EXCEPTIONAL LEARNERS by Malia Rulon Herman
How one special-ed teacher is making a difference at CHS
When Takia Logan took over teaching a small, multiage special education class at Columbia High School three years ago, the class was all but hidden away. The students didn’t interact much with the other high school kids, didn’t have lockers, and didn’t make regular library visits.
Logan set out to change that – and more. Her efforts have been fruitful: In the past few years, she has transformed the class into a group that she calls “exceptional learners.”
The students in Logan’s class range in age from 14 to 18 and face multiple disabilities that make education in a traditional classroom difficult. Yet under the law, each child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.
“On top of these children having a right to participate, they also have a right to be part of the community,” Logan says, appealing to the spirit of the statute beyond its explicit text.
With her guidance, the class of about six students has become much more visible at the high school, making regular visits to local stores, restaurants and the public library. And while these visits have been put on hold since classes went virtual in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Logan has sought to continue exposing her kids to new experiences and professions by inviting guests onto her class Google Meet calls.
“We can’t just make ‘inclusion’ a buzzword,” she declares. “We have to mean what we are saying.” For Logan, that means the integration of special education children with their general education peers, ensuring that her students don’t feel like mere guests but members of the CHS and SOMA communities.
One of the first changes she made was to start taking them to the Maplewood Library once a week. The CHS library is full of books that are appropriate for general education students – classics, adult fiction and nonfiction – but aren’t geared toward students with special needs. As a result, according to Emily Witkowski, the Maplewood Library’s librarian for teen literature, many of the students hadn’t been at the school library in years.
“The first thing we did was make sure that they all have library cards,” Witkowski explains, adding that librarians also worked with the students to make sure they knew how to look up things, how to navigate the area, and also how to ask for help.
“It’s been awesome,” Witkowski says. “There are kids who never spoke to me when they first came and completely evaded me, and now they come up and ask me questions – or even stop me on the street.”
Logan also started taking her class on excursions to businesses in the area, such as Walgreens, Home Depot, the laundromat and BGR in South Orange for lunch. “Just having the right to choose what they wanted on their burger changed the dynamic of their experience,” she says.
The lockers were another change. Each child was assigned a locker and they all practiced how to open them, using locks.
“Their confidence soared,” Logan says, describing how one student who used to need a chaperone to get to his classes started walking to them on his own, and another student who was overwhelmed by the noise in the hallways started to venture out.
CHS Assistant Principal Terry Woolard said one of the most rewarding experiences this past year was when the high school robotics club taught Logan's students how to make paper airplanes and then created a robot to launch them.
Two sisters in the robotics club, Lily and Sofia Mencarini, would come every Friday to work with the class. They held a contest in February to see which airplane flew the farthest.
“The kids loved it,” he says. “A lot of people think that because of the classification of the class that the kids are not able to do as much as other students are able to do, and (Logan) has definitely gotten rid of that stereotype.”
Take the Snack Huddle, for instance. Logan’s class started their own micro-business taking and fulfilling orders for student athletes who want to buy a drink and/or snack for their ride on school buses to sporting matches and games. They also started a paper shredding service.
“She’s introducing them to a lot of different jobs and a lot of different skill sets,” says Gerri Colon, the district supervisor for Special Services for grades 9 through 12. “The next step is getting them to try some of these jobs and see what is going to work best for them.”
Colon said the district’s Department of Special Services has been working closely with Logan to develop an exciting new program for graduates of Logan’s class in which they can intern for jobs in the school and community. The work-study program is set to launch this fall, pending COVID guidelines, with three of Logan’s former students.
“Our hope is to be able to expand into the community,” Colon says. “We have so many great businesses in town that I can’t imagine that we would have a difficult time identifying a few that would be willing to work with us.”
Nekhen Jackson-Muhammad, 18, is one of Logan’s students who will take part in the new program. “I want to do film,” he says during a FaceTime call. “I want to try to figure out how to learn animation and how to draw figures because I’ve always loved film and animation.”
Jackson-Muhammad says that Logan’s class taught him a lot and that the excursions were amazing: “My favorite trip was Home Depot, and the burger place. My favorite was also the library and that we got a chance to do a lot of things.”
His mother, Leah Jackson, said she was impressed with Logan from the start, when Logan started talking about her son as a human being, not just as a student.
“It’s amazing to see how she interacts with these students,” Jackson says. “She talks to them as who they are, not coddling them, and she challenges them. She makes them rise to the occasion. It’s almost like she is doing therapy and education and teaching all at the same time.”
Pansy Dublin, a paraprofessional who works alongside Logan, said she has a special connection with her students. “When they see her, they light up,” she says, describing how the children counted down the days until Logan returned from a recent maternity leave.
Dublin said that Logan also has a sense of humor. For example, if a student forgot their homework, Logan might chide them, asking if the dog ate it. “Next thing you know, they bring it in,” she says.
Claudette Brown, whose son was also in Logan’s class, agreed. She said Logan is “no joke” when it comes to doing homework. Brown said that when classes went virtual during the lockdown in March, she got the opportunity to witness Logan working directly with the class.
“When my son or another one would misbehave, she lets them cool down and then she gets back to work,” Brown says. “She expects the work to get done.”
Jackson-Muhammad agrees. “I think she’s pretty and I think she’s kind and I think she’s smart and I think she’s kind of sassy on the side,” he says.
Logan, who has two children and has lived in Maplewood for seven years, is originally from Philadelphia. She started working as a special education teacher at the elementary school level before moving through middle school and eventually to the population at CHS.
And why does she call them “exceptional learners”? “We changed the name,” she replies, “because even if there is an exception that presents a challenge for them, they have absolutely changed the dynamic of what it means to be exceptional.”
Malia Rulon Herman is an education writer and mother of a child with special needs. She is also on the board of the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC), which advocates for the needs and rights of exceptional learners like those in Takia Logan’s class.