Field Trip: Equity, Part 3: Special Education is an Equity Issue


Racial equality is an important factor in ensuring every student has access to the general education curriculum. But equity in special education goes deeper yet.

What does equity in special education mean? What does it look like? Today we’re speaking with Dr. Dorothea Gordon, Executive Director of Special Education at Grand Prairie ISD in Texas. Dr. Gordon helps to set a baseline definition for equity in special education, shares some highlights of GPISD’s program that have proven effective, and looks at some of the pressing issues facing educators working in special education in today’s world.

  • Professional learning to support special educator effectiveness
  • The challenges that racial minorities – often African American and Hispanic males – face in schools, especially in disciplinary situations
  • The most important factors when considering how to provide equitable access to education for all students


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Full Transcript  

DOROTHEA GORDON: We’re not taking the time to really understand the context when we interact with our scholars. What we see and how we react are based on our own biases, right? Our own realities and not taking the time to really understand them. Who you are, who they are. This one little boy who standing in front of you.

And the effects of not understanding them, not taking the time to do that, gets us where we are today across our nation.

Welcome to the podcast for leaders in K12 education. Whether you’re in special education, HR, or the business office, whether you’re a superintendent or a principal or a school nurse, we’re bringing you stories from across the country to support you in the great work that you’re doing.

From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.

RYAN ESTES: Today I’m speaking with Dr. Dorothea Gordon. She has served in education for 35 years, began as a teacher, then a special education teacher. She eventually became an assistant principal and then a principal, a coordinator for AVID, and then took her current role as Executive Director of Special Education for Grand Prairie ISD in Texas. When we spoke, she called it her “love job.”

I had spoken with Dr. Gordon several times in the past, I watched her present at a Frontline conference, and it was clear that of the many things she is passionate about, somewhere close to the top of that list are 1) special education, and 2) equity — ensuring all students have equal access to education.

RYAN ESTES: Dr. Gordon, it’s really good to have you with us.

DOROTHEA GORDON: Thank you so much for inviting me.

RYAN ESTES: I wanted to speak with you today about the topic of equity in special education in the US and as a special educator. When you look around, can you tell me, what is your take on that? Do our schools have the kind of equity that you would like to see when it comes to special education?

DOROTHEA GORDON: We have made great strides. However, we still have a lot of work to do when we look at equity for our special education scholars. I’d like us to start with a working definition so that we can all be on the same page when I’m talking about equity. And so, when we look at equity, we wanted to ensure access to the services and opportunities that we’ll give our scholars, given our scholars’ unique circumstances.

So what does that mean? We need to ensure that we provide the structures and the tools that our scholars need to navigate their world, again, given their unique circumstances.

So, how do we know what services our scholars need? How do we determine what structures that we need to provide for them to function academically and functionally? These are the basic foundation guiding questions. What sources of data are needed to understand them? And so we need to make sure we have a clear picture on that.

Okay, so at the beginning of this conversation, I was expecting a discussion about equity in special education to revolve around race. Questions like, “Are racial minorities more likely to be incorrectly classified for special education, and if so, why, and what’s the way forward?” But Dr. Gordon went even broader. Special education itself is an equity issue — supporting students, giving those who might not otherwise have it, access to education.

So at this point, it’s probably easiest to give you a brief picture of special education at Grand Prairie ISD, and how Dr. Gordon and her team approach this issue of equity in their own district.

DOROTHEA GORDON: And, of course, we will always begin with our scholars’ present levels of academic and functional performance. We want to analyze all sorts of data. And what does that look like in Grand Prairie in special education? Well, of course, we have the formal data and we have the informal data. When we talk about formal data, we want to look at their full individual evaluation.

What do all those numbers mean? How does that translate into learning? How does that ensure that we’re providing equitable services for them, given our scholars’ unique circumstances? Then we also want to look at the observational data, the anecdotal notes. We want to look at the parent surveys, because parents are their first teachers.

And that information is going to help us design a program that is equitable for our scholars.

After we have that working definition of what equity looks like and feels like in Grand Prairie ISD, we want to make sure that everything that we design and every service that we provide, every opportunity that we provide, is aligned of course, with IDEA, state, local and federal educational codes, policies and practices.

