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Interview Questions : Issues of Prejudice for Children with Disabilities

29 Sep

Every so often a student comes and needs to do an interview and for the most part I like doing them.  My only condition is that I am able to post the questions and answers on my blog, and I’ve yet to have anyone object to that.  So I recently got one about prejudices against students with disabilities.  I have written about these before, but maybe not quite this explicitly, so this gives me a chance to think about prejudice, discrimination and students with disabilities.

Thank you so much again for taking the time to sit down and answer these questions, and it would actually mean a lot to me if they were posted on your blog.

1. What are the challenges and difficulties that you experience and encounter when parenting children with mental disabilities?

Hmm…this is actually a harder question for me, because I don’t think of my oldest as having a mental disability as much as a behavioral disability with mental issues, namely as it relates to autism.  But that actually highlights the most pervasive problem which is the stigma attached to mental disabilities in general.  It doesn’t matter what term is used, sooner or later it will be used in a pejorative way.  “moron,” “idiot” and “imbecile” used to be clinical terms!

The challenges vary depending on the severity and pervasiveness of the disability.  It would be difficult to list all difficulties, whether it be accessibility issues to having to endure the abuses of a society that devalues people with disabilities to the day-to-day challenges of trying to do “normal” things that most people take for granted, like tying shoes or riding a bike.

2. What are the struggles, if any, that a child with a disability experiences on a daily basis?

The struggles that children with disabilities encounter on a daily basis varies of course, depending on what the disability is.  Some universal issues might deal with self-advocacy, where the person may need extra assistance or an accommodation.  If they assert themselves by asking for it, they are often labeled as a trouble maker or censored for asking for special treatment.  So many people often suffer with their disabilities in relative silence.  This is assuming the person even has the skills to advocate.  Communication is one of the most fundamental skills a person can have, and yet most disabilities have some sort of impact on communication either directly or indirectly.  Disabilities also have social consequences when it comes to making friends, being accepted and just being able to socialize in a way that others take for granted.

3. Have you ever prevented any prejudices from occurring against children with special needs?

Oh I wish I could!  The best I can do is to educate others about students with disabilities and point out that they are people, too.  They have things they like and dislike and may express their feelings in different ways.  And deep down, I think most people *want* to be seen as compassionate and caring people.  I think if one sees that as a basic truth “all people would like to be seen as compassionate and caring” then giving people a chance to express that can help against mistreatment and abuse.  Prejudice is basically a symptom of intellectual laziness, so the task is to get people to think a bit deeper about whom they are judging against.  Not being prejudice requires a great deal of self reflection especially when it is deeply rooted in our own experiences and culture.  The biggest challenge for me and other advocates, is being prejudice against those whose primary disability is ignorance!  I would rather educate than have to confront.

4. If children do experience some sort of injustice against them, how do they usually react? Are they greatly affected by it?

A lot of children who suffer injustices tend to suffer in silence.  Sometimes being too outspoken can create a backlash and bring about even more injustice!  Those who choose to confront have to be willing to go all the way to the mat, and persevere in spite of that backlash.  So many behavioral problems we see in children with disabilities are a response to perceived injustices.  The level of effect varies of course depending on how well a child understands what is happening.  Children with milder disabilities who have a greater mental capacity do often suffer from depression and anxiety caused by the social consequences of their disability.  For for students that I teach, it is more subtle.  All my kids can tell who does and who does not like them, and they somehow gravitate toward those people and avoid the people who are afraid or indifferent.

5. Do children with special needs ever receive or get peculiar responses from other children?

Responses range from indifference to being compassionate to feeling sorry for the child with disabilities.  Much of it depends on how severe the disability is.  As a society, I think we’ve gotten better about how people with physical disabilities are treated.  Behavioral disabilities are a whole different matter, and reactions to students who scream, yell, holler,  bite themselves and hit themselves is mostly along some continuum of fear. BUT having said that, children are often better about dealing with it than the adults.  When I talk to students, they often simply want to have their questions answered about the disability and then they are mostly fine.  The adults take more convincing and I think it is because adults have their own schedules and agendas compared to students.  Those schedules and agendas are more easily disrupted by students with disabilities, hence more hostility and prejudice.

6. How can a person, like myself, make sure not to commit any prejudices accidentally against people with disabilities?

Don’t shrink.  By that, I mean don’t be so afraid of committing an act of prejudice that you avoid contact with people with disabilities altogether.  And remember that “all people would like to be seen as compassionate and caring” applies to you too!  I make mistakes all the time and sometimes readers are good about pointing them out.  I take it, process and try to do better next time.  And those of us who are dealing with disabilities everyday probably have to be even more mindful of our thinking as it is sometimes more difficult to think of people as people rather than commodities or products.  There is a lot of cultural pressure to standardize our education system, and standardization and homogenization encourage prejudice by demanding everyone be the same.  Our kids are different by definition, so every attempt to make everyone the same automatically puts them at a disadvantage.

7. Finally, what. In your opinion, is the best way to spread disability awareness? What have you tried, besides writing in your blog?

