November 16, 2023 | by Dr. Khalil Graham
In sports, at the end of a season, a coach evaluates the team’s performance, identifies areas of strength and weakness, and immediately begins making plans to build off successes and address any shortcomings. During my first season as “head coach” at Kairos Academies, the successes were many, but we have the humility to know there is always room for improvement.
One area of focus is better serving our students with learning differences. We are proud that Kairos has developed a reputation among St. Louis families as a caring and welcoming environment for this group of children. This reputation explains, in part, why nearly 1 in 4 Kairos students receive special education services.
But, in candor, our student outcomes have yet to match the loftiness of our goals. COVID impacted all students but the shutdowns were particularly devastating for students who need extra support to be successful.
So during the “offseason” we went out and recruited the best “Offensive Coordinator” we could find. Jeremy Lo–or J. Lo as we call him–is our new Director of Student Support Services. He joined Kairos this year after a successful tenure overseeing elementary special education at Portland Public Schools.
Jeremy is tasked with ensuring Kairos becomes an inclusive school that meets the academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs of all learners. Some of that is the challenging behind-the-scenes stuff that sounds minor but is essential to promptly complying with regulatory requirements. But the more important part of the job is building the systems for data analysis, paired with coaching and training, to ensure that our educators have the tools they need to teach rigorous content to all types of students. Here’s just a sample of the kinds of training Jeremy is making sure the team receives: trauma informed care, social-emotional learning, science of reading, math intervention, STEM instruction, culturally responsive practices, non-violent crisis intervention systems, and understanding the differences between intervention, acceleration, enrichment, and remediation.
Jeremy is setting the direction and building the systems. It is up to our amazing team of educator all-stars to ensure students are receiving the services.
Educators like Tamara Bluitt-Spann and Andrej Bajer.
Tamara is an NDL (Neurodivergent Learner) paraprofessional. She has 23 years’ experience working with students with learning differences. And that experience translates into an extraordinary ability to build relationships with students and families. For parents who have a question or concern related to their child, their first call is often to Tamara.
Tamara doesn’t just serve the students in her caseload. She provides assistance to whoever needs it. This simple practice is just one example of how Kairos’ educational model is aligned with what is considered best practice in special education: namely providing an inclusive environment that helps ALL students.
Tamara also serves in our mentoring program. All students are assigned an educator who provides consistent, structured guidance on everything from academics to postsecondary options to whatever is going on in a child's life. Tamara is grateful that last year a student felt comfortable confiding in her about a very personal matter. Tamara reported it to a counselor who, in turn, provided the student with the services she needed.
At Kairos “There’s no ‘my kids’ or ‘your kid.’ It’s ‘our kids.’ It’s real inclusivity.”
For Andrej Bejar, special education is deeply personal. A refugee of the Bosnian war, his family settled in the United States and he learned English from watching Dora the Explorer. He was placed in special education classes with a diagnosis of disfluency that he attributes to his exposure to so many different languages as a young child.
It was one teacher who changed the trajectory of his life. That teacher told him:
“If you have a disability, it just means you have to work harder. If you leverage your strengths, you can do anything.”
And so he did.
Andrej vowed to become that kind of teacher to his students and to find a school that instilled that mindset into all teachers. He believes he found it in Kairos.
As proof, he cites the meaningful collaboration between the general education teachers and the special education teachers. In previous schools, his experience was that the special education teachers were siloed and seen simply as “the paperwork team,” and the general education teachers would refer to his caseload as “your students.”
Here, he has been impressed that general education teachers see the special education teachers as partners to meet the needs of all students.
“There’s no ‘my kids’ or ‘your kid.’ It’s ‘our kids.’ It’s real inclusivity.”
As we approach the end of the “first quarter” of this “new season,” I’m grateful for the progress we have already made and optimistic about the improvements still to come. At Kairos, the belief that all students can be successful isn’t some empty slogan; it’s a promise.
I hold myself and my entire team accountable to making this promise a reality, day in and day out, for all of Kairos’s students.