Category Archives: Advocacy

Get ready for next school year

As one school year winds down, its good to start thinking about the next year. Perhaps you have a child who will simply be moving from one grade to another in the same school. Maybe your child is facing a more dramatic transition such as:

  • Starting Preschool for the first time
  • Entering KindergartenToday's Preparation... Tomorrow's Success!
  • Moving from Elementary to Middle School
  • Beginning High School

It is time to move from thinking to planning!  Take steps to make this transition as smooth as possible by gathering information about what might be coming up, and sharing important information about your child with the right people.

If your child is staying at the same school, find out what might be different for the coming year (e.g. class size, number of teachers/aides, daily schedule, curriculum, meal times, etc.).  Each of these factors could impact your child and may require some changes in how your child’s needs are met.  You might also want to speak with the Principal about the classroom environment and/or teacher styles that are likely to be successful or unsuccessful for your child.  Hopefully the Principal will use this information to make a good match when class assignments are made.

If your child is moving to a new school, you will still want to know the things mentioned above, PLUS:

  • Visit the new school to check out the physical layout and ask about a typical day
  • Think about any possible barriers or challenges that your child might have in the new setting
  • If your child is entering middle or high school, ask about required courses and any options that may exist. Some courses are offered at multiple difficulty levels, and there may be other ways to help make sure that your child gets a course schedule that will work for him/her
  • Request a transition IEP meeting to discuss and make decisions about any changes that may be needed in the accommodations, modifications, supports, services and/or goals
  • For many children, it is helpful for them to have an opportunity to walk through the new school and possibly see their classroom(s) and meet their teacher(s) sometime before school starts. There may also be other steps that you can to help make this transition a smooth one.

Most importantly, stay positive and help your child feel good about the upcoming school year!

What happened to the EC teacher in middle school?

When IEP teams plan for a student’s transition from elementary to middle school, many parents are surprised to find out that their child’s special education services are going to be quite different. Children who have had pullout resource services for years may suddenly be expected to survive in general education core courses without any dedicated special education support time. It is a challenge to explain this reality to parents, while still making them aware of the IDEA requirement that a full continuum of services be made available so that IEP teams can decide what is most appropriate for each child.

There was a time when middle schools had sections of core academic subjects that were taught by special education teachers. These classes typically followed the standard course of study, but the smaller class size allowed the teacher to move at a pace that  students could handle, and to explain concepts in a variety of ways. This worked for a lot of children.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) changed all of this with its definition of “highly qualified teacher” and requirement that core courses in middle and high schools could only be taught by a teacher who was highly qualified in that specific academic subject. Before NCLB, North Carolina, as did many states, certified special education teachers in “special education” and not each separate academic subject.  Under NCLB in-service teachers had to take specific steps in order to be declared “highly qualified” in a core subject. To make matters worse, one of the options that North Carolina had developed to accomplish this  was rejected by the U.S. Department of Education after many teachers had completed that process. All of this led to a shortage of special education teachers who were available to teach core subjects at the secondary school level.

The solution that most school systems came up with was to have general education teachers serve as the “teacher of record” for these core courses, while having a special education teacher also in the room to provide extra support for students who needed it. These courses are generally referred to as “co-taught” or “inclusion classes.” Most middle schools offer such courses in English Language Arts and Math. Some schools also include Science and Social Studies.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to special education. The inclusion classes meet the needs of some students, while others continue to need additional support. Many schools also offer “curriculum assistance” or “resource support” classes as elective courses. (The actual class titles vary from one school district to the another.) These classes are taught by special education teachers who often introduce study skills, along with other content and strategies that are useful for most of the students to know. However, the chief benefit of these smaller classes is that they provide an opportunity for students to get extra help with their general education coursework as well as their IEP goals.

No Child Left Behind is no longer the law of the land, yet many schools continue to deliver special education services the same as they have for years. Schools and parents  should be aware that the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides room for a wider variety of ways that special education students can be served.

As parents begin to think about their child moving on to middle school, they should consider making contact with staff at the middle school to discuss the existing options. However, they should also keep in mind that if those options do not meet their child’s needs, they can challenge the IEP team and the school system to create additional options. With more choices, IEP teams have a much greater opportunity to create an educational program that will meet each individual student’s unique needs. At the end of the day, that is what special education is all about.

