Urban Collaborative holds October conference in Tempe, Arizona

Urban Collaborative members meeting
September 19, 2023

Teams of special education district leaders across the nation will focus on how school systems can be designed to be more responsive to the needs of youth with disabilities during this fall’s Urban Collaborative membership conference, which will be held in Tempe, Arizona October 4–6.

Based at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, the Urban Collaborative has grown to become a national network of more than 100 school districts in 28 states, including some of the largest in the nation. Members convene twice a year in a conference format to share knowledge around special education supports and services as a means of providing equitable opportunities for students with disabilities. Members also address social justice issues such as racial and ethnic disproportionality in classification, segregated classes and disciplinary practices. (Learn more about how your district can join the Urban Collaborative and participate in conferences). 

This meeting’s theme,“How are the children?: Stories of youth empowerment” builds on the Collaborative’s past work on youth-centered experiences. Executive Director Lauren Katzman, shares what are some of the issues on the forefront of the members’ minds and how special education services can become even more effective, inclusive and equitable.

Tell us about the theme for this fall’s conference, and what inspired it?

This fall’s conference theme builds on the spring conference’s keynote speech. Our extraordinary keynote speaker Gloria Ladson Billings, who elaborated on the conference’s theme of “Taking Action: Anti-Racist District Practices,” shared with us the phrase "kasserian ingera,” which means “ how are the children?” This is a question that the Maasai in Africa ask each other as a greeting. It demonstrates how children are seen as a reflection of a society’s well-being. 

We saw an opportunity to expand that focus on youth for this fall’s meeting. Our keynote speakers for October include Javier Zamora, a New York Times best-selling author and poet who will talk about his nine-week odyssey migrating  from El Salvador through Guatemala, Mexico and then to Arizona. Darold Joseph, director of the Institute for Native Service Educators, will focus on culturally-responsive schooling as it pertains to indigenous communities. Perhaps most exciting is that our opening keynote session will be a panel of students from Pendergast Elementary School District who will be describing their experiences with empowerment. 

In what ways is the Urban Collaborative advancing special education policy and research?

Special education has provided some of the most important research and effective practices in education today. The research on literacy, the use of educational technology, collaborative planning and teaching, and personalized learning (think individual education programs, or IEPs) all started in special education. 

For Urban Collaborative, our aim through MLFTC is to leverage our internal and institutional resources to better connect research, policy and practice on behalf of the special education community. That includes being part of Project OASIS, which is an MLFTC initiative focused on addressing special education issues at the regional level.

In addition to being a convener of knowledge and effective policies and practices, we are also exploring several research-based projects that can help inform systems and policy. For example, we are interviewing special education directors to create a clear representation of the scope of their work in ways that can help us support districts to provide effective and equitable special education services. We are also developing tools that can help districts better assess whether their equity practices include a focus on students with disabilities, and we hope to be piloting that soon with a few districts. 

How would you assess the state of special education over the past few decades?

Special education has both improved the lives of students with disabilities, while also resulting in barriers to students with disabilities, and that tension persists. We must remember that both special education and school desegregation were put into practice at similar times. Special education was borne from the work of disability rights activists and has provided protections, resources and practices to create equitable opportunities. In the beginning, special education was focused on access to schools, which led to special education in self-contained, segregated environments. Concurrently, these special education classes gave a space to those pushing back on the school desegregation movement, so at its onset, while special education was protective, at times, it was also used to segregate students by race. Even with progress, there is much work for us to do in ensuring positive protections and supports for students remain, while addressing lingering negative implications, such as special education’s part in the school-to-prison pipeline. 

How did the pandemic inspire new approaches toward supporting the needs of students with disabilities and special needs? 

Currently, about 15%of students are designated as special education, and yet a recent survey by the National Center for Education Statistics indicated that schools do not have enough special education teachers. That need was true before the pandemic, and it has become even more critical. The pandemic created an urgent need for special education teams and districts to try new things in a very accelerated way. It created an immediate need for all students to have access to technology, and it was used in many ways to provide access to students with disabilities. Technology allowed more collaboration between families and schools, as well as between special and general educators. The pandemic also required us to focus on the social and emotional well-being of students. And some youth actually felt more at ease with a degree of remote learning. 

What are some of the main issues you and Urban Collaborative members will be focusing on in the upcoming year?

Building on the October conference, our members are interested in focusing on ways that districts are designing educational practices that put students at the center of learning experiences. Specifically, we see a need to address areas such as the disproportionate classification of culturally and linguistically-diverse student populations, segregated educational environments, and disciplinary practices that can disproportionately affect these students.  Another area of interest is in how to best develop and leverage partnerships to support students, their families and communities. 

Collaboration is key, and the more voices and participation we have, the stronger we can be in supporting the work of education systems. Since the conference is in Arizona this year, we also want to extend our invitation to school districts in the state to become a member so that they can join us and benefit from this and future meetings and collaborations with colleagues across the country. Reach out to the Urban Collaborative: urbancollaborative@asu.edu

This story is part of an ongoing series that highlights the relevance of special education as part of a wider effort to address systemic improvements in education while increasing access, personalized learning and opportunity for all students.