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.
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 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…
This is the time of year when one school year winds down and we 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. Or maybe your child is facing a more dramatic transition such as:
- 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!
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:
Visit us on the web at www.ncpublicschools.org
References: Jobs, S. (2005, June 15). Stanford Commencement Address. Retrieved from Apple Matters:
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
Every school-aged child in the U.S. has a public school that they can attend once a parent registers them. Parents also have a right to choose to teach their child themselves in a home school, or they can enroll their child in a private school that they are admitted to. For many of today’s parents, choosing a school for their child is not quite that simple. In a two-part blog series, we will take a look at public and private school options.
Part 1: Public Schools
All public schools must follow federal and state laws regarding students with disabilities, such as IDEA and Section 504. These laws give students the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Public schools have to provide special education services and accommodations for students who need them because of a disability. If a student requires specially designed instruction, an individualized education program is created by an IEP team, which includes the parents. The IEP team makes decisions about the amount and type of special education services and supports that the student will get.
In most cases, school system administrators make the decision about which school the child will actually be assigned to. Most children with disabilities attend the same school that they would go to if they did not have a disability. Other children may require specially designed instruction and services that are not available at the neighborhood school. These children are supposed to be assigned to the school closest to home that can meet their needs.
Parents who desire to have more control over their child’s education often want to know about any school options that may be available for them to select as a matter of choice. The following is a list of public school options, any of which may or may not be available in a particular community. There are also things that parents should think about when considering each option.
- Year-round Calendar- Some school systems allow parents to choose between schools that operate on a traditional calendar that has a long summer break, and a year-round calendar that gives students several shorter breaks throughout the year. For many children, the shorter breaks allow them to make more consistent progress because they do not loose skills or get “rusty” over a long school break.
- Magnet Schools– These schools follow the standard course of study, but also offer an enriched curriculum or special instructional approach based on a particular theme, area of study or philosophy. When considering a magnet school it is important to look for a good match between the student’s strengths, weaknesses and interests. For example, a child who has difficulty with oral expression in his primary language may not be the best candidate for a language immersion magnet where most of the instruction is in a second language.
- Charter Schools- Like magnet schools, they may have a particular focus or mission that sets them apart from regular public schools. In North Carolina, charter schools operate independent of the larger local school systems around them and they do not have geographic boundaries for attendance. Because they are public schools, charter schools do not charge tuition. They may or may not provide some sort of transportation assistance. In NC, charter schools may also use unlicensed teachers for up to 50% of their instructional staff. This creates opportunities as well as challenges.
While charter schools do not get to hand-pick their students, some students may have disability-related needs that cannot be adequately addressed within a particular charter school. For example, a school that was granted its charter based on having a college preparatory curriculum, would not be required to develop a totally different series of courses for a high school student who has a significant intellectual disability.
Many parents like the idea of a smaller school and possibly smaller class sizes. However, charter schools also have fewer in-house staff resources to address special needs than a regular school system. Most charter schools do not have a school nurse or behavior specialist on their staff. They may contract with private providers for services such as evaluations and speech, occupational or physical therapy. They may have only one or two special education teachers, and the person who functions as the Special Education Director may not have a special education background at all. The staff limitations may negatively impact the school’s ability to effectively address the challenges of students with significant, complex or uncommon disabilities.
If you are considering a magnet or charter school for your child:
- Check out the website of any schools that you are considering. Pay particular attention to the information found under headings such as “About our school” or “Academics.” Looking at the staff list may give you an idea of who is available to provide student support services and what the school’s priorities are.
- Think about whether the things that make that school different from others is a good match with the things that make your child a unique individual.
- Attend an Open House or arrange a personal tour.
- Ask questions about how they address the needs of students with disabilities.
- If the response is that they do not have any students with disabilities, consider that a red flag.
- If they describe something that sounds like a one-size-fits-all approach, ask what happens with students who do not benefit from that approach.
- If relevant, ask how the school handles challenging behavior.
- Listen for mention of positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS)
- Be wary if they talk about “zero tolerance” policies and behavior contracts, focus solely on punishment, or if they say that they do not have any behavior problems at that school.
- Positive signs can include mention of flexibility; willingness to make adjustments; emphasis on addressing individual student needs and/or learning styles; use of outside resources or consultants; commitment to on-going staff development; teachers with specialized training and experience relevant to your child’s needs; collaboration with parents; and anything else that may be very important to you and your child.
School choice works best when parents have enough information to make informed decisions.