Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Resources for IEP Season

Students who receive special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act  (IDEA) must have their Individual Education Program (IEP) reviewed at least annually. Schools tend to do this in the spring, as the academic year comes to a close and all parties can see how the student did during the school year. At this point in the year, schools are pushing to get all their students' IEP's reviewed and often have meetings scheduled back-to-back-to-back each day.

For parents, the annual IEP meeting provides an important opportunity to sit down with the key players in their child's education and to help shape their education for the next school year. It is a process that should not be rushed, and parents should make sure that the school gives them adequate time to take a serious look at their child's performance and goals and to carefully consider plans for the coming year.

The Wrightslaw website recently devoted an issue of its newsletter to tools and suggestions for parents as they prepare for and attend IEP meetings. While these tips are helpful, there are other things we suggest that parents do when attending an IEP meeting. They include:
  • Bring your child. This will depend, of course, on your child's age and level of understanding, but even children in late elementary school -- and certainly those in high school -- should become knowledgeable and comfortable with the nature of their differences and what the school plans to do to to help them. Don't let your school discourage you if you believe your child has the understanding and maturity to handle this kind of meeting. 
  • Whether or not you bring your child, you should also bring another adult. If you are attending as a husband/wife or partner team, that may be sufficient. But even the least contentious IEP meeting can be stressful for parents and it can help to have someone with you to take notes, kick you under the table, or to help you to express your views. You are entitled by law to bring with you anyone you want, although schools should be notified in advance if you plan to have a physician or other professional attend (in person or by phone or webcam) because the school may want to have someone there who can understand and discuss the professional's recommendations and will seek to adjourn the meeting if they do not have notice.
  • Learn and use the vocabulary that governs your child's entitlement to services. Your child is entitled to be educated in the least restrictive environment. Her education should provide FAPE - be appropriate to her needs and publicly funded. He is entitled by law to a sufficient transition plan if he is 15 or 16 (this varies under state laws). 
You probably would not shop for an important dinner without a list. The lists suggested by the Wrightslaw newsletter and the tips included here should help you and your child to obtain an IEP that meets his or her needs. And if you are dissatisfied with the services, setting or other aspect of your child's IEP, you have the right to seek a hearing before a State Hearing Officer. Sometimes, just mentioning that you hope you don't have to "go to a hearing" on a sticking point may be enough to get the school's attention and push them towards a compromise. On the other hand, in tough economic times some districts, like the New York City Public Schools, are taking a tough stance against IEPs that contain services or settings that can be expensive to implement.

Photo used under Creative Commons from Voka - Kamer van Koophandel Limburg

Monday, April 25, 2011

Talking to Your Child

You see them everywhere -- children in strollers being pushed along by a mom, dad, or caregiver who is busily chatting on a cell phone. Sometimes, the phone isn't in evidence, thanks to Bluetooth or other technology, and it looks like the adult is talking to the child. But then you realize that there is little or no eye contact between the parent and child and that the conversation is clearly not child focused. While we know that sometimes a call can't be postponed, it's really a shame that these caregivers and their stroller passengers are missing a key opportunity to build language skills and future literacy.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is one of many organizations that urges parents to take every opportunity to talk to their children. They point out that there is no evidence that any DVD, CD, or computer program can do more for the development of a child than having their parent or caregiver speak to them. Singing works fine too. The key is eye contact, facial expressions, and language, even if your child is too young to understand what you are saying. Babies and young children learn from the world around them and the more language stimulation they take in the sooner and better their own use of language will develop.

The National Institute for Literacy has produced guidelines for building language in young children that stress not just talking at them, but talking with them in a back-and-forth conversation, giving children who have started to use language a chance to practice and develop their skills. These guidelines were developed following an extensive investigation by the National Early Literacy Panel and the panel's report, issued in 2009.

So, as difficult as it may be to have a day filled with talking to an infant or conversing with a toddler, think about how you are helping to build your child's vocabulary and future literacy skills and put down the cell phone. It's the least we can do as parents.

Photo used under Creative Commons from abbybatchelder

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The "Child Find" Obligation

Even parents who are fairly well versed in workings of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are often not familiar with an important provision of that law called the "child find" obligation. This provision of the IDEA places the obligation for locating and evaluating children who may be in need of special education services on local public school districts. In practice, this means that schools that fail to evaluate children who are suspected to be in need of special education and related services (such as speech and language support, or occupational or physicial therapy) are in violation of federal law.

We were reminded of this issue by a recent email from Disability Scoop which notes that the United States Supreme Court has asked the Solicitor General to provide input on whether the IDEA provides a remedy for failure to evaluate a child who is suspected of having a learning disability. In the case at hand, a California high school student with clear signs of disability was promoted, rather than evaluated. [As in many of these cases, there was also some parental confusion or complication about the evaluation -- as described by the appeals court which became involved in the case, the mom was reluctant to have her daughter "looked at" and the school decided "not to push"]. When the evaluation was finally conducted, the child was found to have a disability and to be entitled to special education services. The school district appealed from a  United States Circuit Court of Appeals decision that provided for compensatory education -- which can take the form of extended years of schooling (beyond the usual legal obligation), summer school, extra support, or placement in a private school able to meet a student's needs (at the expense of the school district). 

