HOW I CAME TO SCHOOL CHOICE:The Understanding of Diversity
by Debbie Smith
School choice is more a philosophy than it is a set of policies. Choice in education means that parents and students have ultimate control over their own educational choices, affording the opportunity for ALL students to receive the most appropriate, and therefore best possible education.
I came to understand choice in education as the foundation for every student’s success because of my experiences raising two very diverse children.My daughter, Chelsea, spent her entire academic career in special education programs, and my son, Trevor, not only attended Gifted and Talented programs in elementary school, but also went on to enroll in Honors and Advancement Placement courses in his high school years.Our family’s experiences, like the experiences of so many other families, led us to understand how and why school choice policies exist and why they must be expanded so that all students can realize a truly appropriate education.
Congratulations, it’s a girl!Certainly an exciting time for any parent, the birth of a plump and healthy baby girl, that in my eyes remains beautiful and perfect to this day.It wasn’t until my daughter started missing major developmental milestones that people began to say things to me – but still I did not see.I made excuses for her delays citing her laid back personality as the culprit, certainly not any kind of organic or cognitive malfunction.Chelsea was my first child and I had no previous experiences to draw from, so it was impossible for me to confirm what was seemingly apparent to many others.
When Chelsea was approximately one year old, we moved to Cedarville, California, a small isolated community in Northeastern California, approximately 200 miles north of Reno, Nevada.My husband, Dan, at that time having recently graduated, accepted a position as a geologist at a gold mine 90 miles south of Cedarville. We were so happy together with our beautiful little daughter – things were so wonderful, so simple. But Chelsea’s speech, gross and fine motor delays continued. When Chelsea was two-and-a-half, we learned that the county was offering free evaluations for toddlers at a neighborhood center.My mother persuaded me to take Chelsea in to get checked - I was completely unprepared for what I would learn that day.
I met a friendly, sweet woman named Pam who performed the evaluation on Chelsea.After Chelsea completed a series of exercises, such as emptying candy out of a small cup, tumbling, and throwing a small ball, I reacted somewhat pleased with her performance. Pam, sensing my pleasure, was kind and respectful of my apparent inability to fully grasp the significant delays my daughter was experiencing.
After listening to a litany of concerns that Pam had about my daughter, I began making excuses for Chelsea’s inability to perform basic exercises that Pam described as standard for any toddler of normal cognitive development to complete. I have since come to understand that denial is the first stage in a long process of grief, loss and finally acceptance.
The acceptance of Chelsea’s significant delays would not happen for me for many years. After the initial evaluation of Chelsea’s motor and cognitive abilities, we felt it necessary to follow-up with a more formal assessment performed by a team of medical doctors.We traveled to Reno where we visited a clinic specializing in assessing children with special needs.After a battery of medical and psychological exams, we were referred to a geneticist at the University of Las Vegas, where Chelsea was diagnosed with the genetic disorder Beckwith-Weideman Syndrome. Although this proved to be only a temporary diagnosis because in time the geneticist would rule this syndrome out, it did cause our family to pursue follow-up medical care for many years to come.One of the major characteristics of Beckwith-Weideman Syndrome is an increased risk of abdominal tumors, especially in the kidney and liver, with the greatest risk occurring before the age of eight years old.Therefore, we were advised to obtain an abdominal ultrasound for Chelsea every four to six months.In addition, it was recommended that a serum alpha fetoprotein (blood test) be performed every six months to screen for tumors.
Any parent who has had to endure regular medical exams with their children know how these tests have a way of taking over your life.The ultrasounds weren’t so bad, once we were able to convince Chelsea that the tests wouldn’t hurt.The regular blood tests were another story entirely.Chelsea soon figured out that she didn’t want any part of that cheerful looking, smiling nurse who wanted to jab a sharp needle in her arm.She would kick and scream and become hysterical every time we went in for one of these blood tests.I wonder what a small child must think when her mother physically restrains her to prevent escape from the nurse with the sharp, jabbing needle.Well, we endured these dreaded tests and were grateful when they were no longer needed.