 

Understanding the role of the LEA Representative

In many IEP meetings one of the school system staff members is introduced as “the LEA” without further explanation. If there is a lot of discussion and debate around an issue, it will often appear that this LEA has more influence than most other members of the IEP team. This may not seem fair to parents, who usually are outnumbered in the first place. However, it is important to understand that the LEA Representative does have a unique role in the IEP process.

First, let’s clear up some education jargon. LEA is short for Local Education Agency. Each individual school system that has a central administrator, usually known as the Superintendent, and School Board is actually a distinct LEA. Some LEAs are county-wide, some just cover a particular city, and some are public charter schools. Charter schools will typically have a Board of Directors rather than an elected School Board, and their central administrators have a variety of job titles, such as Headmaster, Dean or Principal.

IEP teams are required to include someone who can represent the LEA. The person who serves in the role of LEA Representative must meet certain criteria:

  • Be qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of special education instruction;
  • Be knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and
  • Have knowledge of the resources available to that LEA.

Every student with a disability who qualifies for special education services must be provided with a free appropriate public education (FAPE). It is the LEA (school system) that has the responsibility for delivering FAPE to its students. It is also the LEA that is held accountable when that does not happen.

To a large extent, the contents of an IEP define what FAPE looks like for that particular student. This makes the decisions of the IEP team extremely important and legally binding. IEP team decisions are expected to be based on data and the input of every member of the team. Most of the time IEP teams are eventually able to reach decisions that everyone can live with. That’s called reaching a consensus. If the team fails to reach consensus about a relatively minor issue, the matter may be put on hold until more information can be gathered.

When the IEP team cannot come to agreement about a really important proposal, the LEA Representative has the authority to make the decision. This allows the team to move forward with finalizing the IEP so that the student can be served. Having a clear decision also gives the parent the right to formally challenge that decision through one of the options available for resolving special education disputes. Those options are detailed in the Procedural Safeguards Notice* that is often referred to as the “Parent Rights Handbook.” Parents should be given a copy of the handbook at least once each year, but they can ask for a copy at any time.

In rare cases, individuals who serve as the LEA Representative over-use their decision making authority and the IEP team is not able to function properly. If this happens, a higher-level special education administrator should be notified so that corrective action can be taken.

* North Carolina Parent Rights and Responsibilities

What are surrogate parents?

Our federal special education law places a lot of importance on the role of the parent in decision making. It is understood that parents’ number one priority is looking out for the best interest of their child. But what happens to those children who don’t have a parent who can speak on their behalf?

First, let’s look at how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 defines “parent.”

  • A biological or adoptive parent of a child;
  • A foster parent, unless state law, regulations, or contractual obligations…prohibit a foster parent from acting as a parent (e.g. therapeutic foster parent);
  • A guardian generally authorized to to act as the child’s parent or authorized to make educational decisions;
  • An individual, with whom the child lives, acting in the place of a biological or adoptive parent, or an individual legally responsible for the child’s welfare; or
  • A surrogate parent who has been appointed in accordance with IDEA ’04

For children who are wards of the State, or for whom no parent can be identified or located, or unaccompanied homeless youth, a trained volunteer must be appointed  by the public school system, or local education agency (LEA), to protect the rights of the child in special education processes. The LEA has to develop a procedure to identify children who may need a surrogate parent, and a way to assign surrogate parents to those children. For children who are wards of the State, the judge overseeing their case also has authority to appoint a surrogate parent.

Surrogate parents are involved in the same decisions that require parent participation. This includes decisions related to evaluation, determining eligibility for special education services, development and review/revision of the Individualized Education Program (IEP), educational placement and the provision of a free appropriate pubic education (FAPE). Surrogate parents also participate in the Manifestation Determination Review meetings that look at the possible role of disability when students are facing disciplinary changes in placement.

Surrogate parents must have sufficient knowledge and skills to adequately represent the child so many LEAs provide training to volunteers. Surrogate parents have access to the child’s educational records and should be expected to have some familiarity with the child and his/her needs before attending an IEP or other school meeting.

Good surrogate parents provide an important service to children that may have no other adult who can stand up and speak up for them when critical decisions are made about their education. If you, or someone you know has the time and flexibility to volunteer as a surrogate parent, please consider this as a great way to make a real difference in the life of a child who is facing multiple life challenges in addition to having a disability.

 

Is your child in the right courses?

For students in middle and high school it is extremely important for parents to keep up with the courses that they are taking. The classes should offer the right amount of challenge (not too easy, not too hard). They should be preparing your child for whatever their goals are for life after high school. More importantly, the courses need to be chosen so that they meet the graduation requirements for your school system. With many schools using computer programs to create schedules for students, it’s not hard for the needs of individual students to be overlooked.

