Wednesday, September 12, 2012

10 Promises Every Special Educator Should Make To Their Students’ Parent

"If you let someone else set your standard, whether it's physical appearance, academic achievement or economic success, then you will never be content with who you are. Your purpose should be to set your own standard, not to catch up or to beat out somebody else."  ~ Elaine R. Jones, former president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Edu-cation Fund and the first African-American woman to enroll in the UVA School of Law.

10 Promises Every Special Educator Should Make To Their Students’ Parent
April 23, 2012 By Tim Villegas

1. I promise to stop calling parents who have high expectations and advocate for their children “high maintenance” and I will equally try to discourage the term “high profile” if due process is involved.

 2. I promise to presume competence (always assume that your child can learn and is interested in learning) even if they are unable to communicate to me what they know (yet!)

3. I promise to never use the “R” word and to speak up against it when I hear it used in private or public.

 4. I promise to ask your input on the educational goals for your child BEFORE the IEP meeting and realize that without your collaboration we have no team.

 5. I promise to remember that YOU were your child’s first teacher and YOU are an expert on your child…not me.

 6. I promise to stop using “what is he/she going to get out of this?” or “they’re not ready” as an excuse for not including your child in general education.

 7. I promise to never assume I know what goes on at your home or blame your child’s challenging behavior at school because of your parenting skills.

 8. I promise to Always Be Communicating (ABC) with you about your child (especially the positive things).

9. I promise to keep an open mind and realize that what works with one child does not necessarily work with every child.

10. I promise to always have high expectations for your child and never give up on them…or you.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Son's Testimony

"Pretty much all the honest truth telling in the world is done by children." ~ Oliver Wendell

 Last year after receiving the test scores from my son's NYS ELA and Math assessments, I was taken aback by the result. Many parents want their children to do well in school. We don't want to see our children struggle and certainly not perform below par or fail. However, when test scores don't appear to reflect the current level of performance, it sends up flags in a parent's mind.

 My son scored much higher in the math exam compared to how he was responding to his homework assignments. It was so uneven it was glaring.  I looked at the results and knowing my son, how he gets frustrated and melts down when the going gets tough, I thought, something isn't right.

I'm teaching my son to learn to advocate for himself.  He's only 10 but it's not too early to begin.  Aren was very agreeable to do these video's.  This is a bit of a story but I want to first share my son's testimony with you. The video's are telling but I will share more on the events later on that have led up to the videos.  Providing testimony is very important and especially so when dealing with corrupt systems.  The worst offenders are those that cheat children. Below is my son's testimony on his participation in the NYS exams:

One of the reasons I decided to do the videos is that I reported my suspicions of test tampering to the NYS Education Department in Albany, NY.  I wrote to Chancellor Tisch about my concern in January of this year.  I was compelled for a number of reasons.

It was September and I was attending a meeting with the teachers at the new school my son was being enrolled in.  At this point, I had no immediate concern.  It was in the course of conversation, I casually asked when parents generally receive state exam test scores.  The teachers seemed puzzled and stated I should've received the scores in August.  I contacted the principal in my school district inquiring about the scores but didn't get a response.  A couple of days later I sent another email to the principal this time copying the superintendent on it.  Finally, I get a response from the superintendent that the scores would be forthcoming.    It was disconcerting that I had to actually go after the scores when previously with my daughter it had never been an issue.  It was suspect that it was an issue with my son given the history of challenges in this district getting a FAPE for him.

Aren 3rd Grade NYS Exam Scores Aren Classwk Homewk Samples Feb_April 2011
After receiving the scores, I asked my son if anyone helped or assisted him during the exams.   His first response was defensive "it was hard".   He seemed upset and frustrated.  I asked him again if anyone helped him and he said the special education teacher and assistant helped him with the answers.  I felt upset in fact, down right angry about what my son was sharing with me.   All I thought about was how they were only interested in themselves and not my son.  You see, I was going through a very difficult time with the district.    Not only was I being put through the wringer but so was my son.  During the spring my son had bed wetting accidents.  He was showing regressive behavior.  He was coming home from school upset.  I got every impression they were hammering him to perform.  They were doing all they could to deny my son a FAPE.

