Cincinnati Public Schools: Finding Common Ground with Professional Development

Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) is at the forefront of delivering comprehensive professional development for teachers of students with disabilities. Almost all of our professional development is embedded in the daily lives of our teachers and its implementation is supported by all levels of district administration. Where appropriate, we do advocate for opportunities to provide teachers with professional development to gain information about a specific subject or skill in a short period of time. In our work, we have seen evidence of success, and in particular, the support services for students with significant needs has improved because of quality instruction with a foundation of solid, integrated professional development.

Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) is at the forefront of delivering comprehensive professional development for teachers of students with disabilities. Almost all of our professional development is embedded in the daily lives of our teachers and its implementation is supported by all levels of district administration. Where appropriate, we do advocate for opportunities to provide teachers with professional development to gain information about a specific subject or skill in a short period of time. In our work, we have seen evidence of success, and in particular, the support services for students with significant needs has improved because of quality instruction with a foundation of solid, integrated professional development. At this point in our journey outcomes have included:

  • Increased job satisfaction as evidenced by low teacher turnover. In the 2016-2017 school year, our teacher turnover rate was less than 1% among those teachers working specifically with students on the Autism spectrum;
  • Implementation of a behavioral and instructional consultation model that allows veteran teachers to support new teachers or teachers who find challenges supporting students with low-incidence disabilities;
  • Increased use of instructional and assistive technology coupled with targeted professional development. Each teacher supporting students with low-incidence disabilities received assistive technology kits during the 2017-2018 school year;
  • Renewed dedication of veteran teachers to providing supports and services to students with low-incidence disabilities as evidenced by teacher comments on professional development exit tickets and post professional development surveys; and 
  • Increased academic performance on the Alternate Assessment for Students with Disabilities (AASWD) and the Unique Learning Systems assessments.

How did we do this?teacher

Our journey started with a challenge and an opportunity. As special education administrators in CPS, our challenge was to increase our support to teachers working with students with moderate to severe needs. We were lucky because we had a cadre of extraordinary teachers who loved their work and wanted more than anything an opportunity to inspire colleagues and share their expertise with less experienced special education teachers. In this work, we saw a gradual increase in significant behavioral challenges in various classroom settings. This result provided a starting pathway towards making improvements in a more systematic way.  

We started by developing our highly skilled teachers started in a collaboration with the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center (Children's Hospital), and the Kelly O'Leary Center for Autism (Kelly O'Leary Center). These organizations worked to develop and deliver high quality training and professional development for our teachers working with students in specialized programs with Autism (AU). Through this relationship, CPS developed an exemplary professional development model for school-based teams serving children with autism and similar complex learning needs. Aspects of this professional development model included:

  • A summer training program for teachers;
  • Ongoing training sessions on specific topics (e.g., behavior management, communication, toileting); and
  • Consultation and collaboration with The Kelly O'Leary Center's clinical school psychologist.

To establish ongoing support for school teams, CPS's department of student services assembled an Autism Support Team (AST). The AST, comprised of a special educator, speech language pathologist, occupational therapist and school psychologist, provides direct consultation with teachers and school team members.  By observing students and providing consultative follow-up as well as modeling instructional techniques and interventions, the AST delivers embedded professional development. The AST periodically provides workshops and seminars on instructional strategies and behavioral interventions to teachers working with students with Autism. They also collaborate with the Kelly O'Leary Center. 

Through the partnership with Children's Hospital and the Kelly O'Leary Center, CPS has for the last eight years provided intensive teacher training to every district special education teacher working with students with Autism. With the goal of promoting critical thinking and professional problem-solving, CPS developed high-quality, evidence-based supports and services for children with Autism who receive services along the full continuum of service delivery models. The training program includes a full week program of intensive training and practice, classroom visits with consultation, and a self-study. The training program incorporates both didactic training and hands-on practice for immediate application in the classroom. 

Morning Routine

In addition to the partnership with Children's Hospital and the Kelly O'Leary Center, we have collaborated with Children's Hospital to develop an Autism Demonstration Classroom at the hospital that provides on-going training for Children's Hospital staff, University of Cincinnati trainees, and CPS teachers. 

As we have observed the supports, structures, and gains made by students who have benefitted from this highly trained cadre of special education teachers who support students on the Autism spectrum, we realized that this same level of high-quality training needed to be offered to the teachers working with students with multiple disabilities (MD). These teachers needed the opportunity to learn about the principles of structured teaching, modified to address students with intellectual disabilities, including information on the growing recognition of co-occurring mental health conditions. 

In CPS, we have separate student services managers (supervisors) overseeing our specialized programs for students with AU and MD. In the past, supervision and any professional development or supports for the teachers in these classrooms were done in isolation. From a discussion regarding the need to provide evidenced-based supplemental curriculum, came the decision to provide professional development to the combined group. Previously, training had been provided on Ohio's Extended Learning Standards but teachers often struggled to find materials or activities that were appropriate and on target with standards.  Some teachers struggled to develop meaningful data to measure student growth.    

The Unique Learning System (ULS) is a supplemental curriculum that is effective for students with more significant cognitive disabilities. We piloted this curriculum initially with 3 classes and over the past three years have expanded it to support students in all our specialized classrooms. From the original pilot we had selected 10 special education teachers that we believed would use ULS consistently and provide feedback on its effectiveness in daily instruction. At the end of the pilot year, we questioned two experienced, veteran teachers and asked why they were not using Unique in their classrooms. They told us that they wished they could communicate with other district teachers regarding how to successfully implement ULS into classroom practice. Their answers surprised us and started our journey in the development of a teacher-centered approach to effective professional development.  

After the initial roll-out of ULS, professional development was altered to fit the needs of teachers. Some special education teachers needed more in-depth training. The journey resulted in having our Consulting Teachers/Super Users observe and consult with teachers who may need additional guidance around the implementation of ULS. This peer consultation modelresulted in a significant increase in the use of the ULS across the district.  

Another aspect of our PD model is embedded professional development through the Learning Team Meetings which provide our MD and AU teachers additional opportunities to participate in large group training led by our special education classroom teachers and related services practitioners on the CTT and AST. Beginning 2014-2015 school year, the district approved separate time for professional development for teachers in low Incidence classrooms (MD, AU). During the first school year, we focused on using Ohio's Learning Standards - Extended (for students with significant cognitive disabilities) and sharing model lessons developed and used by teachers in the district. During the second school year, we highlighted teacher lessons, but also included a book study.

PD Poster

CPS is also committed to ensuring that special and general education professionals are well-equipped to provide high quality, effective foundational instruction and supports in both academics and social emotional learning. This is an area that teachers have asked for and they have provided valuable input. We have engaged our teachers and related services providers in leading and training their colleagues in positive behavioral interventions and supports, addressing trauma, and bullying prevention.  We are engaged in explicitly teaching resilience to foster good problem-solving skills so children are more likely to seek help and believe they can do something that will help them to manage their feelings by connecting with others in a social support network.  

Our journey is not over. We still seek ways to continuously improve our professional development models and offerings to support teachers.  One approach we take is to get teachers involved in the planning and the delivery of professional development so that we can incorporate teacher voice and allow teachers to discover commonalities and differences in their work, their students, their resources and their approaches to improving student achievement. This is fueled by a focus on equity. Thanks for taking the time to learn about our journey so far. We hope that in telling our story, it may inspire other leaders in the field to try new approaches aligned specifically to the needs in their school districts.