For many students who have disabilities, course selection is even more critical. For some students it will be important to make sure that they are placed in the course sections that are co-taught by both regular education and special education teachers. This can offer real-time assistance and support to help students be successful with grade-level material. The co-taught classes can be selected in the areas most likely impacted by the student’s disability. Sometimes the assumption is made that, because the student has an IEP, they should automatically be placed in the lowest level course available. This approach would keep many students from building on their strengths to reach their full potential. Students who need support in some subjects can also take typical or even honors classes in subjects that are areas of strength for them.

These days, most high schools are using block schedules that cover the entire content of a course during a single semester. It may be important to make sure that the courses that will be most challenging for your child are not all piled into the same semester. With thoughtful planning, the school can create a schedule that spreads the work load out more evenly. For example, your child can take two really hard classes at the same time plus a support class and an elective in an area of interest. This kind of planning from the very beginning will usually allow students to complete all of their graduation requirements within 4 years so they can graduate with their peers. Even if they have to pick up a summer class or return for an extra semester, the goal is that the student experiences success and gains knowledge that will help them throughout their life. The extra time will be well spent.

Parents also need to look out for other kinds of scheduling problems:

  • Make sure that courses are taken in the right sequence. The level 1 course should come before the level 2 course.
  • Make sure that your child is not assigned to a course that they have already successfully completed. With rare exceptions, they will not earn course credit the second time around.
  • Make sure that your child was not placed in an elective course that they have no interest in, or one that is a poor fit, just because there was space in that class. Forcing an extremely shy kid to take a drama class will probably not end well.
  •  Make sure that your child is on track to graduate when expected. Your child could be taking math and science classes that are counted as “electives” that do not meet the graduation requirements for that subject area. If your child comes up short by missing even a single graduation requirement, they will not get a diploma. At least once a year have your child’s guidance counselor review the courses that your child has taken and compare them to the courses required for graduation.

Read your child’s class schedule carefully as soon as you get it.  If you see anything on that doesn’t look right, contact staff at the school immediately.  Go to the school in person if you need to.  The sooner any problems are corrected, the easier it will be for your child, and the better their educational experience will be.

Extended School Year (ESY) services

sunExtended School Year or ESY refers to special education and related services that are provided to eligible students beyond the normal school year, based on the student’s  Individualized Education Program (IEP).  ESY is not summer school! Services  are based on each child’s unique needs, so they range widely in terms of the type of service and how it is delivered.  ESY services are often intended to help the child maintain their skills, not make progress. For example, a child may only get physical therapy, and just enough to maintain their range of motion.

During the development of each new IEP the IEP team must decide if the student is, or is not eligible for ESY services.  In some cases, the team will note that ESY is “under consideration” and a future date will be set for the team to come back together and make a final decision.  This gives the team time to collect data or information about the student’s performance to help them determine eligibility for ESY.

Some of the key things for the IEP team to consider are:

  • Whether the student regresses, or slides backward, during long breaks from instruction, and takes an unusually long time to relearn lost skills, or
  • Whether there is a risk that a long break will erase most of the gain that the student made during the regular school, or
  • Whether the student is showing that they are beginning to learn a critical skill, and the “window of opportunity” might be lost if there are long breaks from instruction.

The great majority of students do not qualify for ESY services.  In many cases, however, the team ends up checking “No” on the IEP simply because they do not have enough information to establish that the student needs ESY services.

It’s probably too late to address ESY for the summer of 2017, but it’s not too late to start gathering information and data that the IEP team can consider at the next annual review.  Save a few samples of your child’s school work to show what they were able to do at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.  Keep progress reports, report cards, behavior reports, communication log, correspondence, assessment results, videos… basically anything that will provide documentation of your child’s functioning in the areas of concern.

Find out what kind of assessments will be done when your child returns to school.  If additional skills need to be measured, ask to have some assessment conducted in those areas.  If there are significant concerns about behavior, try to get next year’s teacher to make  written reports to you about how your child’s behavior has been each day.  Whether the teacher makes a note in the child’s assignment book, or completes a printed check sheet of some sort, this will provide information about your child’s performance over time, so that any patterns can be identified (ex. he/she has more behavioral difficulties after long weekends, or winter and spring breaks).