The special education program at Grand Prairie ISD is impressive, and Dr. Gordon described quite a few things they’re doing to ensure students are getting the access they need, in the least restrictive environment possible.

DOROTHEA GORDON: The big thing is to understand that our scholars are gen ed scholars first. So they should receive all the services that our gen ed scholars receive. However, given their unique circumstances, they’re going to need additional support, additional accommodations in order for them to navigate their world.

A general ed curriculum review team looks at data around students’ unique circumstances and needs.

DOROTHEA GORDON: For instance, when I say unique circumstances, I’m talking about one of the 13 disabilities that make them eligible for a specially designed instruction, right? But the most important thing is, even with their unique circumstances, what supports are we going to put in place so that they can have access in that general ed curriculum with those core contents specialists to the maximum extent possible?

Those supports take a variety of forms. Sometimes it means bringing in providers to the general ed classroom for additional specially designed instruction. Sometimes scholars are given additional one on one or small group support outside the general ed classroom, perhaps with alternate curriculum that’s still based on state standards, depending on the needs of each student.

And, continuing with the idea of equity, they also spend a lot of time on what it looks like to prepare these students for life after high school.

DOROTHEA GORDON: When you think about the reauthorization of IDEA in 2004, one of the reauthorization criteria was to provide post-secondary outcomes for our scholars. And when we look at equitable services for them, we have to look at employability, independent living, vocational exploration and self regulation.

That’s no small task, preparing students to enter the working world. So, at Grand Prairie, they have a program where they train and employ special education students, who are 18 years and older, to work with the school district maintenance and operations and nutrition services departments from 10am-2pm.

DOROTHEA GORDON: That means they’re working in the cafeteria. They’re preparing food for our scholars. They have a paying job from 10 to 2. Unique timeframe from 10 to 2, because that’s a part time slot and it’s very difficult, at times, to hire employees that want to work from 10 to 2. Here we have a trained population that can have access to that job, right here within our district.

And for those students who are 18 plus who are still working on vocational skills after graduation, Grand Prairie partnered with a state of the art exercise facility to continue offering classes in physical education, culinary arts, fine arts, and other adapted curriculum to help them successfully navigate the world.

DOROTHEA GORDON: And the last thing at Grand Prairie ISD I want to highlight is a program called Rise. It’s a house that students attend several times a year, from grades 6-12, to transition and generalize the skills they’re learning in the classroom in a natural setting. They learn social and communication skills, what are appropriate behavioral interactions. They have access to a board certified behavioral analyst. And the whole goal is to connect what they’re learning in the classroom to the real world and give them opportunities to practice.

One prime example of that is we have a scholar and his parent is very much concerned about life beyond GPISD for him.

He just started sixth grade. And given his unique circumstances, being that he is nonverbal nonverbal in the sense that he has an alternate way of communicating.

So when we think about that, with a mom’s questions about what happens life after GPISD? What supports are going to be available for them? What services are we going to provide him while we have him here for the next six years? Rise was a perfect facility for him.

He may have the opportunity to live in a group home or to live in an assisted living facility, or to live at home and to function in the community, given the, supports and services that we provide him now while he’s in sixth grade.

 And with that, he has been attending Rise. He has been learning vocational exploration. He’s been learning daily living skills, independent living. What does that mean? Well, he’s learning how to read a recipe with pictorial cues. He is learning through a task analysis. How do you make a bed? How do you clean the bathroom? How do you clean the kitchen? How do you clean your family area? How do you do your laundry? All of those skills we are providing now for our sixth graders, for this young man and he has six years. And his mom said we could have given him and her the gift of time to learn those functional, adaptable skills that he needs now so that he can have equitable access to navigate his world given his unique circumstances.

That’s equity. for us, as we do our important work here in GPISD.

But it’s not just about programs, right? It’s not going to surprise you to hear that professional learning is central to how Dr. Gordon and her team strive for equity in special education.

DOROTHEA GORDON: We also have to have intentional professional development for our teachers, right?

They have to know not only where our scholars are academically and functionally, but they also need to have the skills set to serve our scholars.