While we would soon find out that Chelsea no longer fit the profile for Beckwith-Weideman Syndrome because children with this syndrome typically ‘catch-up’ in their developmental milestones by the age of eight, her first ultrasound did uncover something significant.Upon viewing the ultrasound the doctors diagnosed Chelsea with hydronephrosis of the right kidney; essentially an obstruction in Chelsea’s right ureter was causing her right kidney to become bloated, and left untreated, would result in the loss of the kidney.This discovery led to more tests involving a dye injected through a catheter into Chelsea’s bladder.At two years of age, this was perhaps the worst of all the tests that Chelsea would have to endure and unfortunately she would need this particular test performed many more times. And Chelsea would still have to undergo surgery to remove the obstruction from her right ureter.Any parent who has experienced watching their small child go through major surgery and recovery, knows how difficult it is. When I first saw Chelsea after surgery, hooked up to all those tubes and unconscious, I lost it – I had to leave the room.Unfortunately for me, the nurse on duty was not very compassionate and complained that he didn’t have time to deal with an hysterical mother.Well, I did regain my strength and my composure and returned to my daughter’s bedside where I remained for the rest of her stay. Chelsea has always been determined, sometimes quite stubborn, and even at two-and-a-half years old having gone through all those tests, major surgery, and still hooked up to her IV, was up and around the very next day walking down the hallway of the pediatric ward visiting with other children. Gratefully, it wasn’t long before we could take Chelsea home where she would experience a full recovery - but addressing her significant developmental delays still lay ahead of all of us. Chelsea was recommended for a special education program for toddlers with special needs in the nearby town of Alturas, and also the Head Start program for preschoolers.It was here, in this small, isolated community of Alturas, California, located in Modoc County, that we received our initiation in Federal and State Special Education regulations within the public school system. Overall, the special education preschool program in Modoc County was beneficial for Chelsea.She was able to receive desperately needed speech, occupational, and physical therapies, and was able to attend, at no cost to us, Head Start preschool where she was able to gain valuable skills in socialization at an early age.I believe that although Chelsea did benefit from these programs, it did not happen without an extreme amount of effort from us on her behalf as we witnessed the depths district officials would sink to in performing their duties.
Modoc Unified School District (MUSD) offers a perfect example as to why in addition to expanding choice for students, strong and meaningful legislation like Public Law 94-142 (1979) which states that every student is entitled to receive a “free and appropriate public education,” and the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) are necessary.
As a small, isolated community, Alturas and the surrounding areas of Modoc County offered few educational choices for students, and I believe this lack of competition led directly to the abuses that Chelsea and many other students would experience there. Students within the MUSD were essentially trapped, and with limited options, were held hostage to the exploitation of district officials.I say exploitation because although the district did receive additional funding to educate these special students, we would soon find out the lengths that parents would have to go to get appropriate services for their children.This process was difficult and grueling and would unfortunately prove impossible for many parents as they would simply be worn down in dealing with district officials.Yes, we were to embark on a journey that would impact all of us in ways that we could not yet imagine.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, a long line of disputes would ensue between us and district officials of the MUSD.The most egregious act committed by the MUSD was centered on the county’s Adaptive Physical Education (APE) program.In 1992, Chelsea was enrolled in this program when the county’s only certified APE teacher, Ms. Dalton, resigned with the program intact and a promise from district officials to find a replacement and continue the program.
At some point, the district decided not to replace the teacher and eliminated the program altogether, even though several students within the district were enrolled in the program.Essentially, district officials argued that the program was not necessary and that simply providing a gross motor program to these children would be enough.The main problem with this arrangement is that an individual teaching the program would not be required to have any kind of formal credentials indicating a proficiency in instructing children with disabilities.The only way for us to get around this arrangement and reestablish APE services for our daughter was to get the district to agree to provide “direct” APE services to Chelsea.Even though Chelsea had been receiving “direct” services from a certified teacher, unfortunately her IEP (Individualized Education Plan) had never formally reflected that – another valuable lesson we would learn.
We would receive our first introduction in special education law at an IEP meeting discussing Chelsea’s placement in Modoc County’s APE program for the upcoming year.IEP’s are developed for all special education students with the idea of identifying and meeting a student’s individual educational needs. Regular IEP meetings are held to discuss the student’s educational plan, including goals and objectives, whereby all interested parties are invited to attend.The IEP team can include a variety of district officials, teachers, specialists, and of course, the parents.
