Supporting Students With Special Needs

A rural school in Oklahoma uses innovative initiatives to create a culture of support for all students.

By Emily Nickell and Emily Springer
February 2020, Volume 43, Issue 6


When they say passionate and supportive leadership helps an initiative prosper, they are not kidding. Case in point: The superintendent at Yale Public Schools—a rural district in a town of just 1,200 people—has a child with special needs and a clear vision of how to help his building leaders support special education in his schools. Part of his plan sees this population of students become active participants in the regular classroom.

At Yale Elementary School, only 207 pre-K–5 students attend. Of those students, 72 percent receive free and reduced lunch and 50 of them have IEPs. Despite such a small population, our school still caters to children a range of needs.

Supporting Teachers

If you support teachers, they will be better equipped to support students. At Yale, that started with iPads for classrooms, paid for by school improvement funds. The school also features a data wall in the professional development room to track student literacy. Every child in the school has a name tag on the wall, which are moved up and down, depending on student performance. This helps all of the staff see how students are performing and leads to both formal and informal discussions about how to help students improve.

Yale is incorporating Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into the school. UDL has elements that help both students with disabilities and students without disabilities. This led to the school installing FM systems in their school to assist students with auditory and hearing impairments differentiate the teacher’s voice from other sounds around them and helps them understand directions better. It also amplifies the teacher’s voice to the entire class, which benefits all students.

Using Teletherapy

All Yale students with special needs have speech therapy in their IEPs, which proved difficult to do when the school’s only speech language pathologist moved out of town. This challenge led the team to an innovative solution: Teletherapy.

This generation of students has no fear of technology, and Yale students are no exception. They adapted well to the online speech therapy sessions. The online platform provides so many different resources to use during sessions that when a session is going differently than planned, a bank of other resources are available to help steer the session back in the right direction.

Building Student Community

At Yale, the staff use response to intervention to build community within the school. Through the MAP Reading Fluency Assessment from NWEA, they use data to group students for what they refer to as “Walk to Read.” Students with similar abilities are grouped for reading instruction. During “Walk to Read” times, students walk to a classroom to be with other students on the same reading level. Groups are small—with 5-10 students per group, and every educator in the school participates, including the PE teacher. Students read for about 20 minutes and receive instruction based on their skill level. It is a great way for teachers to work with students they may not see on a regular basis and it allows all students to be a part of a small peer group.

It’s because of the Yale Public Schools superintendent, who remains present for his administrators and teachers, that Yale Elementary has had the chance to dream big and use innovative strategies to help all students in the school feel like a community. He attends school sporting events, and truly gets to know his students. He’s sat with students who’ve been struggling and played a speech games with them to help them learn. His involvement has trickled down to the district’s campuses and has helped school administrators listen to their teachers and support their students. It’s also helped shift the school culture to focus on inclusiveness.

Emily Nickell is principal of Yale Elementary School. Emily Springer is a speech language pathologist at PresenceLearning.


Copyright © 2020. National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP's reprint policy.