The best way to spread disability awareness is the same way as spreading awareness of any other cause.  And that is to limit segregation and isolation.  One of the biggest challenges that we have had to face is the idea of inclusion and what it means.  Generally, including people with disabilities in the larger community is the best and most effective way to promote awareness and acceptance.  When we were out in the community for instruction, we were serving the students but we were also serving the good of the greater community by helping people be aware of these exceptional individuals.  It is very difficult to be seen as compassionate and caring when you don’t have anyone to be seen as compassionate and caring toward!  My blog provides me with a vehicle to talk about some of these issues, but I’m mostly preaching to the choir.  Most of you already are part of the disability community in some sense.   While I’m imparting a little knowledge I’m not doing as much for disability awareness as when I answer the questions people might have when they see my students.  People do watch me and those of us in the business, and I do have to be more mindful of that.  Other people will often take their cues as to how to respond to those with disabilities from those of us who do it everyday.  If we can remember to be caring and humane in our everyday dealings, that helps everyone else who is less familiar as well as makes life better for the students themselves.

Those are the questions, and if you feel like you want to add anything, of course feel free to do so. Once again thank you for giving me this opportunity!

Thanks for giving me the opportunity!  Doing interviews like this helps me think about what I’m doing in different ways as it provokes some thought and reflections on my own practice.  It also helps encourage me in that people actually care about what I’m saying here!

Achievements: Getting the Lame to Walk

19 Mar

I know I have sometimes gotten down and negative here, as I often use this as my own personal forum to vent various frustrations.  But this is also a good place to tell about stuff I’ve accomplished to any would-be future employers out there who are looking for a special education teacher.  Remember, I AM HQ!

I had a student who came to me in a wheelchair.  This is not unusual, since most of my students nowadays seem to be in wheelchairs.  However this little guy was different because he could, in fact, walk.  He had an irregular gait due to his particular syndrome, but he could walk and get around pretty well.  And that was kind of the problem.  He was getting around TOO well.  And he would get into everything and destroy whatever he got his hands on.  He was all hands and all active.  And he knew how to drive his chair probably better than he could walk.  So containing him and keeping him out of trouble involved finding some elaborate way of blocking the wheelchair up so he couldn’t move it.  This was easier said than done as he was also fairly clever and persistent.  The wheelchair was basically used by everyone as a restraint device.  Keep in mind, he was seen as unmanageable all the way through middle school.

And within 2 years, I got the boy to a place where he could be put just about anywhere and he would basically stay put.  He would still occasionally want to wander off, but he was easily redirected.  He went from being my most unmanageable challenge to being one of my best behaved students.  And he no longer needs or uses the wheelchair.  Not at school, not on the bus and not at home.

I’m not going to get into all the behavioral techniques used to getting him to that place.  I will just say that perseverance and determination were major factors toward getting him where he is today.  I’m not to proud to say that when he first came to me, I didn’t want him in my room.  I thought we were already overcrowded and understaffed.  Haha!  Little did I know what was to come!  But I had no choice but to bite the bullet and dig in and teach this student how to conduct himself in a classroom without wrecking the place.  He will still wreck things if he gets his hands on them, but I have little toys and things he can use to keep his hands busy.  He’s still very active, but he can be active in his own space.  While there are still a whole lot of things he can not do, he can now be maintained without his wheelchair.  This is a relief for his family who previously had to cart the thing around everywhere they took him.  It is less bother for the bus, as they no longer have to mess with the lift.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention that this accomplishment in no way affected the school’s test scores, graduation rate or AYP.   At no time did teaching him how to control himself address a state academic standard.   And there is no part of the Georgia High School Graduation Test that measures whether or not a student requires a wheelchair. None of this will appear on the Georgia Alternate Assessment.  I took time out from academic instruction in order to address this students needs, which pretty much violates whatever tenets are set by NCLB.  There is no way to align the goal of not needing a wheelchair to any state standard.  And it also was not explicitly stated as a goal in his IEP.  Our beloved governor has not offered any merit pay to teachers who can get a child to not need a wheelchair anymore.  There are no incentives offered by the state of Georgia to recruit or retain people that can do this.  There is nothing on any evaluation instrument for teachers that says this is even a worthwhile activity.

Despite several who told me this endeavor was a waste of time, I did it anyway.  And while I have no test scores, enhanced pay, accolades, awards, or anything from other people that says this is at all important, I do have an empty wheelchair in the corner that has not been used in a very, very long time, except to hold a coat or a bag.  And I have the audacity to feel pretty good about that!

Lots of my fellow teachers do stuff like this all the time and we don’t talk about, because it doesn’t address a state standard.  It isn’t recognized or rewarded because it doesn’t result in a college scholarship.  And this student can’t give me a recommendation to an employer because he can not read, write or talk.  But he can walk, which is how he gets around now because he does not need a chair to restrain him.  He has learned to control himself to some degree.

The story of this student is not over, as he continues to progress.  He has a long way to go, and I hope he continues to progress.  But it will have to be with someone else.  Perhaps there are other students in other schools that need to learn self control.  It would save some poor high school teacher’s hair if more kids could learn that skill in middle school.  And that is sort of where I’m aiming at the moment.  I would like to get into a smaller community and with a younger set in order to see if I can apply some of this experience earlier on.

