How Do Vocational Schools Support Students with Disabilities?

Students learn construction techniques during class at William E. Grady Career and Technical High School.
Photo Credit: Anya Schultz

It was loud inside Room 101 at Brooklyn’s William E. Grady Career and Technical High School on a cold Tuesday afternoon in early February. Teacher Jose Santiago, 42, ever vigilant, had his eyes peeled for danger in his construction class.

His students walked around the oversized classroom in sturdy work boots, hammering nails along the perimeter of a large plank. It was just two weeks into the spring semester, and the class was laying the foundation for a mock doctor’s office that they planned to build and take down before school was out for the summer. Every so often a student would fire up the professional grade electric saw.

“It’s a very fun class,” said 17-year-old Judah Connor, a junior who said it’s easier for him to focus in construction than in his other academic classes in the Brighton Beach vocational school. Judah and his classmates wore yellow hard hats and personalized work shirts as they carefully nailed down the wooden beams. “It’s very interactive.”

Six out of the 17 students in Santiago’s section have a learning disability, an unusually high percentage for any class without a second special education co-teacher in the room, or with only one teacher who is not trained in special education.

Unlike other academic classes with a significant percentage of students with learning disabilities, vocational classes are not required to provide special education teachers alongside general education teachers.

Career classes are where special education students are most likely to succeed, but where special education teachers are not required to be. Across the state, students with learning disabilities are 25 percent more likely to graduate high school if they are enrolled in a vocational program, according to a 2016 report by the non-profit Advocates for Children of New York.

At Grady, the proportion of students with learning disabilities is 40 percent, a full 23 percent higher than the citywide average. In this class, there’s only one Santiago, who constantly has his eyes peeled to every corner of the workspace, and blows his NBA whistle whenever he sees something unsafe.

“There’s so many dynamics in a classroom that it’s very difficult for just one teacher to manage all of that,” said Santiago, adding that he could use an extra pair of eyes. “I mean especially in here, there is machinery everywhere. And these kids, when they are going, boy they are going.”

Santiago, who’s taught construction at Grady for close to 20 years, prides himself on paying close attention to all his student’s needs, but admits it takes a hawk’s eye and patient demeanor. Judah Conner used to have a learning disability in elementary school. Now, he is not one of the 40 percent special education students in the school. But, his teacher said, he still needs extra one-on-one attention.

“Judah’s very good, but he works at a different pace than everybody else,” said Santiago. “I slow it down for him because the room is moving fast, but it doesn’t mean he has to.”

Grady is one of about 1,000 vocational high schools across the state, and the school offers five different vocational programs – construction, nursing, information technology, culinary arts, and automotive engineering.

Santiago himself is a graduate of Grady, which has changed dramatically since he first set foot on campus 28 years ago. He grew up in foster care on neighboring Coney Island and found mentors at Grady, including his construction teacher Steinrich Adams who is still at the school. Santiago graduated in 1996, and he went straight into a five-year teacher-training program for vocational teachers.

When Santiago began teaching construction at Grady in 2003, the school had close to 2,000 students filling up the three-story building and campus that sits a few blocks from the beach in the largely Eastern European neighborhood. But, with the graduation rate of 43 percent, the state designated Grady as a school in need of improvement with the threat of closure hanging over its future if it did not.

Over the next few years, Grady’s student population slowly declined, and in 2010, Grady was slated for closure. The state gave the school $1.3 million to transform, and current and former students and staff rallied around the school, fighting for its doors to remain open.

“We were always seen as a school for underachievers. It was students who couldn’t hack it in a Madison or Midwood or Stuyvesant,” said Santiago, listing top ranking city high schools.

When Tarah Montalbano became the principal in 2013, Grady had met its targets and was no longer in danger of closing, but the graduation rate was still below 50 percent and enrollment had declined.

“You have to think about the quality of the applicants that we received at that point,” said Montalbano. “Who’s going to apply to a school that was just closing?”

As enrollment declined, the percent of students with learning disabilities rose incrementally, from 25 percent in 2012 to 40 percent in 2018. Montalbano suggests it’s a byproduct of losing enrollment and having a reputation as a failing school. It can also be traced back to the Bloomberg administration’s policy of school choice, that slowly resulted in more segregated schools by race, by income levels, and by levels of students with special needs. 

Under Montalbano’s leadership, the school’s graduation rate rose to 75 percent, which she credits to the rise in students with special needs using “safety nets,” meaning they can graduate with a lower Regents score than general education students.

While the school’s graduation rate is higher, enrollment remains an uphill battle. Grady currently has 427 students, over 80 percent of whom live in poverty, and over half who are chronically absent. The student body is predominantly male, and close to 60 percent of the students are black, while the district is predominantly white and Asian, according to city data from last school year.

Grady has the second highest population of students with learning disabilities in District 21, trailing closely behind a Coney Island transfer school that specializes in students who haven’t been able to succeed in other high schools. Grady has more than two times as many students with disabilities as a nearby high school, Rachel Carson High School for Coastal Studies. Last year, the district’s schools averaged 18 percent special needs enrollment.

Ten years ago, there was a move for more inclusive, integrated classrooms for the more than 224,000 students with disabilities in New York City public schools. In 2012, the city rolled out an overhaul for just that – integrated co-teaching classes put students with disabilities and general education students in the same classroom, with two teachers. In New York, the United Federation of Teachers limits these classes to 40 percent or 12 students with disabilities. With so many students with learning disabilities at Grady, the school often can’t comply with these regulations.

