‘Not Just a Slogan on a T-Shirt:’ What It Means to Believe in Every Student

by | Apr 30, 2024 | 0 comments

April is Autism Acceptance Month, and that means a lot to us at DREAM, where nearly one-third of our students have special needs. That includes autism diagnoses, as well as a broad range of other academic and social-emotional needs across DREAM’s student population. 

DREAM’s population of special needs students is higher than the average NYC public school or charter school because our work is fueled by our deep belief in all kids. We believe that every child has the right and ability to thrive, no matter their strengths or challenges. And we believe every family should have access to the services and supports that their child needs, deserves, and is legally entitled to receive.

In fact, that belief in every child inspired one of DREAM’s core maxims: All Kids Can. This Kid Can. “It is so easy to write that on a T-shirt or a poster,” says Kristine Rigley, DREAM’s Network Director of Student Support. “It’s an entirely different thing to put those words into action. And every person at DREAM is very committed to making sure that those actions align with the words.”

We live that belief daily through inclusive practices that start even before the first day of school, and last far beyond graduation day:

  • Equitable enrollment practices: DREAM backfills every vacant seat in grades PK-10 and focuses on helping all students get to grade level. For students who were new to DREAM in 2022-23, 24% were proficient in Math when they arrived and 71% ended the school year proficient.
  • Deep family partnerships: DREAM believes that families are partners in their child’s education, starting from day one. At the beginning of every school year, teachers visit each individual family to get to know them and their child and establish the foundation of a strong, collaborative relationship.
  • Integrated co-teaching (ICT) model: All of our classrooms have two teachers in every classroom, ensuring that kids and adults have the support they need to thrive.
  • Small group and individual instruction: Our ICT model allows for the small group and one-one-one interventions that benefit all students.
  • AP classes for all: At DREAM, we require all students to participate in AP courses, regardless of prior academic performance. By the time they graduate, all DREAM Charter High School students will have taken a minimum of four AP classes – which studies show prepares them better for high-rigor colleges and careers, regardless of their score on the AP exam.
  • College access: All juniors and seniors have monthly one-one-one sessions with their college and career counselors to help them find the pathway that’s the best fit for them—academically, culturally, and financially.

At DREAM, we know that transformative outcomes for youth are possible not in spite of our student population’s incredibly diverse learning needs—but in many ways, because of them. The same strategies that we’ve honed for our students with IEPs—intentionally integrating consistency and challenges—work to support the success of all our students. “Consistency helps him become comfortable,” says DREAM mom Shayla, whose son Kamden has an IEP. “He knows he’s coming here. He’s seeing the same people. He’s doing the same things—in a way that challenges him.”

DREAM’s approach, combined with our strong outcomes, are proof that when students learn in diverse classrooms, they all benefit. And with the support of their whole village at DREAM behind them, they’re that much closer to not just excelling in school, but to achieving their dreams.

“It’s my dream that every single student in this building receives an excellent education so that they have the choice to be whatever they want when they grow up,” says Rigley. “The conversations that I have with students are: We want you here. We want you learning every single day.

“DREAM is special for me because it’s family,” adds Shayla. “I know that I can name five people in this building right now that I can count on.”

<a href="https://blog.wearedream.org/author/liz_white/" target="_self">DREAM</a>


DREAM started in 1991 as Harlem RBI, a volunteer-run Little League for 75 kids in East Harlem. Three decades later, the organization serves 2,500 youth across East Harlem and the South Bronx through a growing network of inclusive, extended-day, extended-year charter schools and community sports-based youth development programs. By developing an education model that is responsive to the unique academic and social needs of every child, DREAM is creating a future where all children are equipped to fulfill their vision of success.

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