It’s okay to tell the teacher(s) that you want to make sure that enough data is collected during the year to give the IEP team what it needs to make the right decision about Extended School Year services.  Collect your own data by making notes about things that you observe and comments that are made to you over the course of the school year.  Hold onto (or copy) some of the school work and tests that come home.  Hopefully, what you will see is your child making steady progress.  But you will be better prepared, just in case…

Can my child keep OT if we drop his other special education services?

questions-and-answers

Question:

My preschooler has an IEP because of developmental delays. He gets one session of occupational therapy (OT) each week and speech therapy twice a week. A special education teacher also comes to our house twice a week to work with him. I was told that the speech and OT would not continue if the special education instruction was stopped at my request. Is that true?

Answer:

For most children, services such as speech therapy and occupational therapy are considered to be Related Services. Here is the official* definition:

“Related services means transportation, and such developmental, corrective, and other supportive services as are required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education.”

Technically, a child does not need a related service if there is no special education service for them to benefit from. This is why stopping the special education instruction would cause your child to also loose the speech and OT services. This does not mean that your child is magically “cured” and no longer has delays in those skill areas.  It does, however, mean that the IEP team will probably not agree to an Individualized Education Program that leaves out the specially designed instruction that qualified your child for services in the first place.

Please note: For children whose category of eligibility for special education is Speech or Language Impairment, speech therapy is their specially designed instruction, not a related service.

If you have specific concerns about the special education service that your child is getting, it would probably be best to express those concerns to see if an acceptable solution can be worked out. For example, if you feel that the instruction is not benefiting your child, or perhaps is focused on the wrong skills, this matter can be discussed with the IEP team. It might be possible to make changes to the annual goals or other sections of the IEP  to make services more effective or more useful. If you have a problem with a particular teacher who works with your child, this would be considered a personnel matter that you can discuss with the Preschool Coordinator for your school system.

If your concerns can be adequately addressed, it should be possible for your child to continue to receive the complete package of services and supports that his IEP team determined were needed for him to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE). That would be a real win-win situation.

“School Choice” for Students with Disabilities. Part 2: Private Schools

While public schools have a legal obligation to provide a free appropriate public education to students who have disabilities, some parents wonder whether their child might be better off in a private school. Private schools often have smaller class sizes than typical public schools and many boast about high student achievement. It is also rare to hear about major discipline problems in private schools. Parents might imagine that their child could get more attention in such a setting. So far, so good.

Private schools, however, are not going to be a perfect solution for every child. There are many things to consider. Private schools DO get to hand pick their students. Children have to apply and be accepted in order to attend.  Most enrollment contracts also allow private schools to dismiss students at any point during the year.

Depending on the school’s accreditation, parents may not be able to assume that all of the teachers are licensed. If the school is connected to a religious organization, religion might be infused into the curriculum or school activities. Also, if a parent has a dispute within a private school, there may be very few steps that they can take.

If you are thinking about looking into private schools for your child, the two biggest factors will probably be cost and the amount of disability support that the school offers.

Cost:

At private schools, parents usually pay for everything: tuition, school supplies, transportation, assorted fees, and the costs associated with extra-curricular activities. Private school costs vary tremendously from one school to the next. Some schools have need-based financial assistance, but they may not advertise that fact.

North Carolina now has two K-12 grant programs that can help some families pay for the cost of sending their child to a private school. The Opportunity Scholarship Program can pay up to $4,200 per year toward the cost of tuition and required fees. In order to be eligible, household income cannot exceed set guidelines. The Disabilities Grant Program awards up to $8,000 per year, which can be used for tuition, fees and other qualified expenses related to educating children with disabilities who are enrolled in a private or home school. There are no income restrictions, but the student must be eligible for special education services using public school guidelines. Contact the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority for more information about the grant programs and how to apply.

Disability Support:

Even though pubic school systems have to spend a certain amount of money serving students who are enrolled in private schools, they can limit the type of services that they provide. Students enrolled in private schools do not have an individual right to special education services from the public school system. Parents should not expect that a child’s public school IEP will be followed after the child enrolls in a private school.

Private schools are not required to provide special education services at all! They can decide how much extra instruction and support they are willing to provide to students. The partial exception to this rule are private schools that receive federal funds. Those schools are required to provide reasonable accommodations and otherwise comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

There are a handful of private schools in North Carolina designed specifically to serve students with disabilities. Most of these schools are in or around major cities. Most also target children with certain disabilities rather than attempt to meet the needs of everyone. Because of low student-to-staff ratios, these schools are usually very expensive.

