must problem solve, remain positive, and develop solutions that combine innovative supports with traditional techniques that ultimately ensure results for students that maximize their opportunity. As leaders of special education and intervention programs, we must truly embody what it looks like to have a growth mindset and how to apply this mindset to any scholar who may be struggling. We must create a supportive culture among adults who are unwavering in their belief that any scholar can and will be successful. And, we must be fearless about trying any strategy or technique that can make this a reality. I believe that this is the strongest tool in our pursuit of the BHAG.

Establishing a BHAG and developing a strong growth mindset are two of the crucial and foundational steps necessary to achieve when building high-quality special education programs. In my next post, I will focus on the ways that our Outcomes Matrix and process of data analysis help us follow through on our ambitious mission and ensure success for all scholars.

Click here to read more about the Outcome Matrix

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