Now, as this matter is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the high court is looking at what kind of remedies are intended to be available to students under the "child find" provision of the IDEA. We will continue to watch this case and get the final word on what remedies are available when schools violate their obligations under the law.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Four Sons, Revisited

We've never before repeated a blog entry. Even when we mention or link to a blog entry, the blog itself is newly written. After more than 250 posts, since 2009, we are breaking with that practice. In part, we are repeating this blog from February, 2010 because your blogger is up to her elbows in cooking for the Passover holiday, which begins with a seder this evening and continues for eight days. But more importantly, we still find this discussion a timely one and want to make sure that our new readers get a chance to share it and our long-time readers are prompted to think about it again. -Ed.

We've written before about how labels can be unfair to children and how they are insufficiently descriptive of what is really going on with any individual. We recently encountered a discussion of how labeling can be detrimental in a very unexpected context. Robert Dobrusin, a rabbi in Ann Arbor, Michigan, writes about how labels have unfairly limited the characters encountered in the traditional telling of the Passover story. The story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, a familiar part of the Old Testament, is told in a ritualized form as part of the Passover celebration. One key part of this ritual telling is the story of four sons, one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who cannot even ask a question. Every year, at the Passover meal, families read about these same sons, and tell the story of the exodus to answer these children's questions.

Rabbi Doursin notes, "I am troubled by the fact that we don't let them change. Throughout history they will always be wise or rebellious or simple or unquestioning... How can we set them in stone the way we do? There is one simple reason. They don't change because they each have been given a name: wise, rebellious, simple, unquestioning...How much wiser it would have been [if these children had been described] as the one who asked a wise question, the one who asked a rebellious question, the one who asked a simple question, the one who did not ask at all?"

He goes on to explain that when we label individuals we can be too quick to jump to conclusions about their actions. Only when we eschew labels and keep open the possibility of change can we then open the door for individuals to move beyond the roles their labels describe to growth and change. Whatever our beliefs, and whatever holidays and traditions we celebrate, it is excellent advice. Indeed, there is strong evidence that labeling or defining children by their limitations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because they tend not to see past their label to the possibility of their own change and growth.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Military Families

First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden teamed up this week to continue their work supporting military families by helping to kick off a White House promoted initiative called Joining Forces, designed to encourage community and business support for those who are serving in the military and their dependents. This is not the first administration initiative of this kind; back in January, a broad call from the White House to all federal agencies was titled Strengthening our Military Families: Meeting America's Commitment, which specifically included "ensuring excellence in military children's education and their development."

All children of military personnel are subject to the stress of frequent moves, parental absence, and sometimes, parental loss. But a particularly vulnerable group of children -- those with learning and other disabilities -- are even more affected than most. An excellent starting place for those seeking to help all children of military families and to understand the issues faced by those children with special educational and medical needs is the website Wrightslaw. We've recommended this site before for information on legal issues related to education. Pam and Peter Wright, who operate the site, have a son, Jason,  in the military, and the needs of these families is a subject clearly close to their hearts. The Wrightslaw site includes extensive links to all sorts of resources, reports, and services. These families make enormous sacrifices. It is important that their children receive an appropriate education and services, whatever their needs may be.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Children from China

I had the opportunity to speak to an amazing group of parents and teens yesterday and came away energized and, as always when I have the opportunity to talk to families or educators, with new insights and information.

It was my third presentation in a week about the subjects covered in my book, Life After High School, and the second Sunday in a row that I had spoken. I was not previously familiar with the group that had invited me -- Families of Children from China. The meeting room was filled with both parents and students and I have seldom spoken to a more engaged, knowledgeable audience. My co-presenters had much to share and the interaction among us and the audience made for an exchange of information that covered every aspect of transition from high school and college readiness.

Families of Children from China is a national network of local groups that "support families who have adopted in China through post-adoption and Chinese culture programs, that encourage adoption from China and support waiting families, and advocate and support children waiting in orphanages in China." As noted by Kacy Ames Heron, LCSW, herself an adoptee from Korea, children of adoption with learning differences deal with issues of identity, control, loss, and multiculturalism in addition to all of the other issues that teens with learning differences need to navigate. Ms. Heron only spoke to the adults in the group for a little while, moving to another room with the teens in attendance to explore emotional issues and strategies for success with these students. I would have liked to have sat in on this discussion, which one student reported as "actually fun."

My co-presenters also included the Director of Admissions at Landmark College, Rachel Masson, who is herself a graduate of Landmark's two year program for students with learning disabilities, as well as Diana Nash, who runs the very supportive program for students with learning disabilities at Marymount Manhattan College. For all in attendance it was a day well spent.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Season of Change for New York Education

New York is abuzz this week with news of significant changes to the educational leadership at both the city and state levels. First came a series of resignations over the last few weeks from the New York City Department of Education following the controversial appointment of Cathleen Black, a magazine executive with no teaching experience and no ties to the public schools, as Chancellor of the city's almost 1,700 hundred schools, serving over 1.1 million students. These resignations included deputy chancellors who managed such crucial areas as decentralization, admissions and school choice, finances, and community engagement.

