By: Denise Canniff
September 29, 2015
Valerie Hoekstra has led the school’s special education and academic intervention services since Inwood Academy launched in 2010 and was named its Middle School Director in June 2015. She was one of the authors for the original Charter School Application in 2009, outlining how the school would serve students with special needs. For the past five years, students and teachers have relied on Valerie for her expertise and compassion for the faculty and students. While our teachers and students know her well, we thought a Q & A session with Ms. Hoekstra might help our families and supporters get to know her a little better. Her bio can be found on our Leadership page.
Q. What inspired you to become an educator?
I loved school growing up and loved learning. When I got to college and thought, well, if I go into business or medicine or law I won’t be in a classroom as much anymore so I took a couple of classes in the education department just to see if I was interested. I took a class called How Children Learn and became fascinated with the process of how kids take in information, what they do with it and how their minds work, and the cognitive science of it.
Q. Were you a good student?
I was a good student, yes. Middle school was not my shining moment, but by the time I was in high school I was a very serious student. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to middle school students.
Q. What excites you most about Inwood Academy’s mission?
There are things about us academically that are very similar to other schools. Of course, everybody wants students that are college ready and I see that pushed a lot in schools but I was also just reading today how new research shows students that are over achieving are not able to focus on their character or who they even want to be or what they want to do. They are told to give back to their community and have many community service hours but don’t see themselves necessarily as members of their community. When I think about Inwood Academy, I think about the whole child, which is my view of education. You really can’t educate just the brain of the child, you have to educate all parts of them and I feel that our mission captures all of that.
Q. So it’s also focusing on the emotional and social aspects of a child?
Yes and community, too. A lot of our kids will stay in this community or another urban environment. Many of our teachers and our aspiring teachers started out here, went away to school, and came back. Even if our students go into other communities they need to know how to be responsible for their part and to be responsible for the people around them. A lot of our students will stay in this community because of their strong family ties and love of the city. There is a different community feel up here (Inwood) than there is in different parts of the city and they naturally are drawn toward this because of its warmth.
Q. What was your contribution to Inwood Academy’s original Charter School Application?
When Christina (Reyes) was writing the charter one of the things that she wanted some help with was thinking about special populations. What is our philosophy of students with special needs? How do we set it up? What does our Response to Intervention look like? In other words, when you try something with a student, how do we know it’s working, what do we do once we see that it is or is not working, and what is the next step, or how do we know when to pull back on services if they are not needed? Then it was how do we set up accountability with the Department of Education. What do we do with students who come in where we identify that they actually need an IEP (Individualized Education Plan from the Committee on Special Education) and what would be our process? For me it was really wonderful because I got to say, well, here is what the law says we have to do and here is the way I think it should look. I believe that all students have the ability to learn and we can’t just say that because the student has an IEP that is written this way that we have to keep them separate. And so we really worked on finding what the least restrictive environment is for a student and then when can we move them along to a different setting or to a less restrictive environment, even still.
Q. How will your experience as a special education specialist influence your decision making going forward as Inwood Academy’s new Middle School Director?
I can’t decide if it’s the special education specialist or if it’s just the mother in me, but I really like to take away as much chance for issues to happen as possible. In my experience with special education students, clear structure and understanding what’s expected of them is when they feel safe and that’s when they will respond in a really positive way. But I felt the same way about my own children.
Our goal is for 100% of our students to be engaged in the work of a reader, the work of a mathematician.
We want to look at the reluctant learner this year and that probably comes out of my special education background. Our goal is for 100% of our students to be engaged in the work of a reader, the work of a mathematician. In math we are focusing on persistence and working through difficult problems and both of those are special populations’ struggles.
Q. What are your thoughts on in-classroom teaching vs pull-out push-in model?
We do both. I think it’s kind of a continuum and it’s on an as needed basis. Most of our teachers teach in a way that in one class period they are going to see the work of every student. They have set up stations where they are at one station and the students rotate through or the teacher rotates around and sees what’s going on. Because we also collect a lot of data, and daily data, we know whose struggling on whatever so that might mean that they need to be pulled out for a time or they need just a quick fix on something.
There are students who need to be pulled out and we have pull out for those needs. It’s students who are especially distracted or English language learners who just need a lot of extra vocabulary or need more background knowledge so when the content is really important to be delivered that way we will do it. Most of the time our model is to deliver it in the classroom as often as possible and that’s what kids prefer.
A big challenge is, honestly, funding.
Q. Based on your experience teaching in different school settings, what do you think is the biggest challenge for us as a charter school?
It’s not what most people think it is. I think most people would say that its students come from a background where they don’t have background knowledge, they don’t have the language skills. I don’t think that’s it. Sure, these are many of our kids and we have found ways to come along side children and celebrate their amazing strengths.
A big challenge is, honestly, funding. We are not funded the same way traditional public schools are, but we have the same requirements in terms of building and teachers and meeting the special needs of our students. We have a lot of things that we would like to do and we are restricted by budget.
We take in everybody and we try, especially with students with special needs, to meet them where they are even though they may be four or five years behind.
As the charter management organizations in the city grow, it’s harder for philanthropists and private foundations to find us and to see who we are and what we do and how we are different from the big charter organizations. Our philosophy is different. We take in everybody and we try, especially with students with special needs, to meet them where they are even though they may be four or five years behind. We’ve built services like our Orton-Gillingham reading program specifically for students that are that far behind, where other charter schools may not always do that. We also have an extra teacher that just does that because we think it is important. And this requires funding. That to me is the biggest problem.
The students that we serve and the enthusiasm from the parents and what is the potential in this neighborhood I think is really exciting. I just feel like we need to keep searching until we find more strategic partners. I don’t think that it’s going to be the same ones who fund charter management organization because if they are supporting an organization like that they already have a bigness in mind and they have a philosophy in mind.
Q. Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us.
I read everything from books about economics and science to books about World War II and the Civil War, and a lot of non-fiction. I also love to read fiction; I read science fiction and once in a while I’ll read a suspense novel, but mainly I just read kind of anything. Books about nothing are my favorite.
Q. And your family?
I have four kids. Our oldest is blind which was something that made me understand the IEP process from the parent perspective and taught me a lot of what to do and what not to do. How the system worked from the parent end. Sometimes I’m conflicted in my role at Inwood when I’m sitting in an IEP meeting (with the CSE) from being the teacher or wanting to be the parent advocate. I think we can really play both because as teachers we do have to be both.