At this point in the game, you may be wondering how those classes and learning environments intersect with an IEP, or individualized education plan, am I right?
Let's back up though -- and look to the actual purpose of an IEP. So, an Individualized Education Plan (hopefully) spells out goals, percentage of achievement of the goals and when viewed over the span of time show a pattern of growth or progression or if not, perhaps the establishment of new goals that do. So, the conundrum we faced quite often is that Chloe's goals were frequently lower than her functionality level or potential. This usually made her look like a rockstar on paper, but the implications of this are..well, they are just BAD for her. If you have a low goal with a high achievement percentage or a more difficult stretch goal with a lower percentage of attainment which one is everyone going to vote for? Right. The easily attainable one that makes everyone feel good because the student has learned SOMETHING. Many parents don't even see this because they are like I was in the beginning: they are crying or just fighting to accept that this is ALL their student can achieve - or in my case angry that the whole team felt that is is all they think she can do. I felt like the process is based on Chloe's percentage of normal or percentage to normal -- as if normal is the desired outcome - which lemme tell you right now -- it just isn't! In our case, unless you can replace missing genes, then good luck with that. I firmly believe that this system is completely archaic, negative and totally needs a makeover. I'm not entirely sure that I'm the girl for the job, but I feel confident that I did my part to make the schools Chloe attended think twice about goal setting, goal creation and how attainment is measured (as well as needed accommodations). Right off the bat the central issue - the silent player in the IEP meeting is the budget each school has. I'm sure it does cost more to deliver a modified curriculum, maybe. I've never really given it a second thought because federal law states that each student is entitled to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. Nowhere does it say that a separate (and inherently) unequal environment should be created and maintained for the purpose of providing special education. If that's the case we are teaching our students to be thankful for what they can get without question. Um, no. I'd love to say that our meetings were simple, unemotional and without a bump in the road. And that would be the complete opposite of what happened. Some of you that know me personally also know the struggles we had ranged from real to ridiculous and that I didn't always handle it well - but that's a separate topic.
So, what did our IEP's look like? I promise I'm going to be as unbiased as humanly possible while I hit the highlights in summary form. There are some issues that I will leave aside to protect Chloe's privacy - I will not talk about the area of sports or sports involvement because not only is it a sore subject with me, but it is with her as well and it makes no point to drudge up what can (hopefully) be presented in a documentary one day.
I'll start with the 8th grade transition meeting. Those of us that went to high school orientation were THRILLED. I remember getting the student handbook and reading through the courses available and I had high hope, complete optimism and couldn't wait to talk about Chloe's freshman year. I was in NO WAY prepared for what was about to happen and I will pause right here and say that up until this point in Chloe's life while I may not have always agreed with the school, I wasn't what you'd call argumentative - maybe a little, but they could usually talk me down off a ledge by showing they tried a methodology or took action that just didn't work - I never really had any inclination that a bigger picture was at play. Like any average parent, I assumed the goal was to educate my daughter and prepare her for whatever it was she wanted to do with her life. I never entertained the idea that her IEP team set her goals based on what they think she'd actually do with her life.
The transition meeting took place several months before high school was slated to begin. The team assembled and attempted to talk Marcus and I into a life skills placement for Chloe. We objected and asked for a direct placement option. This option is generally housed in a co-taught classroom and has a maximum of 15 students with two teachers: a general and special education. Sounded perfect. Sign us up! Well, that option is only available in certain subject areas. So, we negotiated that placement in freshman biology. We also agreed on general physical education. We agreed on life skills math. We opted for inclusion on the regular ol’ school bus. But most of all, we were confident that freshman year would rock!
