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Tag Archives: special education

Dear Betsy DeVos

9 Feb

Hi Betsy!

Can I call you Betsy? I’m calling you Betsy – because we’re going to really get to know each other now that you’re Education Secretary.

Who am I? I’m Phoebe, I’m a mom of four living near Seattle. All four of my kids have gone to or are currently in public schools. Me? I went to both private and public schools. My husband went to both plus was homeschooled. My grandmother, mother, brother, best friends…all teachers.

Why am I writing to you? Well, because my youngest child, Maura, is in special education and you seem like you’re not that sure how special education runs in public schools in the U.S.

Me? I know a lot. And as I’m a friendly, open, and helpful kind of gal, I thought I’d help you out.

We’re all watching you, you see. All of us parents with kids in special education. You caught our eye when you were all “Oh, IDEA? Sorry, I was confused.” You may have heard a resounding thunk sound after those words came out of your mouth – that was the sound of thousands of parents heads hitting their desks. A collective head thunk.

 

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Me (left) Maura (right) and our surprised faces

 

Anyway, I digress.

My daughter Maura is a special ed student in a public school system. She always has been as long as we’ve lived in the states (we lived in Ireland for 2 1/2 years, and there she went to a national school that was partially funded by the government, partially funded by donations.)

Let me restate – Maura has always gone to a public school in the U.S.

“But why Phoebe?” you may ask yourself. “Why not find a private school to meet her needs?”

“Because Betsy,” I would say if we were meeting at a Starbuck’s, “there are no private schools designed for my daughter.”

Surprised? Well, buckle up Betsy, because having a child with special needs is FULL of surprises.

See, Maura has a moderate intellectual disability (aka ID). When tested, Maura falls behind in every category possible. At 13, she’s at the academic level of a 3 year old. She has issues with concepts of time, safety, pronouns, why her tablet needs to be plugged in for a while to charge. She has fine motor skill issues so has trouble writing, zipping, buttoning. She needs help with hygiene and needs constant supervision. She also loves Coldplay, Doctor Who, My Little Pony, and books (even though she doesn’t read.)

She’s just a bundle of personality and issues, and despite all the testing, we don’t have a diagnosis for whatever she has. (No, it’s not autism.) (Yes, we’ve tested for autism.) (Seriously, there’s more to special needs than autism.) (Yes, we’ve done genetic testing as well.)

Now, imagine a child like Maura in a regular 7th/8th grade classroom. Where everyone else is reading “Lord of the Flies” and Maura’s flipping through a My Little Pony book. Or when everyone else is learning the fundamentals of algebra, and she’s still learning how to count to 30 properly. Imagine her in a science class where she doesn’t realize that you shouldn’t drink the blue liquid.

Imagine how a private school would handle her. Or a charter school that’s design for students to excel in STEM.

You have to imagine it because those schools don’t take kids like Maura.

“Oh surely you can find…” you might start.

“No Betsy. I can’t.” I will state.

“But if you had school of choice-” you may say.

“Not even then Betsy.” I will reply.

See, we lived in Michigan for a while, near Ann Arbor. Our intermediate school district had school of choice. But there were factors that made schools not a choice. Like student body sizes. If the neighboring school was “full”, then it was taken off the school of choice list. Which makes sense. But also, with a child like my daughter Maura, to leave the school district required the special ed director signing off on it. And the SpEd director wouldn’t do that. Because then the district would lose all those sweet extra dollars that came with a student like my daughter. Those sweet extra dollars that didn’t necessarily have to be spent on my daughter.

“But you had school of choice! You could have moved her to a better school!” you may say.

“Oh Betsy…Betsy Betsy Betsy…it’s not that easy.” I reply.

Trust me, I watched as other parents tried to move. The thing is, your “choice” ends up being “the devil you know” vs. “the devil you don’t”. We had amazing teachers and a lousy SpEd director.

This is where IDEA helped us. IDEA and FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education). Those federal laws and protections you found “confusing” were our safety net. They made things happen, stuff got done. See, it’s like you’re captured by pirates and you invoke the right to parlay, like Elizabeth Swan did in “Pirates of the Caribbean”. We shouted “IDEA! FAPE!” and invoked our right to get a lawyer and things happened.

IDEA and FAPE are kind of Special Ed 101, along with IEP (Individualized Education Plan). That you failed those questions? Well it did not inspire confidence in any of us.

But we’re no longer in Michigan. We’re in the Seattle area – which still doesn’t have any private/charter schools for the likes of my daughter. But the public school system we’re in? Oh, it’s amazing! Seriously. Ah-maz-ing. See, they have proper funding, and use those funds for – wait for it – giving my daughter and students like her the best education possible.

