The disparities in the US education system affect most students in low-income and underfunded communities. It is even more difficult for diverse learners to receive a proper education with enough resources in those areas. Many community-led organizations are tasked with dissembling these issues by educating themselves first to cater towards the needs of young people.
SELF, Special Education Leader Fellowship, is a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization founded in 2015 to further the development of special education teachers to ensure students can reach their potential. Through various programs, they can focus on tasks such as individualized teacher cohorts, school support, one-on-one coaching from experts, and gathering teachers for professional learning communities.
“When I first became a teacher, I wanted all my kids to know that this is a place for them. I didn’t want them to feel like they didn’t belong, (or) weird or different from other people, because one thing I always stress is that we’re all different but we’re still accepting,” said Aqua Stovall, CEO and founder of SELF.
As an educator and principal in the New Orleans school system for almost three decades, Stovall understands how it has been lacking and how it can improve. Her experience has transformed into a passion for assisting other teachers with the knowledge to overcome the challenges they face. Her philosophy was to become the teacher she needed the most in high school so she could actually make a difference and create a sustainable solution.
“As a teacher I have always reflected on my educational experiences, and a lot of times I felt like school was not designed for me while being gifted and having a disability,” Stovall said.
“There are so many people who don’t fit in a box, and I always wondered what happened to them.”
Stovall did not have the best experiences while growing up in the public school system because it did not cater to students with learning disabilities or who could not learn in the traditional educational aspect. She founded the organization that first began its work as a program within the Firstline school system in New Orleans, where she sought to change the issue directly by working with teachers at her school. The organization has had a presence in over 70% of schools in New Orleans.
“Now we have been fortunate enough to have some other cohorts and programs so we can think about how we can serve all diverse learners and how do we build schools that are suitable for all kids,” Stovall said. “Across the country, everyone is struggling with special education, in terms of what a kid needs.”
Since the pandemic in 2020, it has motivated them to look for a long-term solution to fund and educate students. Recently, SELF has begun to branch out of New Orleans to engage other underrepresented communities who have issues with special education. The nonprofit has announced a partnership with independent charter schools in Los Angeles which will further their equitable programs.
In an attempt to produce more engagement and recognition for this ongoing issue, members of SELF lecture at other community events.
“Before, we would just put our heads down and do the work, but we are starting to have a voice around disability injustices in the country,” Stovall said. “SELF has pivoted to change the narrative around building inclusive practices because we really want to build schools that are designed for all kids.”