Pay for Performance

16 Jan

And other disasters inaugurated by our beloved governor. The Atlanta Journal’s blog asked a question: did Governor Perdue leave education better off than he found it? In order to be fair we have to remember what it was like when he came into office. Governor Roy Barnes was often called “King Roy” because decisions were made without any input from educators. He came up with what he termed the “A+ Initiative” which did limit class sizes but was also a call for accountability. It was an early precursor to No Child Left Behind, and Barnes would go on to lead the Aspen Institute which called for a continuation and strengthening of NCLB. And anyone reading me for any length of time knows how I feel about NCLB. When Barnes left, Georgia was a state that was a bottom feeder in state rankings by almost any measure in education. So it is safe to say that the state of education in Georgia was pretty bad at the time Perdue took office. Personally, I did lose my job at the state hospital because of cuts made during the Barnes tenure, so no love was lost when he lost.

So now we have our current beloved governor. How has education fared under him? First off, Georgia is still a bottom feeder using any objective measure of educational level or achievement. He pushed for and got the legislature to stop funding pay supplements for teacher who were National Board certified. His response was to replace it with a master teacher program which tied the credential to student achievement i.e. test scores. He also succeeded in getting a measure passed that would help recruit science and math teachers by allowing them to start at a higher salary step. And now he has his pay for performance scheme. These final three initiatives; Master teacher certification, recruitment of shortage teachers and pay for performance all have one thing in common. They each and all explicitly exclude me and those who teach students with severe disabilities.

This is great for job security as there are so few incentives for coming into a field with such a massive shortage that opportunities should abound. Not so good if you are a parent of a child with a disability. The students and their parents are the biggest losers from the Perdue legacy. Teachers do fare worse than they may have otherwise. Choosing between our current governor and the one he replaced would be most difficult, but right now democrats have a golden opportunity.

Pay for performance is a total loser as far as what I currently teach. It is why the master teacher certificate is not accessible in my field. Daniel Willingham has an excellent video that explains why merit pay is such a difficult and tricky issue.

Teachers simply do not have enough control over all the contingencies that are involved in student outcomes. In my case, students progress so slowly as to defy any quick, cheap or reliable measure. Also they are all different. The idea is to reward the best teachers, but there is no standard of comparison between students in my classroom and any other students. Right now I have 9 students which is more than twice the size of any other comparable program in the district. How could there be a fair comparison? Secondly, my students are with me for the duration of the day for the duration of their school career. There is no standard of comparison there, either.

One provision the governor included was for classroom observation to be a part of the determining factor as far as whether a teacher would get performance-based pay. I have no problems being observed by an administrator, and showing them what I do any time. One problem is that not many administrators have any idea of what I do or even what I should be doing. They walk in once or twice a year for about 5-10 minutes and then leave. That’s if I’m lucky. For the past several years, observing me consisted of watching me feed one of the students during lunch! Again, I have no problems doing this and demonstrating it as it is an important part of what I do and crucial to the student. But it isn’t part of the Georgia Standards and is not going to apply toward ANY of the school’s stated improvement goals.  What I do is important, but it is not given value by any accountability scheme envisioned by any politician.

One more note about the pay for performance scheme outlined by the governor is that he references a survey taken by some 20,000 educators, 80% of which supposedly said they wanted to be evaluated and paid on the basis of student performance and observation.  I never saw any such survey, unless it was this one.  in Georgia.

Performance-based pay is a mine field. But if they people advocating this succeeded in designing something that was fair to me and the students I teach, I guarantee it would be fair for all. The reverse is decidedly not true as demonstrated by the Master Teacher debacle that leaves me behind.

Advancing Miracles

23 Nov

One of the reasons for my frustration, is that I am forever looking to advance my students along.  The current economic and political realities seem bent on thwarting those efforts, and I suspect every teacher feels this way.  We want to keep moving forward, but get bogged down by forces beyond our control.

But we still do it and we succeed in spite of public policies, like NCLB.  And so it is, I’m blogging the student teacher I said I wouldn’t blog about.  Well, this is noteworthy and deserves to be published and promoted!

I have several students who have profound intellectual disabilities, meaning they rely almost totally on caregivers to meet their needs.  It’s one of the reasons why the adult:student ratio is so critical.  If there isn’t an adult around to meet a need, it is not going to be met.  Period.  However, any move in the direction of independence is a monumental one, considering that these students are all in high school.  If they have not learned something by now, it isn’t likely they will, especially since the adult/student ratio is cut in half as soon as they exit middle school.

But having a capable and motivated adult can really help move things along.  In this case, the student teacher has been working with one of my students who has PID as well as being mostly physically disabled. She has to be fed, like most of my students.  She can move her hands and arms, but just doesn’t very much.  Until now.  We started off teaching communication skills, geting her to push a Big Mac switch in order to say “more” meaning she wanted more food.  She quickly caught on to this, as eating is highly reinforcing to her.

