Parents and advocacy for their special education child

The past two weeks have been both a confirmation of all I thought I knew and believed about special education at public schools  and an eye opener as to what passes for special education, even in wealthy school districts, even at a CA Distinguished School, even when the parents are educated……even when the teachers are experienced. Special education is a nightmare and it is actually a wonder to me how children ever exit these programs, much less why we as a society accept so little for our tax dollars.

My cousin, a twelve year old is on the spectrum for autism along with some other things which are just too difficult to define/tease out. Suffice it to say there is no cognitive impairment but executive functions are not at the level necessary for normal learning and development of a child this age.  This child is beautifully attractive (important to an upcoming paragraph).

The parents are on board – both are educated with advance degrees and one works as a pharmacist. The school is in a very exclusive, wealthy area just north of Los Angeles and south of Santa Barbara.  Money is not an issue nor time and  effort – in fact, the only issue is understanding how to navigate the dysfunctional system of special education in public schools.

My role in all of this was to be an advocate for my cousin as I am a credentialed teacher with a background in speech pathology.  My goal was to help the parents do everything possible to make the system work for their child within the reasonableness of what teachers are expected to do (or should morally do).  I never used my familial relationship – I used my professional credentials and own teaching experience as backbone.

First goal: review 44 page testing documentation and write up from psychiatrist at UCLA. I had read this years ago but wanted to refresh my mind. Next, I read the history of the childs education, including a year of home schooling. I organized each IEP from furthest back to most recent and analyzed the reasonableness of the accomodations and looked to see how these accomodations played out year to year upon annual review.  At each point, I made lists of questions to ask the parents, teachers and child regarding anything I could not specifically sort out/make sense of on my own.

For some reason, I kept feeling like the IEP pages were not as thorough as I would have written (I have been an active member of SST at the schools where I teach) so I contacted a friend who is a recently retired special education teacher to discuss items.  Through the discussion, what became clear was I wanted to see the implementation part of the IEP and it did not exist – there were only goals.  The lack of implementation is what was missing.  This is the most crucial portion of an IEP as it delineates who is responsible for what, how often, how it is to be done, etc. and without this step, it leaves an IEP open to interpretation.

The next step was to evaluate what goals had been met, which ones had not been met, which ones were of concern to the parents and what the parents felt were the next goals to reach certain landmarks, most notably passing through algebra. I also had to clarify to the parents that although a goal may be met three months into the IEP cycle, a good teacher would up the difficulty of the goal for the rest of the nine months rather than drop it off the radar so we needed to compare the existing goals with the parents observations, report cards, student work and reports from teachers.

Things began to fall apart at this point as the most recent report card had comments in one class about student missing assignments, another comment was on timeliness, one was on studying for tests – tests which are to modified for this student. When I asked the parents about using the agenda book and did the teacher(s) contact the parents when there were outstanding assignments, the parents looked at me funny. No teacher contacted them. The agenda book had not been used since October 2009 although it had been extensively used in Grade 6 and is a part of the school philosophy (this school is K-8 with one principal).

Personally, I can understand a lapse of two weeks or a month of not using the agenda book, however, I can not fathom letting it go longer than that nor could I deem it appropriate to make a child with problems in executive functions (hence the agenda book) accountable for something the adults and teachers were not following up on.

As I noticed lapses in what one should routinely expect from teachers, most notably the special education teacher in charge, I began my little research campaign.  The teachers in the special education program had lifetime credentials and would be older than myself indicating both more experience

We found out in various ways the teachers dropped the ball (the parents a bit also from lack of knowing there was a problem) –   one teacher who  reported the missing assignments did not tell the special education teacher who is the point person and the special education teacher did not follow up with the regular education teachers.  During the IEP, I explained to this subject area teacher that the first time the assignment was missing was an opportunity to contact the parents, ask if they were familiar with the on line Grade Pro system  (Zangle) and go over it with the parents OR teach the parents to use it (The Grade Pro system has apparently been in place at this school since 2006 as far as I can tell, however there are varying degrees of follow through, use or expectations of teachers using the on line system regularly).  I even explained how I would start the phone call, “Dear Mr. ________, were you aware _________had not turned in an assignment?  I am following up with you as I am not sure if you were aware of  __________online where you can look at ___________progress.  Are you familiar with this?  If answer is ‘yes’ then you proceed to review with the parent while both of you are looking at your own computer, if the answer is ‘no’ then you give them the web address/URL and go over the site with them.”  The next step is to arrange with the parent when the late assignment will be submitted with a parent note.  Now the parent and student are on board and there are no slips through the crack.  I was explaining this to a teacher who proudly states on their web page they have taught for 12 years……..It made me wonder what was expected at this school to be a great teacher. Certainly not what I have done over the years at public and charter schools.

I was reminded by the teacher and special ed teacher that the regular education classes had 30 students and the special education teacher had to follow up on 15 students. Those numbers correspond with my experience so I did not see the problem and inwardly seethed at using this piece of information as the excuse for not doing ones job.

At every turn the parents of said child and myself were told how adorable this child was – which made all of us very frustrated in that we were not trying to solve a problem in a beauty pageant, rather we were trying to solve a problem which was not visible – it was in the brain.

No teacher had followed through with the agenda book, even though the teacher with the four missing assignments was the teacher this student had last period and most able to sign agenda book and make a note to parents.  Each teacher looked one to another about the issue of the agenda book – meanwhile, all this time the parents figured it was not in use as it had been the year  since their child was 60% in special ed classrooms this year and the previous year had been mainstreamed in Grade 6.  What disturbed me most was that not one teacher apologized, the most common human courtesy.

I understand the parents view, although I did not condone it and got on their tail about complete and total follow through. I had to explain to the parents checking an agenda book is a routine part of a teachers day, especially in middle school and most especially for special ed students.

There continue to be mishaps with the agenda book. One parent is definitely on board.  Some of the teachers have made honest attempts to follow through although the regular ed teachers continue to be the least likely to step up to the plate and follow through for this student.   A couple grades have plummeted down due to inconsistent use of agenda book on all parties so I am counseling parents as to what they must do and what they can and should hold the teachers accountable to.

The IEP is due to be revised but all the appropriate people within the school district have been unable to schedule a meeting due to illnesses of school employees and I am unsure what else (this is typical of all school districts, sadly).  It has now been almost a month since this began which in the life of a student is a ton of learning time.  This does not include the five months of stasis due to various teachers not being on board.  I e-mail with one of the parents a few times a week to explicitly explain details and follow up.

I continue to believe the majority of the school year need not be a complete loss and hope that there is timely intervention and the administration at the school can work with the teachers involved (compel them) to do the right things so this student can be appropriately supported.

I spoke with the parents of said student this past week and encouraged them to contact the school district to make the IEP appointment as everyone should now be back from illness leave.  We are all waiting for a scheduling update.

The revision IEP date, after many e-mails to the district office, has been set for 3/15/10 at 1:30 PM.

To be continued….