And so what we do here is we have intentional professional development training, not only for our gen ed teachers, because remember, they are our core content experts, but also for our special education educators, because those are the ones that are going to be delivering not only the academics, that specially designed instruction, but also the functional skills, those adaptive skills. What skills that our scholars need to navigate their world and real life settings. We also provide professional development for our administrators.

RYAN ESTES: Hmm? What does that look like?

DOROTHEA GORDON: For our administrators, we all know, according to IDEA, that they’re the ones that supervise the implementation of that individual Education Plan, but also they’re the ones that allocate district resources to ensure that the plan is implemented and that our scholars are progressing in that plan. So first of all, we have an annual, what we call “keep it legal” training. So that they understand all the legal aspects and their responsibilities in ensuring that the IEP is implemented with fidelity and that there’s ongoing progress monitoring, this same level of progress monitoring that you have for your gen ed scholars. Because remember, our sped scholars are gen ed scholars first, with additional supports and services to navigate their world given their unique circumstances.

And so we have that annual PD for our administrators. We also have, several E-PLCs, professional learning communities? And so what does that look like? We talk and we share, and we have a discussion on Child Find. It is our responsibility to locate, identify, and evaluate any scholars in our community that may need our services. So we have that annual training on Child Find.

They also provide training on administrator responsibilities, teacher responsibilities, how to evaluate special education teachers. They have training on specially designed instruction, and how teachers can implement it. Dr. Gordon stressed the importance of PLCs.

DOROTHEA GORDON: So that they can have those robust, authentic discussions with the general ed teachers about the services and supports that our scholars need to access that curriculum.

We also have been very much involved in the Lead Forward training, and that training for our special ed and general ed counterpart, basically, it is about access to the state standards. What are the high yield standards that our scholars need? Because we all know that regardless of how we feel about state assessments, the state assessments are a part of public education, right? And so we want to ensure that through specially designed instruction, our scholars have the tools that they need through scaffolding of the learning on the end of our gen ed and special ed teachers so that they can master that state assessment. So we provide that type of training as well.

So today is a staff development day for our district overall, and we have a Lead Forward trainer here in our district training our sped teachers, our special education teachers and our general education partners.

They come out, this is not a one stop, “this is it” training. We have job embedded supports. We have training ongoing throughout the year where our trainers come into a teacher’s classrooms and coach them up on it.

We have one of our informal leaders today presenting to our special ed staff about what does it look like to scaffold the state standards in specially designed instruction? What does that look like? What does that feel like? How do we get that support from our gen ed partnerships? So those are certain things that we’re doing here in GPISD to ensure that, again, going back to our definition of equity, that our scholars have that opportunity to have that access to our core content specialists in that general education classroom in order for them to progress in that curriculum.

We have talked about what equity looks like and feels like an academics and in functional performance. What does it look like? And how are we providing those structures? When we talk about behavioral supports for our scholars supported by an IEP, we all know across, unfortunately, our nation, the state of Texas, that our scholars supported by an IEP who happen to be African American, Hispanic males are disciplined at a higher rate than their counterparts, than their peers. And so the age old question is why? And what are we doing here in GPISD to address that?

Well, the first thing is that, we all know, and our superintendent has said this several times, no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship, right?

And so we really need to focus on looking at how are we building relational capacity with our African American Hispanic males supported by an IEP, how are we doing that? So in GPSD, we have started not only specifically for our sped scholars, but for all of our scholars looking at social and emotional learning, and our counselors have taken the lead on that and really looking at– of course, professional development is the most important thing, right? How are we doing that and why? Why are we doing that? How are we supporting our teachers? Understanding mindfulness, restorative practices and self regulation?

Dr. Gordon told me a story about a young man who came up through the special education program at Grand Prairie. He has graduated, now he is employed.

DOROTHEA GORDON: However, through his tenure here , he had a very difficult time with self regulation. And he ended up in alternative school more times than I can count.

So with our behavioral specialist on the special education side, in our teams, we sat down and we thought, “We need to design a service just with this young man in mind.” So that one, we can graduate him. He’s very capable of graduating, very capable of doing the work. But most importantly, understanding what his behaviors were telling us and how we can support him through that.

