A holistic approach to special education

January 22, 2018

Nicole Mayeux is the Transition Coordinator at Cohen College Prep and a 2016 New Orleans Excellence in Teaching Award winner. When we asked her why she teaches, she shared with us the following. 

One word haunted me during my first year teaching— “college”. But not for the reason you might expect.

The original mission at the high school I still teach at, Cohen College Prep, was: “To prepare all students to enter and excel in a rigorous four-year university.” This message was ambitious, but was not always inclusive of the students in my self-contained special education classroom.

My high school students experience significant cognitive delays, meaning they function academically at a fourth grade level or lower. They are not on a traditional college-bound diploma track. Before I began teaching, I worked at a social services agency for adults with disabilities and I knew what awaited my students if the status quo remained.

So how did my students fit into our mission? What was a rigorous outcome for my students? How could I close the achievement gap for them? My students needed educational equity, and they needed educators willing to think outside the box in order to provide it.

To address this, I worked with our school and network leadership team to launch The Academy of Career and Community Education, or ACCE Program. In the past three years, ACCE has grown from serving four post-12th grade students with one teacher to twenty-two students across the high school grade band with three lead teachers and five paraeducators.

The cornerstone of our model is the belief that self-determination is the single most important predictor of adult independence and success for students with disabilities. Choice-making, self-regulation, and problem solving instruction can be found in every ACCE class, from a science lesson where students pick their seating based on their self-evaluated learning needs to a life skills lesson where they role play how to mitigate conflict with a coworker.

Most students in ACCE are on track to receive the newly-developed LAA-1 Career Diploma. Career readiness and community-based learning are central to our course progression. In the same way that AP classes are meant to reflect the rigor and expectations of a college-level course, ACCE students are able to earn paid internship opportunities at local businesses that prepare them to be successful in a competitive job market.

As ACCE has evolved to meet the needs of students on alternative pathways, so has New Orleans College Prep. Now, our mission is: “to prepare students with academic and life skills for success in college, career, and beyond.”

When I think of what it looks like to live out this mission, I think about Tyreck. When Tyreck started at Cohen, before the creation of ACCE, there was no clear path for his transition. I knew that he was capable of achieving a high level of adult independence, but we weren’t teaching him the real-world skills he needed to succeed.

In his homeroom advisory, he was learning about the persistence rate of first generation college students at Ivy League universities. What he really needed to know was how to answer questions at a job interview, how to cook a healthy meal for himself, and how to get money from an ATM.

Since participating in ACCE, Tyreck has received targeted, hands-on instruction in these areas, as well as support in identifying his professional skill set and choosing a career goal. By the time he graduates, he will have completed three paid internships–one at Goodwill Industries, one at Congregation Coffee, and one at Treme Coffeehouse–each one with a glowing recommendation from his employer.

Recently, Tyreck showed me picture of himself wearing his work shirt with the caption “The King of Coffee.” It is that confidence, along with an ACCE education and a professional resume twice as long as most high school students, that will prepare Tyreck to meet his most rigorous goals in adulthood.

I teach because of stories like Tyreck’s, and for the opportunity to be a part of a progressive, holistic approach to special education. I teach in pursuit of the goal that all students in New Orleans with significant disabilities will be the kings and queens of their futures.