I know, right?

Maura’s in a special program within the public school, one geared specifically for kids with moderate ID. She’s in a class of her peers. She learns the things she needs so she can reach her full potential. But she is also included in the actual school she’s at, including going to camp with the entire 6th grade class. Overnight camp. For four days. Amazing.

Have you ever been in a classroom full of students with disabilities Betsy? It’s different than a regular classroom. There’s less students, but more adults. Maura’s classroom can easily have six kids and five adults in there at one time. It also has things like swings for sensory-filling needs and a place to hide out when a student needs to chill. There’s PECS cards everyone (PECS is Picture Exchange Communication System, look it up). And its full of kids you may have never interacted with.

It’s okay, most people don’t get the chance to meet children with various disabilities. I hadn’t, not until we moved to Ireland and I walked into a school for students with moderate disabilities.

You know what? You should come visit Maura’s school. Meet Maura, her classmates, her teachers, the extra staff, all the staff. Maura’s school isn’t just great about special education. It’s a school with a larger immigrant population as well, and the most dedicated staff you’ll ever find. And diverse! Like, true diversity.

Yes, you should just come visit. You could probably cover the flight and hotel since, you know, you’re kinda a billionaire. But I’ll treat you to a Starbuck’s.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep in touch on Twitter. Because this is just the start of our working relationship Betsy.

P.S. – My sister called. She told me to tell you she’s keeping an eye on you as well, and not to screw things up for her niece.

 

 

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It’s not just about DeVos

7 Feb

Betsy DeVos – now famous for, well, grizzly attacks on public schools – has become Education Secretary. Barely. With no education background, she is now in charge of our public school system, and all the laws about education. Some of which she finds “confusing”.

Let me repeat – the woman in charge of upholding education laws doesn’t understand education laws.

And upon her confirmation, parents of kids in special ed collectively cursed, shook their heads, and rolled up their sleeves. See, we’re used to having to fight for our kids.

I’ve been watching the new administration before it was a new administration. Trump has been quoted saying he’d like to get rid of the Dept. of Education altogether. So wanting DeVos as Education Secretary isn’t that huge of a surprise. Nor is the almost instant news of abolishing the Dept of Education that headlined today after the confirmation.

But it’s more than education that’s caught my eye.

First, we have a nominee for Attorney General who also doesn’t support IDEA –

In May 2000, Sessions took to the senate floor to make a lengthy speech on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, arguing that federal protections for students with disabilities was a reason U.S. public schools were failing. – HuffPo

Meanwhile, we have a nominee for SCOTUS who sides with schools over students when it comes to IDEA –

In a second disability rights case, an impartial hearing officer, an administrative law judge, and a federal district court judge all agreed that a young autistic boy, Luke, needed placement in a residential school program due to his total lack of progress in “generalizing” skills — applying skills learned at school to other environments. Judge Gorsuch wrote the opinion reversing. He found that because Luke was making “some progress” toward his education goals in the public school — even though it was undisputed there was no progress outside of school –the school district had met its obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). But Congress had made it clear that the IDEA should help students make progress toward independent living. Generally, not just in school. The narrow and outdated standard used by Judge Gorsuch is now under review in the U.S. Supreme Court. –        (source:ACLU)

 

And then you add up things like the ACA and all it’s handy little bits like insurances can’t deny you if you have pre-existing conditions, attempts to slash Medicaid, etc…

…and you begin to fashion a hat out of tinfoil. Because it all starts feeling like a giant conspiracy against people with disabilities.

Seriously – if we can’t get educations or health care for people of all ages with disabilities, then what? We can’t move to Canada – they don’t take people with disabilities, despite how warm and fuzzy Justin Trudeau appears. Besides, aren’t we, as Americans, supposed to be better than that? Isn’t America the place where everyone gets a chance to succeed in life? Or is that now only limited to the able-bodied?

No, this isn’t just about Betsy DeVos and her lack of understanding about special education laws. This is more. This is about an administration who not only seems to not care about disability rights, they seem almost determined to make things harder for people with disabilities. What’s next? Repealing the Americans with Disabilities Act because it costs too much to put a wheelchair ramp in a public building and it’s “bad for business”?

Again, maybe I’m just fashioning myself a tinfoil hat. But these days, it seems anything goes. We now have a Education Secretary who thinks there should be guns at schools in case of grizzly attacks.

No one saw that coming, not even the bears.

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My daughter’s right to an education should not be dismissed or “confused”

18 Jan
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Maura on the first day of school, blending into Seattle society with her 12th Man jersey.

