“We needed to create critical thinkers and problem solvers who could direct their lives after graduating high school,” says Myron Graber, principal of Free State High School in Lawrence, Kansas. For the past three years, researchers from the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities (KUCDD) have been partnering with Free State High School to promote self-determination for all students, with and without disabilities. In this May 2019 interview with Sheida Raley, Graber discusses the school’s commitment to supporting self-determination, what it has taken to support self-determination of all students including those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and lessons learned along the way.
Raley: Please describe Free State High School and your role as principal.
Graber: Free State High School is a great school. It includes over 1,750 students in grades 9-12 and about 11% are students with disabilities. This past year was my fourth year as principal there, but I was a principal in other Kansas and Missouri schools for over 20 years. As principal, my goal is to fulfill our mission and educate and empower students so they can be responsible citizens and lifelong learners in a changing world.
Raley: What made you commit to promoting self-determination for ALL Free State High School students, especially with so many other competing demands?
Graber: There were a couple of different reasons why we decided promoting self-determination was what Free State High School needed. In my first year of conducting teacher evaluations, I noticed that students were not engaged and it seemed like we had created an environment of dependent learners. In addition to that, we were seeing that our students who received special education supports and services were not graduating at the same rate as other students. However, we also noticed that some of our “high flyers” or students that were excelling academically were very dependent on teachers and had not developed critical thinking and problem-solving skills that they needed to be successful after graduating. We decided that we needed to do something that would enhance students’ engagement in the learning process and that was when we connected with KUCDD and Dr. Shogren. We were lucky to have a teacher who served as a leader in piloting the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction (SDLMI)* in her math classes, and now she is mentoring and coaching other teachers as they come on board. We have continued to work with the team at KUCDD to figure out what promoting self-determination for students with and without disabilities would look like in the general education classroom and focused on how to change the teaching practices of our educators so they could provide opportunities and experiences to students to be self-determined before they leave our school. And we are just in the beginning stages of this process.
Raley: What actions has Free State High School taken to support self-determination of all students, including students with intellectual and developmental disabilities?
Graber: Over the past several years, we have partnered with KUCDD to figure out how to engage all students, including those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This semester, we have 19 teachers (including general and special educators) using the SDLMI to promote self-determination across 478 students. About 10% of those students have disabilities. We are seeing that general and special education teachers are now working together to develop self-directed learners and we are changing the learning process from a dependence model to one where students think, “Hey, I want to be there and I want to get something out of this because I see a need for this and how it fits into the next phase of my life.” So, we have dedicated multiple days throughout the year to professional development so teachers learn how to use the SDLMI in their classrooms, and we need to do more.
Raley: What are the benefits you have noticed of promoting student self-determination for teachers and students?
Graber: For teachers (including general and special educators), there have been positive changes in their classrooms. By using the SDLMI and teaching short lessons on skills associated with self-determination (like setting goals, making decisions, solving problems) for about 15 minutes twice a week, teachers are hitting on skills students need to be successful and they can embed opportunities for students to practice those skills throughout class. It is helping students learn to self-regulate their learning and take charge of the goals they are working towards. Also, teachers are finding that they can transition very easily from using the SDLMI into the content they are teaching in the classroom and it enhances students’ motivation to get right into their work.
For all students, we are seeing them set goals that are meaningful for what they want to do in their lives. Most of the time, the goals that they set are aligned with success in the classroom and school, so this provides students a way to be a part of the process and start leading the way. With our partnership with KUCDD, we have looked at the data over the past three years and found that students’ self-determination is steadily increasing over time and they are achieving goals that will facilitate their academic performance in multiple classes, like developing studying and notetaking strategies, as well as in their transition from school to the adult world. Like their peers without disabilities, we are finding that students who receive special education services are benefiting from having more decision-making power in terms of what and how they want to learn and to think carefully about what goals they want to set for after they graduate. Also, it is great that we are seeing more collaboration among our general and special education teachers to promote inclusive education.
Raley: Any final thoughts?
Graber: From my years of experience as a school leader, I have come to realize that engaging students in their learning and teaching them critical skills they need after they graduate, like how to problem solve, is the most important thing we can do as educators. Academic learning is very important, but we need to teach students how to navigate in a changing world before they graduate and promoting self-determination is the missing piece to engaging students in the learning process.