So they designed a program to provide therapeutic support, intensive behavioral support on a short-term basis at a separate facility. And even though it was designed with just this one student in mind, it didn’t stop there.

DOROTHEA GORDON: Since this came into fruition four years ago, we have supported 15 scholars being able to understand their behaviors with therapeutic interventions, right? Understanding their behaviors, teaching them appropriate social interactions, because that was what was getting in the way of this young man’s progress in the general ed curriculum. Once we were able to do that for him, he was able to graduate.

We have several who have, after providing six weeks of intensive therapeutic support so that one, there are less inappropriate interactions with administrators, with their teachers, with their peers, because we want to prevent them, right? We want to prevent them from ending up in alternative school because of their decisions, their behaviors at that one time, their violation of the school code of conduct.

So before we even get there, we transition them over because we want them to make a 180 turn, not a 360, a 180 turn, right? We teach them those skills and it’s all built upon self-regulation, understanding themselves, mindfulness, and providing the resources they need within the school, within the school day, so that they can understand themselves, self regulate themselves, and then transition back to their home campus, so they can have access to the general ed curriculum so that they can graduate. That is one example of how we provide equitable behavior centered around discipline with our scholars of African American, Hispanic males.

RYAN ESTES: You mentioned that African American and Hispanic males are disciplined to an outsize degree compared to students of other races or ethnic backgrounds. I’m curious why, and you got into it a little bit, but I’m curious not only why that might be the case, but also what effect does that tend to have both on those individuals as well as on those communities as a whole?

DOROTHEA GORDON: Wow, that’s a great question. Why does that occur? Are we all coming from the same reality? Are we all taking the opportunity to understand the context behind their behaviors and who they truly are, not only within the educational system, but within our nation has a whole? So when we react or interact with African American or Hispanic males, what contexts are we beginning with?

Dr. Gordon told me about a book she recently read: Talking to Strangers, by Malcolm Gladwell.

DOROTHEA GORDON: And as I read it over Thanksgiving,  I thought, “We’re not taking the time to really understand the context when we interact with our scholars.”

What we see and how we react are based on our own biases, right? Our own realities and not taking the time to really understand them. Who you are, who they are. This one little boy who standing in front of you, and first of all, we have to understand he’s still a boy. They’re still boys. They’re not adults. They’re still boys. Are we understanding them from that pretense or are we thinking we have a six foot two African American male standing in front of me, towering over me, understand that, yes, he’s a six foot two African American boy towering over you. How are you going to take the time to understand him first? And I go back to thinking about Stephen Covey, right? Seek to understand first and to be understood. And it’s so important when we’re interacting with our males of color.

Now, if I had the answer to why this occurs, I’d probably be a billionaire. But this is just based on my experiences that being a mom of two African American men now, but when they were in the public education system, that was my fear. I think that’s every African American mom’s or Hispanic mom’s fear: are you going to interact with my son as a child standing in front of you? Or as what you’ve seen in society or what you’ve experienced personally? Are you going to take him at the face value of what’s happening in front of you and not put your own biases there?

And the effects of not understanding them, not taking the time to do that, gets us where we are today across our nation.

There are more African American males in our prison systems, Hispanic males in our prison systems, than their counterparts. Right?

Right. At the state level, for example, African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.

DOROTHEA GORDON: Just think about that and then think about, how are we indoctrinating them in the school systems? Are we really looking at the social-emotional aspects of the learning? Are we addressing them and trying to understand them first before we contribute to the school and prison pipeline?

And what we do here in Grand Prairie, within our sped department, is truly getting them those services, the support, the opportunities. Because it’s not an achievement gap. A lot of people talk about the achievement gap. In our district, there’s not an achievement gap , not statistically, right? It’s about an opportunity gap. And so with our comprehensive continuum of services, but also with our therapeutic support program, we are able to mitigate some of those negative effects of not understanding our scholars, seeking to understand them first and chipping away at your own biases. Because you have to, we all have biases. We all have prejudices. But when we’re in the public education system, how are we keeping those in check in order for us to truly serve our scholars and to cut that school and prison pipeline?