However, this student did not stop there.  At some point the food wasn’t coming fast enough so she grabbed the teacher’s hand and brought it up to her mouth.  This was HUGE!  We hadn’t seen this before, but then we never had time to look.  Feeding time is something we generally do as quick as we can to get it over with, like any other task we have to do.  However, we made a break through, past the communication exercise.  I showed the student teacher how to hold the spoon and help facilitate more engagement and learning in the feeding and within a couple fo days, the girl was beginning to feed herself.  It is still a very sloppy process, but we are off and running!

It’s been awhile since we had a breakthrough like that in our room.  It looks downright miraculous.  It’s mostly good teaching involving consistency and persistence.  And it is also a good shot in the arm for all of us, morale-wise.  It will be interesting to see if we can sustain it over the course of the year, even after this student teacher leaves.

Here’s the thing: This is a gigantic leap forward for this one student.  Feeding herself with the spoon.  It is monumental, significant and practical.  But it is not even a blip on the NCLB radar screen.  It carries NO weight to anyone outside of this girl’s life.  It does not improve a test score, does not improve the graduation rate or any other measure devised to measure “accountability.”  It is not something I could use to become one of Georgia’s Master Teachers.  The resounding message from the outside is that what we do doesn’t matter, when in reality, what we do totally matters!

But I have no idea how on earth to convey that to the people who make decisions about our staffing.  Those folks never darken my door and they miss these miraculous victories.  Having key people in the key spots matters, but I don’t get to choose who is in my room with my kids.  Sometimes I am very fortunate.  Sometimes, less so.

Anyway, I simply had to blog it and make whatever political hay I can out of it.  Unfortunately, these things do not happen every day and few times do they happen in such short amounts of time.  It’s also good for a new teacher to get this boost very early in her career as  those are the memories that sustain us over the longer and leaner times.

Grades for Students with Severe Disabilities

25 Oct

One of the most common questions I am asked is “How do you grade the students you teach?” I mean, they don’t do any paper and pencil activities, they don’t produce anything and there are no permanent products. At the high school, every other student is producing something in the way of writing or projects or test scores. Oh…TEST SCORES which have become the gold standard in this country! Don’t get me started…

I do progress reports and have some sort of program data on most of my students, except for the very lowest ones, especially since discrete trial lends itself to accumulating data. But it does not translate well into the sort of letter/percentage grade that schools make teachers give high school students. A student may not be doing a single task independently during any trials and in any setting this would be viewed as a total failure. In my classroom, I look at level of support, and usually we have a mixture of trials requiring verbal, gesture, partial physical or full physical prompts. I suppose I could assign a score to each part of the prompting hierarchy and arrive at a more empirical figure. But when it comes to high school academic standards, no figure I could come up with would have any sort of validity. None. So when I do the report card, I take a wild guess according to effort, progress, and where we are in relation to goals. And most parents don’t have a problem with their teachers doing this as long as that grade is an ‘A’ or a ‘B’. As long as their child is making honor roll, they aren’t going to complain.

However I have over the years raised the ire of more than a couple of parents when they come from the middle school. For their entire school career of getting letter/percentage grades, they have been getting mostly 90’s the entire way through. Other teachers I have taught beside did exactly this, giving every student a 95 or 96. This is one of those Horace’s Compromise things, where there is a tacit agreement that “good enough is good enough” and we demand and deliver as little as possible. For other students, it is mostly between student and teacher: You deliver the minimum amount required to meet certain expectations, and you are rewarded accord to meeting the minimal criteria. If you want an ‘A’ you know the minimal performance required to get there. For students with severe disabilities, it is between teacher and parent: “Give my child an ‘A’ and I won’t ask for any justification.” So in a sense, I am severely disrupting that tacit little agreement when a student comes home with a 78 or a ‘C’. Now we have a problem.

The problem that I have is this: does a child who is uncooperative, disruptive, belligerent, violent, and otherwise assaulting themselves or other people legitimately belong on the honor roll? And what if, even in simple discrete trial tasks they are uncooperative? I’m not going to fail anyone on account of their disability, but neither can I justify elevating that into “honor” status. And it’s not like any of my parents are gong to take advantage of their child’s exam exemption to keep them at home!

So here’s, generally, how I arrive at a grade:

A = 90-100 – The student is totally trying and is making progress. It’s a bit relative, and with 9 kids, I have a sample size that allows me to judge who is the best and who is not. I might have given 1 ‘A’ this marking period. By the end of the year, I will have more. It means the student is making real attempts at completing things independently.

B = 80-89 – Most of my students are working in this area, which means that we still have some problems that we’re working on, but we’re still making some progress. I leave room to show improvement, so during the 1st marking period all grades are lower. I’m looking at the data and how much prompting and support is needed.