The development of any IEP is subject to strict accordance with federal special education laws. The general concept that governs all special education legislation is that the education should be designed around the child’s academic needs, not the other way around.Indeed Public Law #94-142 establishes this concept in stating that all children are entitled to receive “an appropriate education” in the “least restrictive environment.”We had to learn this and much more about special education law while living in a relatively isolated community with minimal resources available to parents.We fought for more than a year on our daughter’s behalf trying to re-establish Modoc County’s APE program, and because of our tenacity the district did something just as despicable – they temporarily suspended speech therapy services that were included on Chelsea’s IEP.
In a flurry of correspondence to the California Department of Education, we explained the disgusting situation that we were experiencing with MUSD officials and the removal of desperately needed services that were contained on Chelsea’s IEP. Even after an initial Compliance Report issued in March 1993 by the California State Department of Education findingthe district out of compliance, it wasn’t until June 1993 that we were able to get the district to agree to assess Chelsea’s motor development capabilities with the intention of getting direct APE services reinstated.At this time, the district still had not agreed to reinstate Chelsea’s speech services.
This dragging of feet by district officials, namely the County Superintendent, Mrs. Harbat, and the Assistant County Superintendent, Mr. Slobkins, was yet another form of retaliation for our recalcitrance.Aside from the delays, we were about to be faced with yet another appalling act committed by district officials in the assessing of Chelsea’s gross motor skills.
With our consent, Mr. Slobkins ordered an assessment of Chelsea’s gross motor skills to be completed by a licensed physical therapist, Mr. Opitz.I was invited by Mr. Opitz to remain for the entire length of the assessment which lasted approximately two hours.Directly after the assessment, Mr. Opitz expressed his concern about Chelsea’s gross motor development and told me that he would be recommending that direct APE services be reinstated.However, Mr. Slobkins did not agree with Mr. Opitz’s assessment and continued to deny Chelsea desperately needed APE services arguing that as a licensed physical therapist, Mr. Opitz was not properly credentialed to perform an APE assessment.
The logistical challenges of living in an isolated community such as Alturas meant that when an assessment was needed it was usually performed by individuals who lived outside of the community.Mr. Opitz had traveled a great distance to perform Chelsea’s assessment and arranging another assessment would prove to be difficult.We continued to formally request in writing to district and state officials, another assessment.
The new special education director, Mrs. McClod, finally arranged the long awaited assessment that we hoped would undoubtedly show Chelsea was in need of APE services.Regrettably, we were about to learn the shameful depths that MUSD officials would sink in order to deny services to a child enrolled in special education. Mrs. McClod, and we can only guess with a nod from her superiors, Mrs. Harbat and Mr. Slobkins, had conspired with an APE Specialist, Jim Hoot, to disqualify Chelsea from “any direct/indirect adapted physical education services.”Mr. Hoot also reported that Chelsea’s “locomotor skills were above average” and were “close to or [exceeded] age expectancy.”Now, I would have been excited about this assessment had I believed it to be true. However, by this time Dan and I had come to accept (to some degree anyway) that Chelsea had significant delays.After all Chelsea did not walk on her own, completely unaided until she was more than two years old.Anyone who knew Chelsea, especially her teachers, regarded Mr. Hoot’s assessment as flat out wrong.
The entire APE assessment procedure performed by Jim Hoot was questionable from the start and I have only my own naivety to blame for what happened as a result.Before the assessment began, Mr. Hoot politely requested that I not be present during the assessment.Although I felt that this was unusual, after all Chelsea had up to this point experienced many assessments and I had always been present, I complied with Mr. Hoot’s request because I believed it to be best for Chelsea as Mr. Hoot had described.I did however, request that Chelsea’s personal instructional aide, Pat, be present since Chelsea felt comfortable with her.Mr. Hoot agreed.
I was told to return after the assessment, approximately one hour, for a meeting to discuss Mr. Hoot’s results.I returned for the meeting and was kept waiting over thirty minutes when finally to my surprise, Mr. Hoot showed up with the Special Education Director, Mrs. McClod.What I thought was to be an informal meeting to discuss the assessment results, turned in to a formal IEP meeting where Mrs. McClod proceeded to explain that in light of Mr. Hoot’s assessment, Chelsea’s IEP had to be changed reflecting a disqualification of APE services.Mr. Hoot’s assessment also recommended Chelsea be placed in a regular physical education program for twenty minutes per week (instead of the twenty minutes daily she should have been receiving with enrollment in an APE program).