Weekday mornings in our household are much like any other household with teenagers. Waking teens, outfit planning, rushing around to gather laptops and to find shoes.

At 7 am, the bus pulls up. We walk our daughter onto her special education bus, make sure she’s seat belted in, and wave goodbye.

Each day, we sent her off to her public school, where she joins other students like herself in a specific program for students with cognitive/intellectual disabilities. Her classroom is bigger than the average classroom because it needs to contain things like a swing for sensory input, a cushioned platform for when they need to lay down, room for wheelchairs, plus desks and tables and cabinets. Peer tutors – students from the traditional classrooms of this school – come in and help tutor my daughter and her classmates, which in return, teaches the traditional students what life is like for my daughter, and give them insights they otherwise wouldn’t have had.

My daughter spends the majority of her school time in that room. She leaves to do gym, have lunch, help deliver stuff to the office or go to a pep rally. Otherwise, her day is spent learning the things she needs to learn, with teachers and paraprofessionals who have the knowledge on how to teach her the way she needs to be taught. Yet her public school balances all this well, and she is part of the school community, is known and liked by other students.

We have tried inclusion in the past. It did not suit her needs. We found that smaller classes designed specifically for children with her types of needs gives her the best chance of being successful and independent.

Who doesn’t want that chance for their child?

This is why when I heard about Betsy DeVos’s nomination for Secretary of Education, I paid close attention. For I knew that Donald Trump had been quoted in the past that he’d like to possibly get ride of the Department of Education and with it, all the laws.

One of those laws is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – better known as the IDEA. A federal law, mind you. A federal law that gives my child the right to a public education.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation. IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities.

Infants and toddlers with disabilities (birth-2) and their families receive early intervention services under IDEA Part C. Children and youth (ages 3-21) receive special education and related services under IDEA Part B.

This is Special Education 101. When your child qualifies for special ed services, you learn about the IDEA and you learn about FAPE – Free Appropriate Public Education.

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is an educational right of children with disabilities in the United States that is guaranteed by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973[1] and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under Section 504, FAPE is defined as “the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet individual needs of handicapped persons as well as the needs of non-handicapped persons are met and based on adherence to procedural safeguards outlined in the law.” Under the IDEA, FAPE is defined as an educational program that is individualized to a specific child, designed to meet that child’s unique needs, provides access to the general curriculum, meets the grade-level standards established by the state, and from which the child receives educational benefit.[2] The United States Department of Education issues regulations that define[3] and govern[4] the provision of FAPE.

To provide FAPE to a child with a disability, schools must provide students with an education, including specialized instruction and related services, that prepares the child for further education, employment, and independent living.[5] (source: Wikipedia)

See, once upon a time, not so long ago, schools could deny children like mine an education for whatever reason they chose – too costly, too time consuming, not enough resources. This was also the time period where children like mine were often sent to institutions to live.

We no longer live in those times. And we shouldn’t have to go back to them.

So when I heard that during the confirmation hearing, that Betsy DeVos was “confused” by IDEA and unwilling to answer questions about if schools should meet the requirements of the IDEA. In fact, she said it should be left to the states.

What Betsy DeVos does not understand is that private and charter schools do not want students like my daughter. They are not equipped for students like my daughter. They have no place for students like my daughter.

I looked to see what schools there were in the Seattle area for children like my daughter. I found none. I also did this when we lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan – again, there were none.

Betsy DeVos supports voucher programs. But even if my daughter could attend the one private school in Seattle for children with mild learning disabilities like dyslexia, ADHD, etc, a $5000 voucher wouldn’t pay one-fourth of the tuition. And yet, that’s a moot point as they won’t take my daughter – she’s too disabled.

I think I have a good reason to be worried and frustrated by this nominee for Secretary of Education. She does not support public schools, she does not understand basic federal laws protecting students with disabilities, and she does not understand that when it comes to education, students with disabilities have few options.

Betsy DeVos is about school of choice – yet we don’t get choices. When my daughter started kindergarten, I asked what our options were. I was told “We’ll make this work.”

“But what if it doesn’t work, what are our other options?”

“We’ll make this work.”

There were no other options.

The fate of my daughter’s education is now up for debate it seems. Not so much what kind of education she should have, but if she’s deserving of one. That the possible Secretary of Education wants to leave it up for discussion at some other time is not good enough.

My daughter has a right to a public education. My daughter is just as deserving of a public education as any of her siblings. If you can’t understand that, or feel that should be discussed later on, then you don’t deserve to be Secretary of Education.

 

 

 

 

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