Category Archives: special education

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.

 

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…

Plan Ahead for School Transitions

  • Starting Preschool for the first time
  • Entering Kindergarten
  • Moving from Elementary to Middle School
  • Beginning High School

It’s 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 be other steps that can be taken to help make this transition a smooth one.

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

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.

Meet Heather Ouzts, NCDPI Parent Liaison

Heather Ouzts photo Heather Ouzts, Parent Liaison

NCDPI Exceptional Children Division

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” (Jobs, 2005)

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to find my passion —helping families of students with disabilities. I have spent most of my life caring for children whether it was at work, church, or in my own home. As a mother of four children and as an employee in the schools, I learned that ALL children have special needs; some needs are just more easily seen. As a mother of a child with a disability, I learned that ALL parents have needs as well. In my work as a parent liaison, I have the great opportunity of trying to help schools meet the unique needs of both their students and their parents.

I first discovered my love for working with families as the parent liaison for the Exceptional Children Department of Alamance-Burlington School System in 2012. For three years, I worked with families, schools, and community partners to provide educational opportunities and resources for parents and build partnerships in our community. In August of 2015, I began a new position as the parent liaison within the Exceptional Children Division at the NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI). As a member of the Policy, Monitoring and Audit Section, I was specifically hired to support families of students with disabilities in North Carolina’s public schools.

Along with our Dispute Resolution Consultants, I do take questions from parents regarding special education services and policies. They may be looking for resources or want to know who to talk to about a certain issue. Parents may have concerns or questions regarding how the school is implementing the IEP or what the parent can do if they have a disagreement with the school regarding their child’s special education services. Sometimes the parent wants to know what their rights are as a parent of a student with a disability. As a liaison, I work with both the parents and the schools to make sure the parents’ questions and/or concerns are addressed.

My work at NCDPI also allows me the opportunity to provide professional development and technical assistance to school districts and charter schools on parent engagement. We are currently working to increase the number of parent liaisons and parent advisory councils available in local school districts and charters across the state. I participate on committees working on issues related to transition, surrogate parent guidance, and the School Mental Health Initiative. I also support the Council on Educational Services for Exceptional Children, the advisory council to the State Board of Education.

One of the best things about this position is that I do get to collaborate across the Division and work with so many families and schools across the state. I am always learning something new. Honestly, I have been amazed and encouraged by the efforts of so many here at NCDPI to continue to improve outcomes for all students. There is a lot of “heart” behind the hard work that I witness each day and, as a parent of a child with a disability, it fills me with hope for the future as we strive to meet the needs of students and families.

We must continue our efforts to educate families. I am a firm believer that when everyone can come to the IEP table with knowledge about the strengths and needs of the student, along with an understanding of the special education process, we will have better outcomes for students. It is critical for schools and families to improve communication and build relationships in order to meet the needs of both the student and the parents. It can make all the difference.

It really is great work… and I love it!

Parents can reach me at:

Tel: (919) 807-3989 ~ Fax: (919) 807-3243

Visit us on the web at www.ncpublicschools.org

References: Jobs, S. (2005, June 15). Stanford Commencement Address. Retrieved from Apple Matters:

http://www.applematters.com/article/steve_jobs_standford_commencement_address/

Mid-year IEP check-up time

We are just about at the halfway point in the school year.  Report cards will be coming home soon.  If your child receives special education services you should also get a report on his/her progress on their IEP goals.  This is a great opportunity to think about how things are going and whether or not some changes need to be made.  Ideally, we would all like to have a happy, socially-successful child who is learning and developing at or above the expected rate in all areas.  If that describes your child, you should give a word of thanks to all who have helped make this happen!

However,check-up-bottom not everyone is going to be so fortunate.  If there are things that concern you about your child’s education, there is still time to take actions that could help.

If your child’s grades are lower than you think they should be, try to get to the root of the problem.  Is your child having difficulty learning the material being taught? Is he doing poorly on tests even though he seems to understand the work?  Is she doing fine on tests, but has a low grade average because of zeros for several school assignments that were never completed or turned in?  Has your child missed a lot of instruction because of disciplinary actions that have taken him out of the classroom too many times?

Even if the grades are okay, there may be other reasons to be concerned.  The grades may seem to be inconsistent with what you see when your child is doing home work.  The progress on IEP goals may be moving much slower than expected.  Instructional assessments may show that the gap between your child’s skills and the achievement standard for his grade is getting wider instead of more narrow.  Is your child saying, or showing, that she does not want to go to school?  Are you getting more reports about problem behavior at school?

If you do see any red flags, the first action to take is to try to understand what is working and exactly where there may be some problems.  Talk to your child and your child’s teacher(s).  Ask what you can do at home to help your child be more successful.  Work with the teacher(s), other school staff, and the IEP team as appropriate to come up with solutions to any problems that are identified.  Make adjustments in terms of instruction, materials, strategies, accommodations, services, supports, environment…whatever makes sense for your child at this time.  Keep an eye on things to see if there is improvement or a need to try something else.

Your child is the winner when his educational team is working together toward the same goal!

“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.

