Urban Collaborative examines intersection of disability, race


Kelly Jasper

Pedro Noguera, distinguished professor of education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, was the keynote speaker. 

As racial desegregation of education became law, so began the practice of over-identifying minority students as disabled and again segregating them from the mainstream.

“Special education started as and is a civil rights legislation. It’s always been about the civil rights of people with disabilities. The two are deeply intertwined,” says Lauren Katzman, executive director of The Urban Collaborative, a national organization of more than 100 school districts leading inclusive and equitable schools and based at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. 

“Depending on who you are, special education is either a blessing or a curse. There are so many racial overtones that are really problematic,” she says. “The history of special education is amazing for kids with disabilities and also used as a tool for segregation. Culturally and linguistically diverse students are segregated more, suspended more, over-classified more — with life-changing or life-threatening results.”

That legacy led the Collaborative to dedicate its recent fall member meeting to equity, diversity and inclusion at the intersection of disability and race. More than 250 members, partners and sponsors from 80 school districts in 23 states gathered in Chicago for the meeting, hosted by Chicago Public Schools just days after teachers returned to work following an 11-day strike in the nation’s third largest school system.

Urban Collaborative members at fall meeting

“Each meeting has a theme, chosen in collaboration with the host district,” Katzman says. “This issue of race and disability is a very important and substantive topic for all of our school districts, including Chicago.”

Janice Jackson, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, spoke, along with keynote speaker Pedro Noguera. Noguera is the author of 13 books, including “Race, Equity and Education: The Pursuit of Equality in Education 60 Years After Brown,” and is a distinguished professor of education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. 

“His ability to speak to the truth of what is not working and couple that with specific examples of what is working in schools is a gift,” Katzman says. “Hard truths, hope and tangible action is a powerful combination that our members respect and find incredibly useful."

 During the meeting, members served as consultants to Chicago Public Schools, focusing on two issues selected by the district: how to bring the use of evidence- and research-based instruction to scale across the district and how to ensure that every student with a disability has equitable access to the general education environment. Members also visited local schools and heard presentations on implicit bias, codes of conduct, disproportionality, instructional support, leadership at the central office and literacy. The real goal, however, is connecting with colleagues who offer valuable perspective and expertise, Katzman says. “I see this group as a professional learning community. We're addressing issues that don't have simple answers. I've never done a consultancy in which everyone didn't relate in some way, shape or form."

 The Collaborative hosts its next member meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in May 2020, dedicated to the topic, “Leadership: Building and Sustaining Equitable and Inclusive Practices.”