With the help of community leaders and parents of children with disabilities, School of Education professor Tracy Knight is teaching students about the problems faced by children with disabilities and their families.
Creating Special Education Partnerships
Growing up in an impoverished section of Jackson, Mississippi, School of Education professor Tracy Knight witnessed the problems her family experienced in negotiating the special education system to obtain help for her brother, who had a severe speech impediment. Her mother tried to work with the public school district but became frustrated with the system’s unfamiliar terminology, policies, and processes. Knight vowed to someday find a way to help families become effective advocates for their children. |
Knight has developed a new course for special education majors in the School of Education that incorporates the experiences of parents of children with special needs and the expertise of urban community leaders. These parents and community leaders are co-facilitating the class with Knight so students receive firsthand knowledge of the struggles urban families face negotiating the special education system. The course is funded through SU’s Vision Fund, which was created to stimulate innovative approaches to teaching and learning. “Even though it’s a class, it’s also a community partnership,” Knight says. “The class is designed to enrich my students’ experiences and teach them to develop relationships with communities they will work with in the future.”
Knight actively recruited families, community leaders, and service providers to work with her on the class, which was offered for the first time this summer. She also works with Sharon Dunmore, a special education doctoral student, mother of four, and wife of the Rev. Sherman Dunmore of the People’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Syracuse. Despite her many family, church, and student responsibilities, Dunmore devotes time to the class because she believes it’s important for future educators to understand the social construction of the areas in which they may teach. She says students with disabilities are much the same as those who traditionally have been discriminated against because of race, class, or gender. “People with disabilities are often made invisible in society, and we need to acknowledge their needs,” she says.
A key issue for Knight’s class is learning about the cultural climate in urban communities. Knight says most urban school teachers and administrators don’t live in the communities where they teach, but she believes they must learn to understand the influence the communities have on the children. “You’re not just teaching children, you’re teaching their parents and your teaching colleagues,” Knight says. “What happens in the home happens in school and vice versa.”
Knight’s students also are learning about the social structure from which the children come. Sharon Dunmore says the role of the church and the extended family in a child’s development is crucial to understanding the social structure in urban environments. She says clergy and grandparents are often the most prevalent role models for children. Frequently the grandparents or pastor attend school meetings because parents may be having trouble dealing with their child’s disability. “Grandparents are often the safety net that keeps children from falling through the cracks of the special education system,” Dunmore says. “They’re a family’s Rock of Gibraltar. And I know from my own family’s experience that many look to their reverend for guidance when dealing with the school.”
The Rev. Sherman Dunmore is among the community members co-facilitating the class. He feels that some of the most important work he does with the class is sharing with students an understanding of what parents of children with disabilities will need from them as teachers. “Sometimes teachers are misguided and think they have to rescue the kids,” he says. “Many times, being a rescuer is detrimental in the long run. It is a lot more effective to help the kids and their families learn to help themselves.”
Knight says it’s important to keep interaction between community members and the University alive. “Syracuse University is a great resource to the community, but many parents I’ve met don’t see it that way,” Knight says. “This class is designed to create a partnership with community members that shows there are people on campus who really care about them.