An Alternative to Special Day Classes: PUC Schools Implements a New Approach

June 17, 2013

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In the past, students with special needs were separated from their classmates and pushed into separate classes and schools. Over the past decade, educators have moved from exclusion towards inclusion. But how do you design a school program to support that approach? In 2010, PUC Schools piloted a new model.

Partnerships to Uplift Communities (PUC Schools) runs 13 charter schools serving grades K-12 in high-need communities across Northeast Los Angeles and the East San Fernando Valley.

The Problem

PUC believes in full-inclusion for students with special needs, but as the number of students with moderate to severe disabilities increased, they had "a lot of grappling to do," said Kaye Ragland, Director of Inclusion and Special Education for PUC Schools.

"Pullout doesn't work, special day classes don't work. What do we do if everything in history hasn't worked?" said Ragland. "PUC's Guiding Principles are the underpinnings of what we do with special education. Every employee knows what they are; they're in our handbooks and everyone understands that this is what PUC is about. Special education isn't just another thing we do. Inclusion is what we believe."

The New Approach

In 2010, PUC opened its first Scholar Success Center (SSC). Each SSC is staffed with two Special Education Teachers (one who teachers English language arts and another who teaches math) and two Special Education Assistants.

"Our goal is to get the students out," said Ragland. "This is a temporary program." Unlike special day classes or pull-outs, the students travel with their general education cohort for all their classes, then go to the SCC during math and language arts time. There, they are still learning grade-level standards, "but the power standards," with skill building.

"We wanted to avoid one pitfall of special day - sometimes they're missing other things in their general class," said Ragland.

Students are referred to the program by teachers, and their acceptance is conditioned upon meeting the following criteria:

  • Recommended for a special day class in previous school
  • Minimum of two years below grade level in ELA and math
  • Failing grades
  • Qualifies to take the California Modified Assessment (CMA)

"Collaboration is built into the fabric of the daily functioning at PUC. I know and I believe that's the reason we're successful. You have to have relationships," said Ragland. "You can't throw a program at people and hope it works without building support systems for all the people involved."

Inclusion specialists meet with ELA and Math teachers two times a month at a scheduled time, and, at some of the SSC sites, there is an added layer of collaboration with history and science teachers.


The program piloted at two middle schools and now serves 74 students at five middle and high schools. The students' special education eligibilities include: Specific Learning Disability, Other Health Impairment, Autism, Traumatic Brain Injury, Emotional Disturbance, Hard of Hearing, and Intellectual Disability.

Of the 13 students in the first year of the program, six have gone back into full inclusion. 43% of students who were in the program for two years tested advanced on CMAs, and the students are passing the majority of their classes.

Less measurable, but just as important: parents like the program, and Ragland says she has seen a shift in student attitudes. One of the students was elected to the student body by his peers and three made honor roll.

"These are students with such a history of failure. These kids believe they can be successful and have goals and aspirations. Even more powerful is that now the general education students also believe in them."

"Over the past five months, I have seen tremendous academic, social, and emotional growth from my students in the Scholar Success Center," said the ELA teacher at Triumph Middle School. "The first big change that I noticed was the increase in my students' confidence. They began to participate, ask questions, and share comments in the small group setting. In a reading survey given at the beginning of the year, twelve of my fourteen students reported that they did not like reading, never read for fun, and did not have any strengths when it comes to reading. All of my students were reading several years below grade level and many of the struggled with basic comprehension skills. In the past five months, we have read several short stories and a novel in each class. Many of my now students volunteer to read aloud in class, not just in the Scholar Success Center, and are continually improving their ability to decode unknown words and read aloud with appropriate pacing, intonation, and expression."


"It wasn't easy," said Ragland. "The logistics are daunting. It's a lot of resources, time, space, and teachers for a small number of students."

Ragland said the biggest challenges for implementation are: scheduling, staff knowledge training and curriculum organization.

She also said that a major hurdle is changing attitudes - not just of students, but of teachers.

"Philosophically, there are a lot of general education teachers that believe 'those kids' belong in special schools," said Ragland. She said there still isn't enough support for general education teachers at many schools and teacher training programs give them little preparation for supporting students with severe needs.

"It's fair that they feel that way - I focus on 'How do we help them understand that they are capable if we create the right systems?'"

Ragland said it was important to schedule collaboration time with general education and special education teachers for months out. It is also imperative that staff receive appropriate training and development and are given time and support to design a curriculum that meets the needs of the particular group of students they will be serving.

For more information on this program, contact Merry McOlvin at PUC Schools.

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