C = 70-79 – Here, we have many issues that we need to address, and many students will start here, especially if they come from summer break wild and off the chain. I have to work twice as hard to get them into the routine as the ‘B’ group. Freshman typically seem to end up here, as they are well below their classmates. Remember, this is ongoing. A student can totally move up by Christmas and still get their B and make semester honor roll if everything is going like it should be. But if a student is physically capable of pushing a button or pointing to a card and refuses or throws the material, we have some issues to work on. You should not be on the honor roll if you are refusing to do things independently when it is well within your capability. It represents a significant gap between potential and actual achievement. A person can’t give what they don’t have, and I take that into account. But if you’re slacking, do not expect a break. I’m just sayin’.

In our school, there are no ‘D’s and I’ve never given one anyway. Yeah, we ALL need improvement and my kids don’t need to be labeled as “poor”. The ‘C’ smacks over achiever parents hard enough as it is! Failure is not an option here. And it wouldn’t make any difference, anyway. If the kid is on the honor roll for 4 years, they will still stay 3 more. If they fail, they still come back. Conventional “promotion” doesn’t really exist compared to typical peers. However, I have promoted kids to the Moderate class, but that was mostly because they were misplaced in the first place.

In a sense, my grades are a reflection of what we do at school, but it can also be a reflection of what is going on at home, which is probably what alarms so many parents. In a typical, nondisabled classroom, we know that parents have a lot to do with how their kids do in school by providing guidance, structure and motivation. many students will not do any homework, unless a parent insists and prods and cajoles and bribes or whatever it is they have to do. Trust me, I know how much of an ordeal this is! Homework should be something students can do on their own with a minimum of assistance. For my students, it is a bit different, because they don’t have any homework that a student could do at home independently. I suppose I could do what many of the teachers of my two boys do and assign projects that demand parent involvement, like large intricate craft projects. Then I’d have something to grade! But then I suspect I’d get even more grief when I gave a lower grade than expected!

However, parents do have a lot to do with encouraging their children to do things independently, like feeding themselves or playing with toys or pulling up their pants. I see this more with feeding that anything else, as I’ve had occasion to socialize with other parents who have children with disabilities. I’ve irked more than one parent when at one of these events I got on top of them for spoon feeding a child who I knew was capable of feeding himself. Here you demand that we put this as a goal on the
IEP and work on it at school, and you are not doing this at home! Don’t demand a goal on tooth brushing on the IEP if you are not going to do it home.

So I have students who come to me and have no physical reason why they can not perform a given task. It’s not necessarily the student’s fault, but it reflects some ground that we will have to cover that should have been done previously. No honor roll grades, there. But that doesn’t mean that will always be the case, and hopefully we’ll get to the point we should have started.

Assessment for this population isn’t a matter of simply taking a test. You can’t just give them a pencil and paper and say “Here do this worksheet, answer these questions.” NONE of them are even verbal, so a verbal assessment is out. Most have limited mobility and serious motor issues, so manipulative assessment is out. And I’m not going to say a lot about a severely truncated attention span or limited perseverance. That’s not to say we can’t measure progress, but it translates very poorly into a report card A-B-C-F format. So I send home daily notes to parents in their notebooks. They are informed every day not just during quarterly report card periods. I’m more transparent than any other teacher in the building and possibly in the entire county! I have a blog! I have a video channel!

Grading is never a precise science, as there is a bit of an art to it. Most teachers of students with severe disabilities do neither, and just give the kid an ‘A’ whether it is earned or not. And that is fine for them, as long as we all agree that the grades on the report card don’t mean anything unless they open up Harvard to students with IQ’s in the single digits. But I’m trying to communicate at least a little bit with the hideous system that I’m forced to use, and convey some degree of meaning to something that isn’t terribly meaningful in the first place.

As a parent, when we went through school, grades were also used as a motivational tool. Study and work hard, get good grades and get rewards and honors and a good job. None of that motivational stuff applies to this population . Even if they comprehended the difference, quantitatively, between 78% and 98%, or an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ , why would they care? This actually applies almost universally to all students with disabilities. The graduation rate in my high school for students with disabilities is 30%. The employment rate for students with disabilities in my county is about 10%, with most of those being part-time or less. Which means that over 90% of students with disabilities emerge from high school with few quality prospects. Those in the population that I teach are not even at that level, and have a waiting list waiting for them when they leave my program. So in the grandest scheme of things those 1st quarter grades are not terribly relevant.

I want to say one more thing about grades, and this goes to everyone regardless of whether the student has a disability and cuts across grade levels and even that first college midterm. Mainly, that those first marking period grades should be intentionally more stringent than any others. That means that a student (and the parents) should expect the grades to be lower than “typical” for that child. This represents the first period of a new grade level/year with newer and higher expectations. If the student is already exceeding the standards in all areas, what is the use of continuing to go? Many students, when grades are a motivational, will go into “early retirement” if they think they have already got it in their back pocket. It also doesn’t give any indication of relative strengths in weaknesses especially when using marks like our elementary schools i.e. C,S,U,N or 1,2,3 or faces or stars. As teachers, we need to allow for room for growth. So as parents, we need to take a relative view of the marks coming out after the first marking period and not be too judgmental toward the the student or his/her teacher and those marks. It’s merely a guidepost and a relative indicator of where that student is at a given time.