We couldn’t have been more inaccurate. Chloe came home the first day (finally) on the special education bus because she was instructed inaccurately at school (and NONE of them listened when she tried to tell them what was discussed at her meeting) with quite the report: despite our plan for her she was largely included in a self-contained class for the bulk of the day. I immediately called an IEP meeting to discuss placement. The team felt that this was the most appropriate for her and contended that she did change classes throughout the day. As we all know a neurotypical student has what, seven classes? In her current schedule, Chloe attended first period choir (which is not the elective she wanted or asked for and interestingly several of ‘her peers’ as the school refers to her classmates of all abilities were also included in). My conclusion is that this was an easy way for the school to say Chloe had a general education elective without asking her if that’s the course she wanted. And they probably also thought we wouldn’t argue because she was mainstreamed. Second period was biology, which by the time the first meeting took place the team had decided that she needed to be moved into a “more basic” class that emphasizes the principles of science. I argued and produced her grades, among them a quiz on glassware that she had scored a 98 on without any assistance. Gym was third period (which was ironically the same period adaptive was offered) and her general education PE teacher wanted her to be placed in adaptive PE because of her handwriting (yes I’m serious). For the rest of the day, periods 4-8 she was in a self-contained class. Needless to say, we had a cow. After several more meetings that became so combative and so stressful — we threw in the towel and moved. During that time, I heard it all. We re-tested and though our neuropsych said one thing, their testing conflicted. They found excuses to ignore the letters we produced from specialists and advice from anyone other than their team. Their discrimination and segregation was all I talked about - to anyone who would listen. I was insulted. I cried. A lot. But I bravely looked for alternate options and it wasn’t until Chloe was settled into another school that I calmed down long enough to think straight — a process that took almost two months. Some people said I took it too hard. Some people said I was too emotional. Fellow parents (except one key person and she knows who she is) thought I was making a mistake to rock the boat in this manner. I felt like most everyone felt like Chloe’s future just wasn’t worth fighting for. Except me. Except Marcus. And most importantly — except Chloe. So, we pressed on at the new school and flung ourselves into that world. The students changed classes, had a variety of instructors and subjects and Chloe had a say in her courses and quickly made new friends. All was well and although this school only thought I was slightly crazy for considering college, they accommodated very well and she flourished! She remained at that school for freshman and sophomore year. Her summer school was even a success! Academically, sophomore year went off without a hitch, but athletically we encountered similar circumstances as we had before. This eventually led to another change for junior and senior years. I can’t say I’m proud of that but I can say I wouldn’t change it.
IEP-wise, Chloe’s goals were consistently set lower than I felt comfortable with and that was typically captured in the notes section of the IEP. I don’t feel like (of the three schools involved) that any one ALWAYS listened to us or to Chloe. And I guess that’s why by junior year I was able to articulate where we had been, what we had tried and what we wanted to accomplish. More importantly, I made it crystal clear that I didn’t care if the IEP team agreed with me or not, what I cared about was course access and Chloe’s end game (college acceptance into a CTP program). I spent that time enrolling in and passing first year law in attempts to understand how schools get away with failing to follow federal laws, researching Chloe’s post secondary options and building her skill set to help us understand what employment would eventually look like.
Here are my best practices for negotiating with your school district:
1. Cry at home. If you think you’re gonna lose it, grab a friend, take your spouse but don’t cry in front of them.
2. Get a game plan. ASAP. This will sound harsh (probably because it is) but if you fail to plan you plan to fail. What is it your student needs to be successful? What’s YOUR end game? Doesn’t have to be college, maybe it’s project search or a technical school. What matters that your student is on a path to achieving their goal, whatever it may be.
3. Use research to support your requests. It was no secret or surprise that Chloe planned to attend a CTP school after graduation. I brought the whole program and laid it out for the entire staff at her school. I requested Chloe’s goals be based off of the entrance requirements (junior year) and that course access mirror what she’d likely encounter as a college freshman (senior year).
4. Don’t be afraid - your student is worth any and every argument. (Re-read this sentence if you need to). My requests in item #3 were successful because I asked why not. Why couldn’t these request be accommodated? At one point in a meeting I stated that I failed to understand why a high school was choosing not to prepare a student for entrance into a post secondary program of their choosing. And further I’d require their explanation in writing so that I could share it with the state board of education. They knew I was serious. Just remember you’re not there to win a personality contest — you’re there to make sure the team is working for your student and is in compliance with the law(s) that protect your student’s rights.
5. Ask for help. Can’t afford a lawyer or advocate? Ask for a free consultation. Join online support groups and ask other parents for references. Contact me - I’ll help you in any way that I’m able, but please just secure what your student needs.
This isn’t by any means an exhaustive list, legal advice or suchlike - it’s just a from the hip, from the heart cold-hard look at what CAN happen.
High school was wildly confusing, crazy, colorful and I can say with great certainty: I’m glad THAT’s over with! There really are ways to own this time though and capture what your student needs - nothing a little combative conjecture and creativity can’t solve.