And what we do here is make sure our teachers have that professional development, not a one stop shop, but an ongoing, job-embedded professional development, looking at social emotional learning, looking at restorative practice, looking at natural consequences, looking at brain development. Because we all know the importance of understanding the executive functioning of our brain when it comes to problem solving and decision making in males overall, specifically our African American, Hispanic males, supported by an IEP.

RYAN ESTES: I wonder, Dr. Gordon, if you could talk a little bit more. I’m thinking about all those people who work in your district in special education, and of course it’s a hard field, right? Special education is not an easy area in which to work. It’s a ton of work. It takes a ton of energy, and because of that, it draws people who are passionate about working with those students. And as a result, I’m sure that you have really incredible stories to tell of teachers and paraprofessionals and classroom aides who have really seen dramatic growth, not only in their work, but also in how they interact with these students.

Can you tell me at all about any that you might have seen where you said, “Hey, we offered this professional learning, we had these sorts of job-embedded learning opportunities, and here was the before and here’s the after,” and what did that difference look like?

DOROTHEA GORDON: I’ll tell you, we have a coordinator. And he is our coordinator who supports behavioral supports. He began in our district as a para educator. And as a para educator he worked with our scholars who had severe behavioral deficits in elementary school.

And seeing him embrace our scholars, but also have the intense desire to improve his practice and his interactions with the scholars. He attended every single one of our professional development sessions, where we talked about classroom management when we talked about behavioral supports as a paraprofessional.

Not only that, we have regional educational service centers. He sought out training. Read educational literature on how to best support our scholars, went on to get his bachelor’s degree in elementary and middle school education, became a teacher here in Grand Prairie, working with our scholars with severe behavioral deficits.

He wound up working with a young man who had been involved in that behavioral intervention program we heard about earlier. Really built a strong mentor relationship with him.

DOROTHEA GORDON: Not only with this young man. But also with his parents, the home visits, attending the summer basketball programs. I mean, he was at the YMCA during the summer open gym at two o’clock, from two to four playing basketball with these scholars. Went in to one of our neighborhoods, a local rec center, again, during the summer, playing basketball with our scholars, with our scholars that he knew needed that relational capacity And you know, we throw this word out, being a mentor, being a role model. It’s not, it’s more than that. It’s being there for them, being in their environment, watching them, coaching them, talking to them, just having every day conversation with them in their reality. You know, it goes back to that quote that learning becomes more relevant when it’s connected to their reality. And being at the local YMCA, being at the local rec center, where they are during the day, during the summer, but also the midnight basketball, open gym at the rec center. He was there being with them.

RYAN ESTES: What do you attribute that to? His desire to learn about this so intensely and to build these kinds of relationships? In this case, what would you say was it that made him so driven to do this?

DOROTHEA GORDON: Because he was one of them.

Once you understand their reality, being one of them or not, because we have another behavioral specialist, again, another one who started, as a para educator working in our behavioral support units with our scholars that had behavioral deficits.

Again, he is now working, serving our scholars in the 180 unit as our behavioral strategist, one African American male, one white male. Our white male teacher did not come from their reality. Our African American teacher, our coordinator now, our behavioral specialist now, came from their reality.

One behavior specialist now did not come from their reality. However, I attribute it to seeing what one relationship can do, taking the time to understand their context, their reality, can do. With one significant scholar, one significant relationship, all the learning takes place, be it academic, behavioral, functional. That’s what I attribute it to.

The African American coordinator that we have over behavioral support, he now has his master’s degree. Our behavioral specialist, again, started as a para educator, worked with scholars with behavioral deficits, and now teacher, now behavioral specialist.

They did not only want to impact just those two or three scholars, six or seven scholars they had in that classroom, they wanted to now impact more scholars across our whole district. They even train regional trainings in the state of Texas, both of them together. They do a great job and I attribute that to, it’s you’re passion, it’s not a job. It is your passion. It is what they love to do, it’s what they know that they can make an impact on, on the scholars today, which will significantly impact their world at a later time.