Mrs. McClod proceeded to present me with an IEP ready for my signature that I was completely unprepared for.When I brought up the assessment performed by Mr. Opitz and the fact that he had recommended Chelsea’s APE services be reinstated, Mrs. McClod ignored me. Since this meeting had turned in to an IEP meeting I requested that Chelsea’s suspended speech therapy services also be reinstated on the IEP;Mrs. McClod replied, “We are not here to discuss speech services.”I tried two more times during the course of this meeting which lasted an hour-and-a-half to discuss speech services – Mrs. McClod ignored my requests.At some point during the meeting, I began crying out of frustration, and finally worn out and worn down, signed the IEP which I regretted as soon as I left the meeting.
It was because of this meeting that I learned yet another valuable lesson in negotiating an effective IEP for my daughter – you do not, by law, have to sign the IEP at all.Parents also have the option of taking the IEP home for careful review before signing if they choose. What's more, as a result of this meeting I decided to tape record all future meetings with MUSD officials.This is legal, but to keep things above board you should notify the district in advance that you plan to do so.I would also never attend another meeting in Modoc County alone; meetings with school officials can be intimidating to say the least and from now on I would always bring my husband.Moreover, I decided I would never sit through another meeting as contentious as this meeting had been; I would simply excuse myself and agree to reschedule the meeting so that I could regroup and think clearly. These suggestions may sound simple but if you happen to be dealing with dishonorable individuals, the way one learns is unfortunately under circumstances such as these.Still, I was to learn of yet another shameful act committed by Mr. Hoot and Mrs. McClod.
Directly after the meeting, Chelsea and I worked at home trying to duplicate the findings of Mr. Hoot’s assessment.Not unexpectedly, we were unsuccessful.Later that week, I received a surprising phone call from Chelsea’s aide, Pat, who had been present at the assessment.Pat described a number of incidents that had occurred during the assessment whereby Mr. Hoot was able to manipulate Chelsea’s performance.It turns out that indeed Chelsea did accomplish many of the things that Mr. Hoot had included in his assessment to some degree anyway, but only after he gave her multiple chances to complete each task.Pat also told me that she had been present at a meeting that took place before the assessment between Mrs. McClod and Mr. Hoot whereby Mrs. McClod requested Mr. Hoot to disqualify Chelsea from APE services and Mr. Hoot agreed to do so.
Naturally, we wasted no time in notifying the State Department of Education of this deceit, but the charge was essentially Pat’s word against the word of Mrs. McClod and Mr. Hoot so it went nowhere. However, the state did order the district to obtain an independent APE assessment for Chelsea; in August 1993 the district complied.It is not surprising that this third assessment, performed by a credible APE Specialist, re-qualified Chelsea for APE services.Yet, at our next scheduled IEP meeting held on August 24, Mr. Slobkins continued to refuse APE services citing that a gross motor program for Chelsea would be just as effective.Mr. Slobkins continued to explain to us that he would not hire an APE teacher “with only five students enrolled in the program.”Well, unfortunately for Mr. Slobkins, we had the law on our side because the district has to provide services with even one student in the program.This did not seem to matter to Mr. Slobkins as he continued to argue with us and deny Chelsea services.
It was another month before Mr. Slobkins would agree to finally include “direct services” for APE on Chelsea’s IEP.And when he did, we had all we needed to officially request another investigation on behalf of our daughter citing the district out of compliance. On September 29, the State Department of Education responded citing the prior compliance report dated March 1993, finding MUSD “out of compliance” because it had not “provided services specified in the IEP…by a credentialed APE teacher.”Finally, the district complied with our requests to fulfill their responsibilities and provide the APE services included on Chelsea’s IEP.