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.

 

Options for meeting the needs of students with special health conditions in public schools

classroom-42275_1280On average, about 20% of the students in our public schools have some sort of chronic health condition. Some of these students have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) because they require specially designed instruction, but many of them do not. Because students have a wide variety of special needs, sometimes a combination of multiple issues, there are also several different options for meeting their educational and health-related needs. The following list will reflect the range of possibilities going from the most common and least restrictive, to the less common and more extreme. A professional school nurse and the child’s personal healthcare providers will play important roles in each of these situations.

  • There are many students who do not require any action on the part of school staff other than to monitor and document the administration of medications that are taken at school. In order for this to happen, parents must provide the school with written documentation of medical need from a physician, physician assistant or nurse practitioner (hereafter referred to as “doctors”).  They must also give their written permission for school staff to administer the medication.
  • Emergency Care Plans are developed for students who have a health condition that can potentially lead to a medical crisis. In the case of some students who are at risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction, there should be an on-going effort to reduce the child’s exposure to the allergen involved, but also a plan that includes actions that staff should take immediately if there is a serious reaction to accidental exposure. The plan may include things like administering Benadryl, giving an Epi-pen injection, calling 911 and/or notifying the child’s parents. Some students have a seizure disorder that requires the immediate administration of specific medication in order to prevent major escalation of symptoms and possible long-term complications.
  • Individual Health Plans (IHPs) describe how a student’s special health care needs will be met while they are at school. The plans are written by the school nurse, other school staff and the child’s parents, using information provided by the child’s doctor(s). The IHP will identify the child’s health condition(s), describe how the child is impacted by it, clearly state the actions that should be taken by school staff to manage or treat the condition, and how to respond if the child shows specific signs of distress or unusual developments occur. IHPs are also written for students who self-monitor their health condition and self-administer medication.
  • Section 504 Accommodation Plan. Some students have health conditions that require some adjustment in the way things are normally done in order for that student to have an equal opportunity to access, participate in, or benefit from the public education program. For example, a child with asthma may be allowed to take breaks during intense physical activity like PE class, or a child who has difficulty regulating body temperature may need a climate-controlled school bus. Some children may need shortened school days because of low stamina, and others may need flexibility with the school system’s attendance policy due to frequent health-related absences. Each school system creates its own Section 504 Policy within federal guidelines. A child must be determined to be eligible under Section 504 before an accommodation plan will be developed to address that child’s specific needs.
  • Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are developed for children who have been found eligible for special education services because of disabilities that may or may not be related to a health condition.  The IEP describes the services, supports and instructional goals required for the student to receive a free appropriate public education. The plan can include accommodations similar to those of a Section 504 Plan, but it may also include health or nursing services that are part of the student’s IHP. The IEP may include annual goals for the student to learn how to better participate in his own health care. The school nurse can also provide technical assistance and training to other school staff who will be working with the student.That service should be documented on the IEP. Sometimes, especially when the student’s health condition is totally unrelated to the disability that the special education focuses on, the IEP will simply mention implementation of the IHP to make sure that school staff are prompted to read the IHP and understand any responsibilities that they may have.
  • Medical Homebound Instruction is sometimes required when a student is unable to attend school for medical reasons. Very specific documentation from a doctor is required, and there is usually an expectation that the student will have to be out of school for an extended period of time. If medical homebound services are approved by the school district, arrangements are made for a teacher to provide instruction in the child’s home or another setting outside of school. Because homebound services are considered to be extremely restrictive, the child’s situation is reviewed on a regular basis to see if the child is still unable to attend school.

Medical needs and special health conditions should never stand in the way of a child getting a free appropriate public education. What it takes will vary from one child to the next, but there is an option that is right for each child who wants to learn. When parents, schools and medical providers all work together anything is possible!

It’s Transition Fair time!

If you are the parent of teen-aged child who receives special education services, you have probably heard about something called Transition to Adulthood. Basically, schools are required to really think about what should happen in the last few years of school to prepare a student with a disability for their adult life.  Regardless of whether they plan to go straight into the workforce, go to college or get other training, or continue to work on independent living skills for a while, there are steps that can be taken to make the transition out of high school a smoother one.

Many school systems offer Transition Fairs to provide an opportunity for students and parents to learn more about various options for adult services, post-secondary education and other community resources, all in one place.  Sometimes the transition fairs will also include information sessions on topics that range from understanding Social Security benefits to job interview skills.  Even if your child has a bit more time before she leaves school, it is always good to know what’s out there and learn what steps you should take, and when to take them.

Unfortunately, some school systems do a better job of getting the word out about transition fairs than others. Some will target certain groups of students and neglect to inform the parents of other students who have IEPs. Students with disabilities who spend most of their time in the general education setting often don’t get notices about a transition fair that may be going on in their community. Spring is the time of year when many of these transition fairs take place.  If you haven’t heard about any in your area, ask your child’s special education teacher, case manager, guidance counselor, or the transition coordinator for your school system.  Even if there are no plans to hold a transition fair this year, your questions may give them the idea to have one next year. It’s a win either way.