National Autism Center Report

2 Oct
This just came up on my radar, and I thought I would check it out.
Before I even get into anything about the report itself, I do want to mention that actually getting a copy of the report involves submitting your name, email and state. I looked for any privacy notices regarding this information, but didn’t see any. So before even reading it, I resolved that I was going to mention this hoop that everyone must jump through. I think it is needless and detrimental to the stated primary mission of the organization which is to help professionals and families of individuals with autism. If you’re going to release the report to the public, then release it. If you’re going to harvest information from people who want to see the information, then be explicit about that.
Having said that, I went ahead and submitted my information, trusting that I wouldn’t be spammed into oblivion. I then download all 3 of the options and began reading.

Parent Involvement

27 Aug

There’s a huge push in Georgia and around the country relating to parent involvement, and right this minute there is one going on in the metro Atlanta area sponsored by WSB-TV and And there is a lot of research that indicates that parent involvement is one of the key elements of a good education as well as well adjusted kids in general, that you can find at the BeThere website.

In my county, there are a couple of theme schools (elementary and middle) as well as a high school academy that have parental involvement as the central focus. Parents sign an agreement that they will volunteer for a number of hours as well as adhere to a list of rules and guidelines. In exchange, the school promises to deliver a better education and better outcomes based largely on the increased parent involvement.

I agree that parental involvement is a crucial element in education. In fact, I believe parent involvement is more important than the teacher, the principal or the school district in determining academic outcomes. If you could get rid of the entire educational apparatus and replace it with involved parents for every child, there wouldn’t be an educational crisis in this country.

I have a couple of family members who have been home schooling their children, and these kids are absolutely awesome and brilliant. Of course the parents are awesome and brilliant, too, but these kids are as socially adjusted, confident and creative as anyone you would ever meet anywhere else. A well-educated and motivated parent can do things that a school system simply can not do. And with the leaps in technology, the gap between what public schools can offer versus what someone educated at home can get is approaching zero. Throw in some community theater, music, sports and clubs and you’ve got everything pretty much covered. Homeschooling is the ultimate in parent involvement as it involves dedication and commitment far beyond what any of the local theme schools demand, which is why it isn’t for everyone.

We’ve kicked the home school idea around our house. Jane has been to some home school expos and has a number of friends who are homeschooling their kids. And my youngest would do really well with it, but he’ll do well no matter where he goes to school. But my oldest is a big question mark. Right now he’s getting OT and sppech/language services through the school system via his IEP. There’s a good resource on home schooling and special needs found at the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association. I may hit on that more later.

But I do want to speak concerning those of us who are not home schooling and are being asked to be involved. It’s difficult for responsible parents to NOT be involved, so this movement does strike me as a bit bothersome and condescending. We all do know parents who aren’t very involved, but it’s hard to imagine any ad campaign having much of an effect on people who are unable or unwilling to be involved. We do need to face a very real, if unpleasant to educators, fact: the public school system has as a primary function a custodial role; a safe, secure place to keep kids so that parents can go to work or just get a break. We are paid to babysit as much as educate.

There, I said it.

Public schools exist, in large part, because parents don’t want kids running amok all day. A few months off in the summer are about all most parents can stand. They love seeing the bus pull up in the fall! And while many kids won’t admit it, they like having a place to go. they get fed and looked after and if all goes well they might get an education. But in any case, they are in a relatively safe, clean, environmentally-controlled place. Parents can go about their business during the day without having to worry about their kids. And if they do worry, they have a myriad of people to blame and complain to including the school board, the superintendent, the principal and right down to the teacher. There are ample opportunities for parents to raise a fuss and be heard. Plenty of involvement there!

Which brings up another aspect of this parental involvement business. Fact is, schools want parents involved as long as it’s the system calling the shots. As long as parents volunteer to raise money, schools like parents. When parents start wanting a voice in how the money is spent, then there may some problems. In special education, the school system is negatively reinforced for having parents who are not involved. If a parent isn’t present, an IEP can be done in a much shorter amount of time. If a parent is involved and brings an advocate or attorney, then we’re looking at hours. Some parents are in the office a lot, advocating for their child or complaining about something or other. Some are calling their board representative all the time. They are already involved quite a bit! But this is not the sort of involvement the districts involved in the “Be There” campaign are looking for, I suspect.

They are looking for parents to be involved with helping their child comply and succeed with the requirements put forth by the state. They want parents who will help their child (as well as maybe others) with homework, teaching math and literacy and fundraising. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but I am saying that any campaign seeking involvement from parents might want to consider all the ways parents are involved, including those who get involved by suing the school system! I think parent involvement is good when there is good communication and trust between a school and the parents. In such a system, though, a campaign like “Be There” wouldn’t be necessary.

I have a mix in my class. Just by the nature of severe and multiple disabilities, it demands heavy parental involvement. There’s just no getting around it when a student demands total care and supervision 24/7. I totally get that, which is why I try not to make a lot of demands on the parents. They are all doing the best they can. Most have been pretty supportive over the years, and I think I have a decent relationship with all of them. After several years, a body tends to develop a sort of trust relationship as my classroom becomes a second home of a sort. A very CROWDED home, at the moment, but we do the best we can with what we have.