“You don’t want the kids to know who’s a special ed teacher,” said Traci Srour, a special education teacher who’s taught at Grady for close to 30 years.

In room 237, Srour co-teaches a sophomore algebra with general education teacher Pam Hendrix. Srour works to keep up with Hendrix’s curriculum expertise, while she reads and implements student’s special needs plans; prompts like utilizing graphic organizers, extended time, visual verbal cues, chunking of information, repetition, or prompting.

“I feel like as a special ed teacher, I tolerate more in the classroom. Whereas a general teacher may walk by and feel as though its lack of discipline,” said Srour. “My only bag of tricks is to kill them with kindness.”

But downstairs past the cafeteria, students in Grady’s culinary program, the largest career technical program at the school, do not have the benefit of a trained special education teacher in their classroom.

On a recent Monday, the 20 students in Eva Yourman’s newly renovated culinary classroom had trouble sitting still. The afternoon sun shined reflected against the raised, metallic workbenches and the walk-in fridge. The class, about half boys and girls, had cooked French onion soup the week before. Now Yourman, who worked as a pastry chef for 26 years before coming to teach at Grady, asked the class to answer questions about soup in their journals. “In full sentences, so I can read them please,” Yourman said.

Half a dozen students stood up and down from their stools, and left the classroom on their own or without asking permission as Yourman tried to help students one-on-one. Eventually, Yourman began a PowerPoint about their next lesson: how to make sauce.

“I’m here by myself. I don’t have an assistant. I don’t have a paraprofessional,” said Yourman. “So, if you want to sit in the hallway, I can’t chase you, because I have to worry about the kids that are in here.”

Yourman focuses on budget-friendly meals that she hopes her students will be able to repeat at home. “I know I’m not really training chefs,” said Yourman. “Most of what we do is chicken. The students always ask me, ‘can’t we make lobster?’” The school, she added, cannot afford to buy lobster.

Connie Spohn, of the CTE Technical Assistance Center of New York, an organization that works to improve vocational programs, said managing students’ learning disabilities is a challenge faced by vocational teachers statewide.

“They are very passionate about their trades and they do their trades extremely well,” said Spohn, of vocational teachers. “And sometimes it’s very difficult to keep track of everything that’s going on in the classroom when you have multiple students and nobody’s provided you with all the strategies that you need. And you’re thinking that your job is to prepare students for the workplace.”

New York State has a requirement for career and technical teachers to take six credit hours for teaching special needs students, but Spohn says it’s not enough.

“I think schools need to think about how they better support the students with disabilities. I think it’s probably more a cultural change, realizing that this isn’t going to go away,” said Spohn about the rise of students with learning disabilities in vocational programs. “Everybody needs to begin to say this is my job, not just the special education teacher’s job.”

Spohn said Perkins, the name of a federal fund for career and technical programs, is taking more of an interest in success of students with disabilities in this year. Two years ago, Spohn’s organization began to offer vocational teachers in upstate New York free daylong trainings about working with students with disabilities.

Inside Grady, veteran construction teacher Steinrich Adams prepared to begin his sixth period drafting class. His students, all freshman, slid into their seats and shouted over music playing from the class computer. Hundreds of hand drawn floorplans were piled up on the tables and tacked up on the walls.

“Guys, guys,” said Adams, calling the class to attention. Out of his 25 students, 14 have a learning disability. Most days they draw detailed construction measurements and trace complicated floorplans on large sheets of paper, but Adams said it can be intense and frustrating for some students. So today, he has a different plan: origami cranes.

“Even the kids struggling here, they’ll get a chance to build their confidence,” Adams said. He uses origami to help his students relax as they practice measurements.

When Adams, originally from Trinidad and Tobago, started teaching construction at Grady 25 years ago, there was a stand-alone trade shop for students with disabilities. Now, students are integrated in the classroom, and Adams, similar to Santiago, tries to give each student individualized support. In drafting class, it might be graph paper instead of plain paper for an assignment to draw a floor plan.

Downstairs in Adams’ senior construction class, the bell rang, but his students ignored it, hard at work laying the foundation for the two studio apartments they were building. The class has 11 students, three of whom have learning disabilities.

“You all want to continue,” Adams shouted over the hammering and electric saw. The second bell was about to ring, but the boys didn’t want to stop. “A lot of these kids don’t have much reinforcement of success,” said Adams. “In an environment like this, they can see something tangible.”

This year, Adams secured six spots for his graduating seniors to join construction unions, from long standing relationships between Grady and 18 different unions. The students still have to pass exams and trainings, but if they make it in, they’ll have job security and a head start in the workforce.

There are several contradictions at Grady. The school’s demographics don’t match the district. It’s big enough to hold 2,000 students, but it’s currently filled with just over 400. The school’s large auditorium is rarely used, while the corner of the third floor has been converted into a therapy wing for its students who need one-on-one or group counseling. The kitchen, fresh off a $1.2 million remodel isn’t yet training chefs. 

Yet, despite over a decade of challenges, Montalbano, Santiago, and the teachers at Grady stand steadfast by their school. “It’s a crown jewel that not too many people know about,” said Santiago. “Grady is perfect because it addresses every learning dynamic a kid has. Teachers here have a level of patience you don’t find at most schools.”

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