As a “turnaround” year began, one mom set a challenge for her daughter’s special-ed teacher: Help a shy 3rd-grader, wracked by depression and anxiety, stop dreading school.
Kate Magaldi had some ideas about how to make that happen.
She accepted the challenge over the summer during a meeting with Ruth Castillo, the mother of 9-year-old Nayelie, before a new chapter began at the Clemente Leadership Academy K-8 public school at 360 Columbus Ave. So far, her ideas are bearing fruit.
Magaldi, a special education instructor, is one of only seven teachers who survived the transition when the school cleaned house over the summer, transforming into a “turnaround” school under outside management by New Jersey-based Renaissance Services LLC.
At 27 years old, Magaldi has been promoted into a lead teaching role. That’s partly because she stuck around while most of her colleagues transferred, either voluntarily or because the company didn’t ask them back.
While 75 percent of teachers left Clemente, Magaldi stayed on to take part in an overhaul at the school, which has been on the federal failing schools list for the longest time of any of the district’s 43 schools. For the last nine years, Clemente has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, a federal benchmark on standardized tests. Renaissance aims for the school to make AYP by the end of this first school year.
Like Blanka Jamsek at Katherine Brennan, the city’s first turnaround school, Magaldi has a special-ed mission: As the school makes a major push to boost student performance, make sure kids like Nayelie don’t get left behind. Fifty-one of the 544 students in the Hill neighborhood school are classified as special education, which is not far from the district average of 11.8 percent.
As in any urban district, Magaldi has encountered many obstacles between her kids and success in school.
In a recent visit to a 3rd-grade classroom, Magaldi shared a few strategies she’s using to get around those obstacles—and one early success story that keeps her hope to continue plugging away.
Magaldi began last Friday in the classroom of Joan Meehan, where a few routines are new this year. Kids start their day on the rug for a daily morning circle, which is part of the Responsive Classroom method that teachers trained in over the summer as part of the turnaround. The method aims to set a positive tone for the day—and to manage behaviors that last year students, teachers and parents said were out of control in the past. The school started this year with a code of conduct and clear expectations for behavior—all of which appeared to be followed during a quiet, productive morning in Meehan’s class.
After her promotion to a supervisory teaching role this year, Magaldi now oversees a caseload of 15 special ed kids, runs literacy intervention groups, serves as a resource to two special ed teachers and paraprofessionals, and oversees Planning and Placement Team meetings, where teams of school professionals converge to coordinate services for special needs kids.
She also chooses to spend a lot of her time in Meehan’s classroom, because five of the 24 kids needed special education, a high number for a single class.
Meehan, in her first year of full-time teaching, is one of the new faces at Clemente. Magaldi helped choose her for the school—as part of a new recruitment process, Renaissance enlisted all seven returning teachers to help interview new candidates over the summer. Magaldi sat on a team that interviewed Meehan, who had been working as a long-term sub and a tutor. She said the decision to hire her was unanimous: “Definitely!”
Every day, she makes sure to show up at Meehan’s class, where students—both special ed and not—look to her for extra help.
On Friday, that meant that while other kids were filling out worksheets on the theme of the book “Eddie’s Kingdom,” Magaldi took four kids aside for a literacy lesson tailored to their needs. The group was reading at a kindergarten level—three grades behind some of their peers.
Magaldi said as a special ed teacher, her goal is to make kids as included in the classroom as possible. She makes a point to mix her reading group with not just special education kids, but others who need remedial help. That removes the stigma from the group and gives Meehan an extra hand with a wide range of reading ability in the classroom.
The teacher gained inspiration for her work early on in life, from a place close to home. Growing up in Rhode Island, she spent a lot of time with an older cousin with severe and profound disabilities. Though he was seven years older than she was, she took him under her wing, taking him for walks and to baseball games. They developed a strong connection that inspired her, since the age of 13, to want to teach children with special needs.
After teaching for a year in Massachusetts, Magaldi brought that passion to New Haven two years ago, when she and her husband moved to the city so he could start a PhD program at Yale.
