Looking Past the Labels
Published in Commencement
Stephen Numme believes school segregation lives on through the designation “special ed.” He speaks from experience
For Stephen Numme, two numbers tell the tale of inequity in American education – and, more broadly, in society itself.
“Only four percent of students in New York City who go to school in self-contained settings” – read: special education – “graduate from high school,” says Numme, who is receiving his master’s degree in elementary inclusive education this spring. “And the vast, overwhelming majority of kids in those settings are black and Latino. So I believe Brown [Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that struck down segregation in schools] is a failure. We’re just segregating kids through special education and setting them up for anti-social behavior. Our schools have become a mechanism through which children are identified, categorized, labeled, and sometimes sorted, and these practices profoundly influence the outcomes in people’s lives.”
Numme, who identifies himself as a “Sorta Rican” – his mother immigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico and his father is of Italian descent – has lived this scenario. Raised in a troubled household (his father became addicted to heroin and had repeated run-ins with the law), and himself afflicted with what he calls “a plethora of so-called dis/abilities,” Numme ran afoul of his teachers as an elementary school student.
“I was a Ritalin kid, and I went to a parochial school where they had some weird attitudes about medication,” he says. “Basically they had their own theories about why I was the way I was, and they dealt with me their own way. One teacher tied me to a chair in the back of the classroom with all my classmates watching. So I was out of control, and no one wanted to deal with me – and I hated school because of it.”
Numme’s difficulties only escalated when he switched to the public school system. Eventually designated as a special ed student, he attended six different specialized high schools after dropping out in ninth grade.
“The alternative schools I went to were terrible places,” he says. “Nothing more than holding facilities, really.” He cut school most mornings and became, by his own account, “Immersed in a world of juvenile delinquency. “ Eventually he saw his two best friends die from drug overdoses.
“My trajectory was toward prison,” he says. “I graduated high school because I showed up. College definitely wasn’t in the cards.”
Two people saved him.
“My mom was the pillar in my life, she was there for me every step of the way,” Numme says. “She worked, she went to school herself – she modeled the behaviors she thought I should see. She preached the value of education, and despite everything, I got it – I saw the benefits.”
At 16, Numme also met his future wife. They had a daughter two years later, and at that point, he says, “I cut out the nonsense and disassociated myself from the negative influences in my life– that was my moment, the first time in my life I had an opportunity to define myself. I didn’t want to be a deadbeat dad – I didn’t want that to be my story, I didn’t want to pay back my mom that way.”
He got a job driving a cab, getting up at five in the morning to catch the train to work. He met people from all walks of life -- “attorneys, businessmen, cardiologists, domestics – A through Z” -- and realized that “You have to be happy doing whatever you do in life.”
One day while he was doing laundry, a city bus drove by with an advertisement on the back for CUNY.
“We were living near Lehman in the Bronx by then, so I said, hey, I’ll give it a shot. I had a 3.2 GPA in high school, but I never took regents classes – I couldn’t -- so they wouldn’t take me. They encouraged me to go to Bronx Community College and then transfer back. And I’m glad they did. After BCC, I earned a few scholarships and transferred to NYU. I loved it.”
After graduating summa cum laude from NYU, Numme taught high school English in Stamford, Connecticut, then worked as a case manager at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, through the Office of Multiple Pathways to Graduation/Learning To Work program. He thought about a career in law, but turned down a full scholarship to Albany School of Law after deciding that classroom teaching was the best way to create a better experience for young people from backgrounds like his own. He enrolled in TC’s elementary inclusive education program because it offered dual certification in both general and special education.
“I’ve never been the rah-rah school type, but the professors here have been awesome – Britt Hamre, Megan Lawless, Celia Oyler – and I really agree with their perspective that knowledge is experientially based, and that schools should build on students’ capacities, as opposed to adhering to a deficit driven perspective, and looking at what they think is wrong with students.”
He spent this past semester working at a self-contained school in the Bronx where “virtually every student is either black or Latino.” He has since accepted a position with the city for the remainder of this school year as a primary substitute working in “6-1-1” settings – classrooms where there are six special needs children working with one teacher and one paraprofessional.
“My last class at TC is on a Wednesday and I start work the next morning,” he says. “That’s how I planned it, and TC set me up for success.”
Down the road, Numme sees himself becoming a principal or perhaps even founding a school. He also plans to do research that builds on the landmark 1979 case Larry P. v Riles, in which African-American parents argued that the California was administering culturally biased standardized intelligence tests that were causing a disproportionate number of African-American children to be identified as mentally retarded and placed in special education classes.
“The numbers don’t lie,” he says. “So why is there this disparity and how do the decisions get made? It’s a gray area when you get into questions of people’s ideology, but I’m really committed to finding out.”
For now, however, he believes his place is in the classroom – and with his family, which now includes his five-year-old son.
“Ultimately, it’s about modeling,” he says, of both roles, “and kids need to see the men, too. Right now, too much of the time, the woman is the man. In elementary school, something like 95 percent of the teachers are women – and how many of these kids are already growing up without a father? They need to at least see professional men who are like them.”