During this year-and-a-half struggle of trying to re-establish APE services for our daughter we had been in constant contact with officials at the California State Department of Education.The bureaucracy in itself was frustrating and worth noting, but we had an additional experience that went beyond the normal machinations of bureaucracy.On one occasion I had contacted the State by phone regarding Chelsea’s case expressing my lack of understanding of special education law and looking for direction in dealing with district officials.It was during this phone conversation that the gentleman on the other end of the phone, a legal consultant in the Special Education Division Program Assistance Complaint Resolution Unit, sensing my utter frustration with the situation, began whispering in the phone giving me explicit instructions on what I would need to do in order to get my daughter’s special needs served in Modoc County.Naturally, the first question that came to my mind directly after this experience (and still does to this day) is why did this official in the California State Department of Education feel it necessary to whisper over the phone?Who did he think would overhear his conversation, and why should he be concerned?After all, he was simply instructing a member of the public as to basic special education law.Perhaps I am naïve, but I thought the California State Department of Education existed for the sole purpose of educating our children. Upon looking back over our long journey, we believed that the processes and procedures as prescribed under federal and state laws hampered our efforts to re-establish APE services for our daughter in a timely manner. We would eventually discover how to work within the system more efficiently to get Chelsea whatever she needed and was entitled to receive under the law. We learned to use all the tools at our disposal; most importantly though was the press.We would also learn to adopt a different demeanor in future IEP meetings with district officials – while maintaining a professional and non-combative attitude, we were there to get Chelsea what she needed and was entitled to receive by law and we would not settle for anything less.
As a result of our experiences in trying to re-establish APE services for Chelsea in Modoc County, and our many letters to the editor, I met a wonderful woman named Barb whose family had recently moved to Alturas.Barb first contacted me by phone having heard of our struggles in the district and began describing what she had been going through with district officials in trying to establish an effective program for her daughter, Jessie.Her experiences sounded eerily similar to ours fraught with delays and flat out denial of needed services.Barb and I would become fast friends while we lived in Alturas and together we would accomplish a great deal because she turned out to be as tenacious as I was.
It did not take long for me to bring Barb up to speed with procedures in the district and the particular individuals responsible for committing despicable acts against my daughter.Barb and I proved to be a great team; she was great at rallying parents and with my experiences in the district and studies in special education law I was able to offer information on our legal parameters.It was an exciting time for both of us as we gathered information and made contacts with other parents who were experiencing difficulties in the district.We ended up with about fifty other parents as we proceeded to file a slew of complaints against the district.The most devastating complaint (for the district anyway) was that many of our children’s civil rights were being violated in the district because of their disabilities.We filed this complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and were successful in getting an investigator from San Francisco to meet with us in Alturas.
Right from our first meeting with the OCR investigator, Angie, we knew we were involved in something that would prove to be bigger than any of us could have imagined when we first started.Because the investigation covered so many individuals, the news of what were doing spread like fire in the small community and it did not take long for the local newspaper to hear of our battles and begin writing front page stories on what was happening.These stories appeared on an almost weekly basis in which the paper highlighted our many disputes, the actions of OCR investigators, and reaction from MUSD officials – which were always interesting to read.The investigation took place over weeks and months with the eventual decision that the district would be placed under probation for two years.What this specifically meant for MUSD was that for two years the district would have to accept OCR investigators making regular visits to carefully review files, including documentation and IEP’s affecting all students in MUSD’s special education programs.
This was a big win for all the children in Modoc County who had been underserved by the district for years and for their parents who had fought so hard in maneuvering the many obstacles district officials placed in their way.I was so proud of all of us, but most especially Barb.From our first conversation those many months ago, she was a loyal fighter; not only for her own child but also for all the children we met along the way.I will never forget our experiences together in Alturas because it proved to me that when parents rally together in the name of their children, the force they create is unstoppable and cannot be ignored.
Regrettably, in spite of our victories, our troubles in Modoc County would continue.When Chelsea turned six years old we experienced further difficulties in establishing and maintaining an appropriate education for her.It was the County Psychologist that would later point out to me that when a child turns six they are viewed differently under the law, no longer protected by federally mandated early childhood education legislation. In many districts this transition is not a problem; however, the level of corruption that we experienced with school district officials in Modoc County would continue to lead us down a road of bitter frustrations.