What do you think? Are there some parents who are too involved? Are schools really that interested in a reciprocal partnership with parents?

Fitting Education to Students’ Needs

18 Aug

This article by Jay Matthews from the Washington Post does a good job of summarizing just exactly why the special education field is so litigious and combative. Even when a parent does all of the right things, follows all of the procedures and attempts to work with the school system to best meet the needs of their children, the school system still finds a way to screw parents and neglect the student. So now everyone has to get a lawyer, which helps drive up the cost of education even higher.
Even though I’m employed by the school system, I do see part of my job as advocating and helping to protect parents from a system that would otherwise trample them to smithereens. Now with a tough economy and declining revenues, school systems are having to set their priorities more rigidly, and we are reminded as to why the IDEA, ADA and the Rehabilitation Act are all needed. It’s needed to protect the rights of those who otherwise would be left behind. In our Soviet-Style education system,

Our educational system is essentially a Soviet-style government-run monopoly that could only be loved by the likes of Lenin and Stalin.

the educational needs of individual students are subverted in order to accommodate the priorities of the larger state community. The national government curriculum that is being developed is not being designed with the needs of my students in mind. If your son or daughter does not fall within the “average” range, it’s not being developed with them in mind either. Basically, the more nationalized, homogenized and standardized the educational system gets, the less tolerant it is toward individual needs and differences.
So while the lawyers go back and forth, Miguel either remains in his public school, and falls further and further behind. Or his family goes destitute in an effort to privately finance the education that he so desperately needs, while the school system continues to tax its citizens for an education that is not meeting the needs of its most needy citizens.
There are things I don’t understand about Miguel’s case. First of all, his mother was able to get an independent evaluation (several of them, actually) and the school system seemed to reject all of them. In light of a recent supreme court ruling, it seems as though the school system is clearly in the wrong because they are refusing to identify Miguel as Learning Disabled, despite clear and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This case seems to mirror that case identically (Forrest Grove School District v T.A. 2009) or at least up to the stage where Miguel begins attending a private school. I thought the school system had their own team of lawyers? How can they be so ignorant?

Basically, the school system attempts to keep the gate shut by refusing to identify individuals has having learning disabilities at all. This is happening all over the country more and more as Response To Intervention (RTI) begins to be more widely and irresponsibly used to deny and delay services. Second, even after an individual is identified, the school system often drags its feet on actually serving the student. And finally, often when services are provided, it is often executed very poorly by individuals who may or may not be highly qualified. Or in some cases, the conditions under which services are delivered make such services ineffective such as in an area that is overcrowded.

The only thing I can recommend to parents is to push back against the tide that threatens to roll over your children. Institutions can be extremely insensitive until you are willing and able to inflict some substantial pain upon them, usually in the form of monetary damages. While I work for such an institution, my primary concern is for the student and his/her needs, not the needs of collective machinery at the board office or even the administrative office in the building where I work. I believe my fellow teachers who work with the students every day feel the same way. I do feel mostly supported by my peers and the parents of my students. But by administrators and legislators? Not so much. My students fall outside of the margins of the masses and the many and as a result so do I. My needs are foreign and intrusive because my students are regarded as foreign and intrusive. So this year, I am pushing back more. I dislike having to be combative, ornery, whiny and demanding. However, NOT doing so results in nothing happening except an already poor situation deteriorating even further. Somewhere, I have to draw the line and attempt to hold it.
On a more positive note, I have had the opportunity to speak to several classes of regular education teachers and students regarding many of the noises they hear from my students and classroom. It has been extremely positively received. I find myself more and more impressed by the “regular” kids after speaking to them and addressing their concerns and questions. Prior to visiting, there were a lot of complaints from teachers to administrators about the loudness of my group. Hopefully as the year goes on, we can minimize that loudness as the students (both mine and the rest of the school) adjust to a new schedule and new people.

Making Waves

30 Jul

No, not yet. But I have made waves before and know that the day will come (and might be overdue) when I have to do it again.

In 2000, I can into this county as some one with some experience in special education, but none with the severe and profound disabilities. I had worked with mostly LD and EBD settings, albeit very restrictive in a psychoed and state hospital. But what I lacked in experience, I more than made up for with the fire in my belly from just recently having my oldest son diagnosed with PDD-NOS at the age of 18 months.  I had some extra motivation that needed an outlet, and fighting injustice was just the thing.

The situation I walked into was pretty appalling. We were getting students with more and more severe disabilities, but there was no changing area. We had one student who we had to catheterize and change and we did it on a computer table in our little office area. The school nurse was prohibited from helping us with catheterizations. There were no accessible drinking fountains. The conditions we were working in showed me that there was a very clear pattern of discrimination, exclusion and prejudice. So I amazed and shocked my new administration by detailing several of these injustices in writing, listing all of them as recipients and then filing it with the county special education director as a list of section 504 violations. Looking back it was an extremely audacious thing for me, a new hire, to do.