RYAN ESTES: That is fantastic. I love it. My final question is this. Most of the time when we hear talk about equity in special education, whether it’s racial equity or equity as it relates to the access to the general ed curriculum, it’s often on this national scale, thinking through what are the policy changes that we need to make or what are the big, huge trends that we need to see happen in order to address this issue? But what I love about what you’re doing is you’re saying, “How can we address these things here, in this school district that is right in front of me in which I work, in which I can make a tangible, concrete difference?”

For those of our listeners who are saying, “I find myself in a similar spot. I find myself working in a school district where I want to address some of these issues,” what would you say are the one or two most important underlying things to be doing, to be looking for? Is it making sure you’re hiring the right people? Is it conducting the kinds of trainings that need to happen?

Is it simply changing a mindset or the way that you look at the world? What is most important in order to reach these students who need it so very much?

DOROTHEA GORDON: I think the most important thing is, you really need to understand who you are and what your role and purpose is within this world. So to make it more concrete, sure it’s definitely about hiring right people, but we all don’t always hire the right people. It is also about ensuring that we have the appropriate job-embedded ogoing, professional development for our teachers. Because there’s this great book, and I can’t think of the author, but the title of the book is, “If You Don’t Feed the Teachers, They’ll Eat the Scholars,” right? Well students, they’ll eat the students.

If You Don’t Feed the Teachers, They’ll Eat the Students, by Neila A. Connors, it came out in 2000.

DOROTHEA GORDON: When I read that book when I was an administrator, it reminded me of when you’re in an airplane, they first talk about the oxygen mask, what you must do first with your oxygen mask, right? You have to first put it on yourself, and then you are to assist others, correct? And so with the professional development, we must ensure that our teachers are fully equipped in order to serve our scholars. So yes, it is all about hiring.

And we have, we have a screening process that we go through, a screening process that we go to go through when we interview and hire, teachers.

We also have to make sure one, they believe in our mission statement. Right? Do you have the same belief set that we have in this district for you to be a part of it, and that is focusing on our number one job, student achievement. Okay? Do you have that same belief set?

But also, do you have the skillset? Now I’ve read, anyone can teach skills, right? But you can’t teach character. So we hire for character first. We build our skills through professional development. Most important thing, hiring, job embedded professional development and getting the teacher’s feedback ongoing through surveys and what works, but it’s also being on those campuses and in those classrooms, seeing what supports the teachers need, but also connecting with our parents. So we have several, parent clinics that we provide for our parents. Help me understand my child’s IEP. That’s an annual training that we have done for the last five years.

In our transition clinic that is big, making sure they can navigate their world given the skills that we have provided, the opportunities they have provided. That’s an ongoing session that we have, ongoing annual parent clinic for our parents.

We also have parent support groups, because sometimes a parents does need to sit there and just talk to me. “Oh, is that what’s happening in your house? So that’s what’s happening in my house.” And we have a trained, licensed specialist in school psychology, a special education counselor who leads these parents support groups.

We also have for parents a respite night. Okay, so what does that mean? There are some times they just need the time to put on their own oxygen mask, and so from 5 to 8:30, with partnership of the YMCA, they drop off their scholars, they go on date night, they go Christmas shopping. They go sit and watch a movie, and we take care of it, take care of their scholars for that time. So it’s not only ensuring that we hire the right people and that we’re coaching up and providing training for our teachers, but we’re supporting our parents so that our scholars can achieve.

And you have to have the character, you have to have the passion and the love to do what we do, this hard work that we do every single day, come here to serve our scholars. I think that’s the most important thing.

RYAN ESTES: Dr. Dorothea Gordon is the Executive Director of Special Education at Grand Prairie ISD in Texas. And Dr. Gordon, I really just want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to speak with me. It’s been great and I thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight.

DOROTHEA GORDON: Thank you very much. I truly enjoyed it.

Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, offering software that helps schools manage programs for special education and special student populations, making it easier to work with IEPs, RTI/MTSS programs, English Learner programs, Section 504, and more. To find out more, visit And, of course, I hope you’ll subscribe. We share new stories every other Friday about things education leaders care about. Find us anywhere you get your podcasts.

For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.