For the vast majority of private schools student support is limited to some remediation or intervention by a general education teacher or school counselor.  They may allow private speech or occupational therapists to work with students at school. A few schools have a special education teacher on staff. Others have staff who are willing to provide tutoring services outside regular school hours. There is often an additional cost for most of these support services. Some private schools do not offer any extra instruction or support, leaving parents on their own to locate and pay for the services that their child may need.

Questions to ask if you are considering enrolling your child in a private school:

  • Does the school have much experience working with students who have disabilities? What about students with disabilities like your child?
  • What types of supports and/or special instruction are available?
  • Are there teachers with relevant specialized training?
  • What happens if a child needs a service such as counseling, speech, occupational or physical therapy?
  • How do they handle students who have emotional or behavioral needs?
  • Under what circumstances might a student be asked to leave the school? (Read the refund policy and enrollment contract carefully before signing it.)

Having a say in where your child goes to school comes with a lot of responsibility. Do your research. Ask lots of questions. Consider all of the potential impacts on the whole family. There will likely be some trade-offs. Think about which things are most important. Take a deep breath…make the best decision that you can…and don’t look back. If necessary, you can make a different choice next year.

Great Back-to-School Checklist

The National Association of School Nurses (NASN) has created a great Back-to-School Checklist for families. It contains some tips that apply to parents or caregivers of all children. There is also a series of tips especially for parents/caregivers of children who have health concerns.

Even though school has started, it’s never too late for a good idea. Check it out!

Back-to-School Family Checklist

Placement versus Assignment for students with disabilities

questions-and-answersWhat is the difference between “placement” and “assignment” when it comes to students who have disabilities?  This topic should actually fall under the heading of: Questions parents don’t ask because they don’t know what they don’t know.

“Placement” and “assignment” are often used as though they mean the same thing in conversations about the education of typical students. However, there are some very real differences in how these words are used when talking about students who receive special education services. There are also big differences in how decisions about placement and assignment are made.

Special education placement describes the type and amount of special education and related services a student receives based on their Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP will also describe the location where the services will be delivered. The IEP will state whether the services will be provided within the general education setting, special education setting, or the total school environment. The team of people who create each student’s IEP includes the child’s parent(s), a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and someone who can represent the local education agency (LEA) or school system. The IEP team can include other individuals, depending on what is being discussed or when invited by the parent or school.

Students with disabilities must be educated alongside students who don’t have disabilities as much as possible, as long as their needs can be met. The IEP team has to explain why a student is removed from his non-disabled peers and why they cannot be adequately served in the general education setting, even with the use of supplemental aids and services. The least restrictive environment for each student must be determined based on the unique needs of that particular student and not factors such as age or type of disability.

Some students with disabilities stay in the general education setting all day long, some removed for a short time each day, and other students require a specialized environment for most of their day. There is a wide range, or continuum of alternative educational placements that the IEP team can consider. The amount of time that the student is removed from their non-disabled peers will determine whether their placement on the continuum is described as regular, resource, separate, separate school, residential, home/hospital, etc.  The IEP team, including the parent(s), has full responsibility for deciding special education placement.

Educational assignment refers to administrative decisions that are made by people who have been given certain authority to make them, as well as the guidance of school board or other policies. For example, principals typically have the authority to assign students to specific teachers. In North Carolina, principals also have sole authority over each student’s grade assignment or classification, including promotion and retention decisions.

Most school systems have a written policy that details how students are assigned to particular schools. In addition to a “home” school based on the student’s address, there may be other school options that parents can apply for by following certain steps. There may even be an appeal process if the request to change schools is denied.

If the IEP team has decided that a student’s disability-related needs require a specialized setting at, or beyond, the “separate” level of service, that student will be administratively assigned to the school closest to home where his or her needs can be met. School system administrators can decide where to locate various specialized classrooms, and they can be moved from one school year to the next. In most cases, parents of these children will not have a choice about which school their child will be assigned. Parents also do not have a right to pick and choose their child’s teachers.

If there are special considerations that make the standard administrative process or the resulting decision, not appropriate for your child, find out who has the authority to do something different. That would be the contact point where you should focus your efforts to advocate for your child. Communicate with the decision maker(s) to help them better understand all of the issues involved. If necessary, reach out to the school board members and others who actually create the policies that everyone else has to follow.

The IEP team process gives parents a clear role in making decisions about special education placement decisions, but parents can sometimes influence administrative decisions as well. It is important to be clear about which decisions you are talking about.