As the rest of the class worked with higher-level texts, Magaldi beckoned her students over to a small reading rug. Not on the rug, because one of the kids has a rug allergy and she doesn’t like to single him out—but in a tight circle of chairs at the edge of the rug. Sitting on the ground, Magaldi led her students through a small book she’d stapled together from a kit of special education materials. They practiced reading aloud and spelling out multisyllable words like “policeman” and “firefighter.”
Nayelie showed up late to class. In the past, that was a red flag that she was still dreading school.
She missed 80 days of school last year at Hill Central Music Academy, according to her mom, Ruth Castillo.
Friday, the reason was celebratory: Nayelie had been at a special ceremony at another school, then had rushed over to finish out the rest of the day.
The desire to come to school is a huge sign of progress for Nayelie, who was one of the first new faces who greeted Magaldi as she prepared to enter her third year teaching at Clemente.
Because her daughter had such a hard time in school last year, Castillo set up a meeting before school started.
In an interview Friday, Castillo shared the reason: She said her daughter suffered from depression and anxiety, and once had to be taken to the hospital for a panic attack at her previous school. Nayelie spent a lot of time last year “acting up,” her mom said, because she wasn’t getting the help she needed.
When it came time to change schools, Castillo was nervous about how her daughter would adjust to a new environment.
During that meeting, Magaldi shared her strategy with nervous Mom: Lots of positive reinforcement and lots of calls home.
“I’m all about positive rewards,” Magaldi assured her. She said she’d be happy to meet Nayelie before school.
It turned out Nayelie was already there, waiting shyly around the corner. The girl entered the room and gave Magaldi a big hug.
Adjusting to school wasn’t easy. Nayelie wouldn’t greet the other students by name. During class, she would lose focus, shut down and ask to leave the room. She would take frequent “cool downs,” where she’d leave class to visit Ms. Magaldi’s office. At first, she wouldn’t open up during those visits.
“She wasn’t placing all her trust in me,” Magaldi said.
Nayelie, who shuffled into that office Friday for a visit, was asked if she trusted any of the teachers at the beginning of school.
“No,” she replied, swinging her legs and clutching an off-white purse.
Magaldi and Meehan developed a plan for helping her. They let her choose a safe space in the classroom, away from other kids, to put her desk. And they set up a system of academic rewards. After she studied hard for a couple of hours, Nayelie would get a break at 11 a.m. to do an educational game, such as putting together a puzzle by matching rhymes.
The goal, said Magaldi, is to help Nayelie become comfortable enough in school so she can take risks with learning.
The plan—combined with lots of positive attention—has shown early success. Instead of taking her breaks, Nayelie now opts to participate in class, her teachers said. And her attendance is on the rise.
The other day, Nayelie woke up feeling sick. Her mom offered her the chance to spend the day at home, she recalled. In a major reversal from last year, Nayelie said no.
“I wanted to go to school because I want to learn more about reading,” she explained.
Mom proudly confirmed that story. She said her daughter is finally getting the help she needs. Instead of 80 absences, or about two days per week, Nayelie has missed only five or six days of school at Clemente, according to Castillo.
Nayelie was asked about her favorite part of school.
“Being helped by Ms. Meehan and Ms. Magaldi,” she replied, unprompted by the adults beaming nearby. Oh—and “spelling and math.”
Nayelie is just one of 51 special ed students at the school, whose needs range from attention deficit disorder to emotional disturbance and high-functioning autism.
Progress is often “difficult and inconsistent,” she said. Little victories like Nayelie’s, she said—“that’s what keeps you going.”
Past Independent stories on Clemente:
• Teacher’s Return Causes Ruckus
• Clemente Cleans House
• School Board OKs Clemente Takeover
• Fine Print Released On Clemente Deal
• Illegal Meeting Aborted; Co. Starts Work, Anyway
• City Secretly Plans School’s For-Profit Takeover
• For-Profit Charter May Take Over Clemente
• Two Schools Become “Turnarounds”