The special education director did come out to the high school to meet with us in order to rectify several of the issues. While she was amused at my boldness, she was supportive and worked with us to address my grievances. Not all of them were addressed right away. Some of them were never resolved. But we made gradual headway and progress. The administration seemed to be genuinely interested in meeting the needs of our students.

NCLB has not been good to students with severe disabilities. In fact, it has totally thrown all of us under the bus. Sure, there is lip service toward ensuring that all children have a quality education delivered by highly qualified teachers. But with the constant drumbeat of accountability and test scores, these students and their teachers are totally marginalized and alienated. It is all about college preparation. What does someone with an IQ of less than 20 have to do with a college prep curriculum and diploma? And what does that say to those who really work hard to get one if they just give one to these kids by virtue if their GAA and staying until 22? Administrators all over the country, faced with tough economic choices are following their keenest business instinct; getting “the most bang for the buck.” That means test scores. That means NOT my program. That means disproportionate overcrowding.

Consider this:

The state sets various limits on class sizes for various grades, as well as disability categories. The limit for a PID class is 5, with at least one para. For a regular high school class it has been around 30. This means 1 student with severe disabilities is about equal in support to 6 regular education students. So what if I have 8 in my class? An administrator might see this as still being a small class. Numerically, it is. But support-wise, it is equal to increasing a regular class to 48! Even under the toughest of economic times, I do not know of a single regular teacher who is expected to be with 48 kids for one class period, much less being with all of them all day long all year long. Even with extra para support, there is a limit to how many one teacher can handle, no matter the level of experience or competence.

Numbers alone never give an accurate picture of anything. IQ is not a measure of character, worth or how much dignity a person deserves. And yet, this is the climate that is driving more and more decisions that routinely leave those who most need support and care into situations that are rife with neglect and abuse. It’s time we push back before we get run over.


22 Jul

Believe it or not, the start of school is just around the corner.  We are scheduled to begin preplanning next week, but that may change in light of the latest actions of our beloved governor.  According to the link, we may be looking at a reduction in work (and pay) for 3 days and it is extremely likely that at least some of those days will come at the expense of preplanning.

No doubt, this economy is a giant crap sandwich and everybody is going to have to take a bite.  However, preplanning is about the worst possible sacrifice we could make.  As it is, I was staring in the face of a massive shortage of time to get ready.  In fact, in my building we are now looking at a perfect storm of chaos the likes of which we have never seen before.

It started last year, when the school board decided everyone was going to be on a block schedule.  Not a huge deal for me, but it was and will still entail a considerable about of time retooling and retraining all of us.  This would be part of preplanning.  Next, our building is the oldest high school in the county and was supposed to be undergoing major rennovations over the summer.  That meant thet my paras and I spent days and days packing up all of our stuff into boxes and labeliling all our shelves and cabinets and moving these things to storage.  Then, in reaction to the budget woes, the school cut para preplanning to one day, which is the day of our open house.  So now I am looking at having to reassemble my classrooom and all of our stuff by myself.  And then there is an annoying email informing us to NOT come in early because the construction crews are not finished yet.

In addition to training on the block schedule, there has to be at least one school-wide meeting lasting several hours, a department meeting lasting hours and a district-wide special-ed meeting lasting half a day.

Basically, we’re totally screwed all around.

So now I’m noodling how to respond to all of this.  First off, that email about the construction not being finished; I’m going to go in anyway to pick up my mail and to see how deeply my classroom area is affected.  If it’s not, I need to get started because it took 4 of us several days to pack and I haven’t the time to spare.  Next week will be a bust regardless.  One silver lining might be that if the board decides to take a day or two off the top, I can still go in without having to worry about the inane meetings.

Heaven help the new teachers who are going through their new teacher orientation this week.  Orientation is SO crucial to them in getting to know the school, colleagues, administrators, procedures and just getting ready for the kids.  Truncating that transition for them will be costly down the road even more than for the rest of us who have been through past openings and have some semblance of an idea of what is involved.

There are some ways that some aspects of preplanning could be streamlined:

- New teachers need to be introduced.  Have each make a short video bio and post it on our intranet so we don’t need a meeting to see it.  Now that I think about it, ALL teachers could do that, and it would benefit everyone in knowing each other throughout the year.

- Replace meetings with video presentations.  Last year our superintendent did that, and it worked very well, except the principal still called us all together to watch it.  We need to be in our rooms working, instead of waiting for a video to start.  The principal did one video last year, and I thought it worked well.   There’s no reason for taking up a lot of face time if we are not expected to interact.  In other words, administrators rarely want to field many questions during a faculty meeting and such questions could be fielded online in the open for future reference.

-Get memos and notices out electonically and early.  We always have to submit a syllabus, information and course descriptions.  Many of these could be done collaborative on the intranet (Sharepoint).

Special educators also have a huge stack of files to go through for new students, and get assorted medical and emergency plans ready for them.  Our paperwork machinery is already ginning out new forms and data collection precedures even while I’m writing.  Just finding a place for all the paperwork and forms is a chore!

So what it really means is that teachers will be doing what we alaways have been doing; donating a ton of time to the service of our students.  It’s just going to be especially intense this fall.


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