We initiated due process that was settled during that time frame. Things started to fall into place after the settlement and my writing to Dr. John B King, Commissioner of Education in Albany, NY.   I had to explain to Dr. King all the grief I was enduring trying to get my son's needs met.  Regardless of substantiated diagnosis, the district was refusing to appropriately accept it and the recommendations to help meet his educational needs.  It was only after I went through due process and contacting Dr. King that I was finally able to have my son moved to an appropriate placement for him. In the interim of all of that going on, the district continued rebuffing my advocacy and were trying to prove my son didn't have particular needs as it related to his diagnosis by directly assisting him with the state exams!

When you look over my son's homework and compare it to his test performance, it doesn't add up.  My son doesn't miraculously improve during the test period.  It's not possible with his low threshold for frustration and high distract ability.  How could I not think that the district deliberately held back the scores.  It was too late to use the scoring as an argument my son didn't need accommodations.  Too much had taken place between winning the due process and contacting NYS Education Department.  They probably thought I would forget about it.  The district continues to under estimate my tenacity.  They keep mistakenly think that I'm not in it for the long haul.  They probably think that once I'm appeased, like a good sigh of relief, I'll back off feeling satisfied.  I'm in it until my son graduates from high school.  I do not hide from this fact.  I make it very plain with my ongoing advocacy efforts for both of my children.

Fast forward to present day.  When I contacted Chancellor Tisch, I received a reply where she seemed very concerned about my suspicions.  Chancellor Tisch, immediately followed up by forwarding my concern to the Dutchess County BOCES superintendent, Dr. Pennoyer.  Dr. Pennoyer was instructed by the Chancellor to investigate the allegations of test tampering and instructed to present the findings by May 1st.  I waited for follow through on the investigation and by May the first, I didn't receive any word on it.  I sent a letter to Mr. Pennoyer asking about the status of the investigation in which case, I received a curt reply that the investigation had been concluded and sent to Steven Katz in Albany.  That I needed to therefore contact Mr. Katz for the findings!  I waited for a couple of weeks thinking any day I would receive something from Mr. Katz.  I did not.  I decided to write to Governor Cuomo about my concerns.  I get a response from the Governor's office advising me if I wish, to contact Katie Compos, Assistant Secretary of Education, Office of the Governor.  Of course, I contacted Ms. Compos who then told me she doesn't handle complaints and that a special investigation unit has been established for complaints such as my own.  Ms. Compos suggested, if I wish, to contact Tina Sciocchetti who handles these sort of concerns.  I then contact Ms. Sciocchetti who advises me that Steven Katz has received my complaint and therefore will be getting back to me.  I wait and I wait.  I write back to Ms. Campos that my concern has landed on the desk of 6 different people and so far, I've not received any information about the "investigation".  And, by the way, did I mention that in the course of these six months and 6 people later, not one person contacted me to ask for additonal information or speak directly with my son.  My son, as you can clearly see is not mute.  He can communicate and communicate quite well.

Finally, just the other day, I receive a letter from the office of Steven Katz of the NYS Education Department informing me the investigation did not find evidence substantiating the allegations of misconduct in the administration of testing!  The investigation...  I can't help to wonder exactly what was involved in the investigation.  What comes to mind is a scenario where the investigator, asking teachers in question "did you assist the student in question during the administration of the NYS exams?"  Response:  "No!"  Investigation concludes there is no proof to support the complaint - case closed!

Truly, this is exactly how the events unfolded.  I have every piece of documentation as is my habit.  Soon, I'm going to need a file cabinet just to house all of the documents I keep on record for my son's advocacy. 

I want to conclude this post by stating, I have every belief that my complaint was swept under the rug.  I have no confidence that a real and actual investigation took place.  We have problems at every level in our education system with no real checks and balances.  There are no independent agencies so those doing the "investigating" is the same department investigating itself!  It is unacceptable.  However, my Partners in Policymaking (PIP) training has given me the necessary tools to keep putting pressure on our legislatures and administrators until we can exact positive changes in our systems.  This is what I will keep doing. 

"Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress."   ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Partnering With Policymakers

"The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward."  Amelia Earhart

Last year, I completed a course for Partners in Policymaking( PIP).  It's a leadership program to help advocates of people with special needs to learn to effectively work with our officials in government.  Our goal as PIP graduates is to work with legislatures to impact positive changes in laws that directly impact persons with disabilities.  I always remind myself that our officials are public servants.  Their job is to stand up for their constitutes plain and simple.  I live in New York State.   Two public officials who immediately come to mind that send the message they care about special education are state senator, Greg Ball and Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

A few weeks ago, I attended a round table hosted by Senator Greg Ball.  The topic was transition plans for adults with disabilities.  This area presents particular challenges as we prepare our children to launch from high school into the adult world of further education, jobs and in some cases independent housing.  My son is not quite there yet.  He is only 10 years old.  I do think ahead however and understand planning begins sooner rather than later.  I think it's very important that we try to set the path as early as middle school.  It's important to have long range plans in place.  How can I set my child on the right path if his current needs are haphazardly handled or without forethought?  It's a real concern I have for both of my children for very different reasons.  With my son, he has challenges that can negatively impact his potential and future if goals are not carefully and thoughtfully managed.  By the time a child reaches age 14, they should if at all possible, participate in CSE meetings.  It's important that teens begin to learn to participate in the process by providing input for their own self determination plan.

I walked away from the roundtable not as enthusiastic as hoped.  As it turned out, the roundtable ended up being more of a PR opportunity for Senator Ball with local businesses that hire people with disabilities.  Don't get me wrong, it is great that businesses encourage the hiring of persons with disabilities with a focus of what they offer in the work place.  There were photos taken with approximately a dozen representatives from various business receiving awards from the Senator.  Truly, it was not what I expected.  I expected the roundtable would be an opportunity to brainstorm ideas.  It only touched briefly on the concerns of some participants including myself.  I tried to provide testimony of the real day to day challenges parents often face in advocating for their child.  I tried to stress the concerns of self determination begin early on and there are many unknown or unseen hurdles.  Every step of the way is a building block.  However, the hill can be a very steep climb for parents with children who have special needs.  All the more is the reason to begin planning early, not later or as a child nears graduation or aging out of high school. 

Following the roundtable, I searched online for articles about the meeting with the hope of finding references made about planning strategies for young adults moving into the workforce or higher education.  To my disappointment,  I found only photos of the Senator standing along side business owners and representatives with awards in hand.  Again, it's important to know there are businesses that support the hiring of persons with disabilities.   The photo-opt doesn't address however, the larger and broader challenges that directly impact people with particular needs.

Although somewhat discouraged, I have no plan to give up but will keep trying to partner with our public officials in government.  It is way too important to not keep trying with every opportunity.   If we don't try to impact positive change, we have no right to complain when things are not going our way.  Minimally, we can say, we tried to be part of the solution and not the problem.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him."  ~ David Brinkley

It's been a while since my last post.  Much has happened since then.  My son has been successfully placed in a state funded private school for children on the autism spectrum.  Aren is in a smaller class size of approximately 12 students and 4 adults.  Needless to say the combination of smaller class size and lots of individualized instruction and help, he is doing much better in school.  My son actually enjoys going to school now and LOVES his teachers.  In this school, the teachers and administrators work collaboratively with parents as a team.  They listen to the parents concerns and work toward establishing and modifying goals.  It's the first time in a very long time, I feel to be part of the team.  It is a breath of fresh air.

