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Detroit district board votes to change name of ‘special education,’ but not everyone agrees it’s ‘exceptional’

A Charles R. Drew Transition Center student practices folding laundry as his teacher looks on at the special education school in Detroit
A Charles R. Drew Transition Center student practices folding laundry as his teacher looks on at the special education school in Detroit
Kimberly Hayes Taylor

What’s in a name?

Detroit’s main district is changing the name of the program formerly known as “special education.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti prefers the term “exceptional student education,” which is more commonly used in the Florida districts where he previously worked before coming to Detroit almost a year ago.

The school board on Wednesday night approved the change and the district will soon start using the term in its program descriptions. When a member asked why the district should change the name of the program, Vitti said it would help improve the culture surrounding special education. There was no other discussion about the change during the meeting.

The state of Michigan has historically used the term “Special Education” to describe support services to students with disabilities. But the policy adopted by the board Wednesday night states that the name change is coming because the district “believes in the equal worth and dignity of all students and is committed to educate all students to their maximum potential.”

As part of the policy change, the board is also is partnering with the region’s education services provider to manage instruction for students with disabilities in Detroit’s main district.

When Chalkbeat later talked to a parent advocate about the new name, Marcie Lipsitt said the new name is disturbing because the state of special education has never been worse.

For example, she said, about half of special education students don’t graduate.

“It is incredibly disingenuous and disturbing when districts try to put this kind of spin on children with disabilities,” Lipsitt said. “It’s a dishonest spin. Call it what it is.”

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