Then, on Thursday of this week, came word that Ms. Black had resigned (at the request of the Mayor). Finally, later that same day, an announcement was made that the State Commissioner of Education, David Steiner, who had been in the position for only two years and who had grudgingly approved the Mayor's choice of Ms. Black (a requirement for her appointment) was leaving his position at the end of the year. Mr. Steiner stated that the occurrence of both resignations on the same day was simply a coincidence.

While the new State Commissioner of Education will be selected some time in the future by the New York State Board of Regents, the resignation of Chancellor Black was immediately followed by the appointment of Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott as her replacement. Mr. Walcott has a graduate degree in education, attended the New York City Public Schools, as did his children and, currently, his grandchild. He taught for two years and his responsibilities as Deputy Mayor included Education. Still, Mr. Walcott will require a waiver from the State Education Commissioner since he does not have the credentials in educational leadership that are required for the job.

Time will tell what these changes mean for the children and families of New York. But this might be a good time to set forth a short wish-list of things that can mean a great deal of difference to the children that are served by the City and State of New York.

  • We'd like to see real transition planning for students with learning and other issues, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and New York law. All too often, planning for the transition from high school to the workplace, or post-secondary education, is cursory and leaves out many meaningful life skills. Students need to learn about their rights under education laws, and should prepare for  adult responsibilities such as money management, travel, and how to find a job. Students who intend to continue their education are particularly likely to graduate without these crucial competencies.

  • We'd like to see the diploma system modified and clarified for parents and students. The long-standing Regents diploma, New York's goal for high school graduates, may not be accessible for some students with learning and other disabilities. Right now there is a stop-gap diploma available to some students with a lower passing grade. But as that is being phased out, students who cannot pass Regents exams will be relegated to IEP "diplomas" which are not diplomas at all. We believe that it is important to maintain standards for all students and to help them reach as high as their abilities permit. But when  students are cut off from a real diploma it can be a serious impediment to their future endeavors. There should be a permanent, real diploma alternative available for these students.

  • We'd like to see schools provide excellence in special education services. Right now the City of New York is trying hard to keep students with learning and other difficulties in public school programs to save the substantial expense of paying for these students' education in private schools. But the services offered in New York City Public Schools often fall short of meeting students' needs, forcing parents to place their children in private settings and seek tuition reimbursements or to leave them to struggle with inadequate IEPs or IEPs that are not followed. It is a "penny-wise and pound-foolish" policy.

    Tuesday, April 5, 2011

    Special Education and Charter Schools

    Yesterday's 11th Annual School Law Institute at the Practising Law Institute explored a number of important topics, including "Special Education in New York's Charter Schools," presented by attorney Matthew Delforte.

    Charter schools are public schools and are funded by public funds, but they are not subject to many public school requirements and are operated by private charter organizations, rather than the state or local department of education. Still, they are required to comply with many laws that also impact regular public schools, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504. Interestingly, rather than being part of any particular school district, charter schools are each considered to be their own district (or, more technically, LEA - local education agency).

    So, what does this mean for students who are enrolled in charter schools and who are in need of special education services?

    First of all, for their charter to be approved or renewed, charter schools must demonstrate that they accept and retain children with disabilities in numbers "comparable" to traditional public schools in their area. Students enrolled in charter schools are fully entitled to special education services: evaluation, planning by a Committee on Special Education, development of an IEP, and provision of appropriate services. However, it is the student's district of residence (where the student/parents reside), not the charter school, that is responsible for this identification and planning process. What this means is that the charter school must provide the services in the student's IEP but has limited input into the development of the IEP and determination of the services it specifies.

    The consequences of this split responsibility between the student's home district, which determines services, and the charter school, which must provide them, are complicated and are of particular complexity when dealing with the most disabled students.

    The law requires that the student's home district provide services to the student while he is in the charter school, but what if the charter school doesn't have the kind of class that student requires, or the kind of expertise that the child needs? Remember, the charter school doesn't set up the student's educational plan; that is done by the home district and the charter school often has little input into the IEP. Many IEP's specify the ratio of teachers to students for special education settings but charter schools set up their own class structures. Parents should also be aware that charter schools are not responsible for transportation; it is the responsibility of the student's home school district to provide transportation to the charter school if this is part of the IEP.

    So, as this area is further refined in law and practice, parents may want to think carefully before enrolling a student in need of substantial specialized services in a charter school. Yes, the law says your child should be properly served in this setting, but conflicts between the autonomy granted to charter schools and their obligations to serve all children can impact their ability to provide optimal levels of service.

    Friday, April 1, 2011

    Social Media and our Children

    A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics -- The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families  -- bears reading in its entirety, not just by the pediatricians for whom it is intended, but by parents and teens. It lays out the benefits of social media and online resources of all kinds and discusses how these can be misused or harmful to younger children or teens. What we particularly liked about this piece is that it is not alarmist, but enormously practical. It provides an important starting point for parents to have serious and ongoing conversations with their children of all ages and reminds us that no matter how sophisticated the technology in our lives may be, the crucial role of parents in providing their children with guidance and supervision has not diminished.