The Relay Approach to Special Education

January 5, 2017

The Relay Approach to Special Education

Focus on practice and mindsets prepares Relay participants to be highly effective special educators.

Today, Relay announced that it tripled its special education offerings during the 2016-17 school year. After launching two special education programs in New York in 2015-16, Relay now offers special education programs for teachers in New York, Newark, New Orleans, and Chicago. 

With its new special education offerings, Relay is not just meeting the demand for special education programs, but  revolutionizing the way that special educators are prepared—and hopefully increasing the likelihood that they will stay in the profession.

Nearly every U.S. state—49 out of 50—reported shortages of special education teachers in 2013-14, and demand is expected to increase by 6% until 2022. The problem is even more extreme in low-income communities: A staggering 90% of high-poverty schools reported difficulty recruiting highly qualified special education teachers, compared with 50% of all school districts. The shortage of special education teachers is due in part to the high numbers of special educators who leave the profession: At 12.3%, the rate of attrition is double the rate of departure of general education teachers.

Erin Larkin-Maguire, Dean of Special Education for Relay, is acutely aware of the need for more talented, committed special educators. 

“We don’t just need special education teachers: We need a relay of highly effective special educators who can collaborate to impact student growth and advocate for students’ needs. The higher turnover we see in the field is largely due to the fact that teachers aren’t as prepared or supported as they should be,” said Larkin-Maguire.

An Integrated Approach
The Relay approach builds upon core fundamentals of successful teaching, applying Relay’s philosophy of deliberate practice and focused feedback to special education. The curriculum codifies the specialized skills, knowledge, and mindsets that are required for special education teachers to go beyond basic differentiation and effectively tailor instruction for exceptional learners. 

Dr. Paul B. Yellin, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at NYU School of Medicine and Director of the Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education, recently reflected upon the rigor of the Relay approach.

“I had the opportunity to collaborate with the Relay special education team, and I cannot say enough about the knowledge, professionalism, intellectual integrity, rigor, sensitivity, and creativity that infused every conversation and interaction,” said Dr. Yellin. “I was constantly stimulated and challenged to expand my horizons and sharpen my thinking.” 

Relay offers two core programs for special education teachers: a one-year advanced certificate program for experienced teachers, and a dual-certification program as part of its two-year Master of Arts in Teaching.  Both programs are supported by one of the most extensive libraries of special education videos in the field. Students watch dozens of exemplars of teachers modeling effective special education instruction as part of their course work. The techniques are designed to move the needle for exceptional learners, but they also represent best-practices that can be effective for many general education students. 

Another core component of Relay’s program is the Intervention Intensive. In this focused practicum, graduate students work one-on-one with an exceptional learner over the course of the year, designing specialized instruction and tracking the student’s progress toward individualized goals. 

“[This program has helped me] make learning more engaging and exciting for my students. I have found that when I use principles of specialized instruction, it benefits all of my classes, including the suggestions that I make for my general education students in the classroom,” said Kimberly Guillen, a 9th and 11th Grade English Language Arts teacher at Holcombe L. Rucker High School in the South Bronx.

Impact from the Classroom to the Community
Relay special education programs prepare teachers for success in diverse school environments, but they are especially impactful for teachers working in urban schools with large percentages of low-income families. 

Ayanna Bridges, a kindergarten teacher at KIPP McDonough 15 Primary School in New Orleans, returned to her home city to teach after receiving a master’s in general psychology and child psychology at the University of Minnesota. She cites the advocacy skills she developed through Relay’s dual-certification program as one of her greatest assets in serving students and families in her home community.

“The [Relay Dual Certification in Special Education] program has given me the necessary tools and key mindsets to effectively communicate with colleagues, parents, and administrative staff about how to best support the needs of the communities I service—while keeping the end goal in mind, which is the growth and development of the student,” said Bridges.

Bolstered by the positive reception among graduate students and school leaders, Dean Larkin-Maguire and team are continuing to refine the program and pursue strategies to expand its reach. In the 2017-18 school year, Relay plans to launch special education programs at new campuses, and the institution is exploring an opportunity to offer a 100% online course for remote learners.

“Students with exceptional needs deserve teachers with exceptional skills, and we’re working with a great sense of urgency to ensure that more teachers have access to programs that we believe can make a big impact on students and their families,” said Larkin-Maguire.