Commentary: Ensuring Equity and Excellence in Education

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As a former special education teacher those children remain near and dear to my heart. This year our theme for Leader U, our annual conference, is Ensuring Equity and Excellence in Education. We will have respected teacher leaders and presenters from across the state leading professional development classes on important topics that address issues such as poverty, trauma, special needs and more. We will have breakout sessions for Administrators and Teachers and student educators, and we welcome community leaders and parents with special needs children to attend. You can register to attend at www.leaderutn.com or by calling 615-778-0803.

Why this topic? Simply put, our members continually ask for assistance in this area. Out of the 961,000 students, nearly 130,000 children across our state are receiving special education services according to the latest data. That number has likely increased for the 2016-2017 school year. Those children deserve the best education possible. And our organization is committed to helping those children, by assisting those on the frontlines educating special needs children.

In 2016, we helped, along with Representative Joe Pitts and Senator Dolores Gresham, to address the growing issue of dyslexia. These legislators worked hand in hand with us and the Tennessee Department of Education to develop a long-term strategy, and to establish a permanent council at the Department to advise the Commissioner and her team. This issue was brought to us by Montgomery County teachers, who continuously advised us and fought for their children. Legislation was unanimously passed by the Tennessee General Assembly for Dyslexic children. MTSU Professor, Dr. Timothy Odegard, will outline practices at Leader U to identify characteristics of dyslexia using various sources of student information. This is followed by a practical discussion of instructional methods appropriate for students with characteristics of dyslexia. The session ends by reviewing common accommodations provided to aid students with dyslexia to demonstrate their potential in the classroom.

In 2016-2017, we worked behind the scenes with deaf educators across the state on a couple of deaf education issues. The first was to work with the Tennessee Department of Education and the Tennessee General Assembly to pass a measure that allows students to take American Sign Language and get credit for their foreign language requirements. We next need to work with institutions of higher education to accept that for admission. Around 40 states already recognize ASL as a foreign language requirement. Senator Becky Massey and Representative Roger Kane championed this issue. Senator Massey was passionate about this issue. She said “Tennessee passed a law allowing kids to take ASL for credit back in the early ’90s, but lawmakers never made sure it got implemented. She said the new bill assures that it will.” One of our members, Tracy Duncan, really led the charge for our involvement in deaf education. She organized, orchestrated and drove the agenda. Her advocacy has forever changed the education horizon for countless.

We are also hoping that Deaf Education will get more attention by raising awareness of their issues, and educators will get the tools they need to educate their students. At Leader U we feature a session led by Dr. Lynn Hayes from Vanderbilt University, which will focus on instructional strategies (e.g., acoustic highlighting) that teachers and paraprofessionals can use in the classroom to make it more accessible for students with hearing loss. We will look at the educational environment and how to make our classrooms acoustically appropriate for all students. In addition, we will discuss how best to work with the educational team including the interpreter, itinerant teacher, and speech language pathologist.

These are just a few of the issues that will be addressed at our annual conference. Our advocacy efforts carry significant weight with legislators. We take your voice to the policymakers, skillfully advocating for your priorities and rights. Our efforts are nonpartisan and focus only on public education in Tennessee, not outside issues. We know our members care deeply about public education. That is why we provide opportunities to get involved and effect change yourself.

We invite you to attend Leader U on June 30, 2017, at MTSU. More importantly we want you to know we listen to our members and your voice is being heard at the Tennessee General Assembly. Our members define our legislative priorities and advocacy efforts, and we make sure our professional learning activities align with our member needs.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter @jcbowman. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.

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