Last week, I attend a workshop funded through The Advocacy Center,  Rochester, NY on filing for due process.  It wasn't completely what I expected.   Instead of being a workshop where you learn some new skill, it turned into a question and answer session.   A couple of the participants expressed a certain amount of impatience that the workshop wasn't moving along as anticipated.  I felt it also - it seemed very disorganized.  It is not a tremendous surprise as one of the co-presenters happened to be the public attorney who assisted me and my husband haphazardly with our due process complaint.  During our due process filing, she was not exactly organized and basically dragged us through a living hell.  This individual hosts mini informational sessions for parents twice a month.  I ask myself - why?  She could barely handle my case although everything was handed to her.  All of the ground work was covered.   We provided a huge file and three recorded CSE meetings.  In addition, all the evaluations my son had was given to her.  Basically, she had everything.  I've been hesitant to discuss my experience but after this workshop, it seemed to me it was just an opportunity to drum up business.  Business that this woman could barely handle when after everything was provided to her.  Was it a lack of organization?  Was it one personal problem after another which she claimed to have.  Was it an overwhelming caseload?  I don't have a good answer and will not make excuses for anyone.  All I know is, this public attorney's behavior with our case hindered on cruelty and was extremely unprofessional.  I was reduced to begging and pleading.  Finally, I had enough and had to launch a complaint with the executive director of the agency.  Even after her supervisor got involved, she was less than communicative.  She would fall off the map; disappear, not respond to my emails or voice mail messages.  Basically she made every attempt to ignore me thinking perhaps that I would give up and fade away. 

Hiring an attorney for due process filing can be prohibitive for many parents.  It's expensive to have an attorney on retainer.  Plus, if you don't prevail in your case, the financial burden falls on to the parents.  There is no chance of recovering attorney fees, (yours and the school district attorney with related fees), or expert witness fees which can be costly.  A due process case can easily escalate to $5,000.  We didn't have the money so we had to literally fall on the good graces of a public attorney.   Since there was another attorney presenting at the workshop (who did most of the talking), one participant asked about probono which means attorney services at no charge.  Attorneys will take on probono cases from time to time.  However, I believe they must have a good handle on the ability of winning the case.  The "what's in it for me" but I can't say I blame them.  Everyone wants to win and have something to show for their efforts.  With that being said, the one thing that was emphasized heavily at the workshop was probono cases would likely be taken on from a client who has done all of the ground work like I had done.   Compiling a paper trail over the course of one year for example along with recorded CSE meetings.

My former attorney asked the participants who in the room had success writing to Albany about their issues with school related problems.  I was the only one to raise my hand.  I believe I was 1 out of 20 participants because my best guess, I was likely the only one to actually work the system in that way.  I mentioned that I contact Dr John King, NYS Commissioner on Education and felt I got results.   This attorney was very quick to shoot it down stating my situation was an isolated one.  I raised my eyebrow thinking, my situation is not all that different from many of the parents in the room.  We're all singing the same tune with a slightly different melody.  We all want a FAPE for our children and on one level or another, we each have our own bag of mess to contend with trying to make it happen.  I found it suspect how quickly this attorney was trying to squelch my input.  Let us not forget that our tax dollars pay the salaries of those working at the state level.  They are there to serve not decide to help a constituent based on a popularity contest or whatever.  If we as parents file a substantiated complaint, it is up to the those that serve us to do due diligence.  It is not a favor.  They are expected to follow through and help us help our children and hold those accountable who are failing in following the law.  In this regard, write to your representatives and certainly write to the NYS Commissioner on Education if you're unable to get a FAPE for your child.  Just be sure to provide testimony and evidence to the best of your ability.  Write a well thought out and concise letter with supporting documentation.  Make it easy to read and highlight areas you want to be sure to have read.  Use post-it notes to flag pages if you're sending a copy of the evaluation.  Things like that.  You want to gain the attention of the Commissioner but not overwhelm him with information that is not well presented.  In essence, help him to help you.

Our children are the most vulnerable along with many unsuspecting parents who can be equally vulnerable.  Parents who are completely overwhelmed with the entire process of getting their child's needs met in school.  This is further compounded when public servants fail us as well.  One can't help to wonder, where is the agenda when public attorneys who are suppose to help us uphold the law turn around and mess with our heads and not protect our children as prescribed by law.

"Truth is by nature self-evident. As soon as you remove the cobwebs of ignorance that surround it, it shines clear."  ~ Mahatma Gandhi