In line with Democracy Prep’s shift towards defining itself as a network of high support/high achievement schools, co-teachers Jess Wall and Emily Ritchings have pioneered a new special education program at Democracy Prep Harlem High School (DPHHS) called PACE (Plan for Advocacy and Collaborative Education) to provide classroom instruction with a 12:1 scholar to teacher ratio.
The scholars’ academic growth is staggering. Because of the individualized instruction they are receiving, every single PACE scholar met or exceeded their Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test math growth targets. 75% of PACE scholars met or exceeded their MAP test reading growth targets. Many of these scholars have not met their targets or shown substantive growth in years.
Not only do PACE scholars receive instruction in smaller classes, they are also taught from a specialized curriculum, part of which Jess and Emily created specifically for the program. 9th grade PACE scholars take pre-algebra, a guided reading course, a literature course, a biology course that has been stretched over two years, and an advocacy course. The advocacy class works with students on developing skills like organization and executive functioning.
“The advocacy course was such an important concept because for so many of our students, yes they struggle academically, but in life, figuring out the angle measure of a triangle is not going to be the thing that makes or breaks your day,” said Jess. “But being able to speak up on your own behalf if you are confused, didn’t understand something, or if someone isn’t treating you well, that is so important.”
Emily evaluates what skills scholars need help with on an ongoing basis to make sure the course is relevant to student needs.
“Emily has really made the advocacy course something that is unlike what we do in any other school,” said Jess. “Every kid is getting a slightly different touch. That comes from Emily’s dedication to making sure that every student is really known as a child here so that we can meet those needs.”
Jess and Emily strive to empower their scholars in every way possible, academics and otherwise. They wanted to build a culture where their PACE scholars felt included in the greater DPHHS community.
“It’s important to us that our kids are part of our school and not ‘the PACE kids’ in the building,” said Jess. “They are wonderful and the community will benefit from being around them as much as they benefit from being around the community.”
There are many opportunities for social interaction between PACE and non-PACE scholars. PACE scholars are in a general-education setting for ICT Global History and arts classes, lunch, advisory, and they also participate in extracurriculars and athletics.
“They’re part of the DPHHS community, and the leadership team here at DPHHS has worked extremely hard to make sure that staff feels that way and that students, both general-education and PACE, really feel that way too,” said Jess.
One of Democracy Prep’s core tenets is that the network serves all scholars. This enthusiastically includes those with distinct learning, health and/or language needs, and those that may require special services through an IEP, 504 plan or ELL status.
“It feels really special to be a part of a place like Democracy Prep that is genuinely committed to serving all kids and does what it takes to create these settings and make it happen,” said Jess.
DPHHS’ inaugural PACE scholars have thrived. They report that they feel much more comfortable in school, and they participate much more. Some of the scholars have even doubled their GPA.
“So many families are just so excited because for the first time…they are getting the services that they are entitled to have, and kids are flourishing,” said Jess.
One scholar who never participated or spoke in class now raises his hand to answer every question. Even if he doesn’t get the right answer, he keeps on trying.
“It’s about comfort and feeling of belonging and knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes, and we’ll work through them together,” said Jess. “Kids are also very excited to be successful. It’s really cool to see that.”
Looking forward, Jess and Emily are working towards creating individualized graduation pathways for each PACE scholar. They are committed to creating different pathways to success at the right pace for each and every student.
After a successful pilot year, the PACE program at DPHHS will grow to include 10th grade next year. Bronx Prep High (BPH) will also begin a 10th grade PACE program. Jess and Emily encourage innovative special education teachers who are ready to creatively take on a new challenge to apply to be a founding teacher of the Bronx Prep program.
“We have such a blast doing our job,” said Emily. “For any teachers who are looking for something a little bit different, a different challenge, this is something that feels very innovative right now, particularly when you think about how special education happens in the charter world.”
Are you or someone you know ready to become a founding PACE teacher? If so, apply now!