With Chelsea’s sixth birthday, it was time for an IEP meeting to discuss her transition from kindergarten to the first grade.It is difficult enough for a regular student who transitions from the protected environment of kindergarten to the more regimented and independent environment of first grade; but for kids in special education, this transition can be devastating so we met with district officials to devise a plan that we felt would be successful for Chelsea. It was at this IEP meeting that the district hit us with what they thought was the best placement for Chelsea because, as they told us, they knew better than we did what Chelsea needed in the classroom.Mr. Slobkins proceeded to tell us that in fact Chelsea’s needs would be best met in a self-contained special education classroom where she would be surrounded by other students with disabilities because, as Mr. Slobkins described, the district would not be able to provide Chelsea with the needed support services in a regular education classroom.
However, Dan and I persisted because now being somewhat familiar with the basic principles of special education law we knew that the district must provide appropriate services wherever Chelsea might be placed. We also continued to insist that placement in a self-contained classroom was not best for Chelsea because we believed that her needs were best served in a less restrictive environment with support services; i.e. speech, occupational, and physical therapies.An environment where Chelsea would be surrounded by children who were fluent in speech and were capable of practicing socially appropriate behaviors; an environment that she could learn from her peers the subtle nuances of socialization and communication – something no amount of therapy would be able to teach her.
We won that argument but only after securing the recommendation of a first grade teacher whose classroom Chelsea would be placed.It was apparent that this teacher, Mrs. Thatcher, was not buying in to the spin of district officials.Mrs. Thatcher honestly cared about students and felt that with the appropriate support services, Chelsea could do just fine in a regular education classroom.It was because of Mrs. Thatcher’s recommendation that the district conceded, and Chelsea was placed in the environment that we had wanted and fought for; the environment that we believed to be best for her.
We eventually came to recognize that some school districts will routinely provide a special education program that fits the needs of the district over the child; it all comes down to money.Even though a child accepted into special education automatically becomes eligible to receive additional federal funding, school districts will still claim poverty when it comes to educating these special children.District officials can manipulate the child’s program in a variety of ways.In addition to the outright denial or removal of services, the district was also attempting to save money by corralling their special education students thereby avoiding the additional expense of providing support services in a regular education classroom.
Ultimately, we would realize that trying to obtain an appropriate education for Chelsea would prove to be an ongoing struggle in Modoc County.I began to realize as a stay at home mother how much time I was devoting to fighting MUSD officials on Chelsea’s behalf and how this battle interfered with the time I was trying to devote to Trevor, Chelsea’s very active and very bright baby brother.Although I do believe that it is important to stand and fight after all that’s how the system is reformed, I also understand that crucial time is lost for the child when parents must continually engage school district officials in order to obtain an appropriate education.So two months after Chelsea started the first grade in Alturas, we decided to move to a friendlier school district where we felt Chelsea’s needs would be better met.
Leaving Alturas and MUSD behind was bittersweet.Although we had suffered such tumultuous struggles with the district over several years, it was through these experiences that I had met so many wonderful people that I would have otherwise never met and together we achieved great things.It is also because of my experiences in Alturas that I will never stop fighting to reform the public school system, and in particular special education, because I would soon find out that the problems we had experienced in Modoc County were not unique.
So that we could escape the abuses and inadequacies of the public school system in Modoc County, Dan took a job in Reno, Nevada.Being somewhat familiar with the public schools in Reno, we decided to look outside of Reno and landed in Gardnerville, Nevada, located about 30 miles south of Reno in Douglas County.The Douglas County School District, said to be the “lighthouse district” of Nevada schools, promoted a progressive policy of full inclusion for special education students.The main concept of full inclusion is that special education students are completely immersed with their regular peers in a delivery model for special education services that “transitions from a special education pull-out program to an inclusionary program.”A program of full inclusion is not suppose to mean “throwing special education students into general education classes and hoping it works,” instead school officials proposed that the district’s model would mean “educating special education students in the least restrictive environment appropriate to meet [the student’s] unique needs.” This sounded good to us, after all it seemed to match our ideas of the kind of less restrictive educational environment we wanted for Chelsea.Regrettably, in time we would come to understand the difficulties of educating students in this model and we would modify our own ideas of what constitutes an appropriate educational setting and support services delivery model for our daughter.
Problems with the concept of full inclusion arise when special education students don’t receive appropriate support services in the classroom due to fewer pull-outs.And fewer pull-outs mean that more instruction is offered to the special education student in the general education classroom while the teacher provides the other students their daily lessons.Naturally, this provides for a distracting environment for all students, but most especially for special education students who typically have a difficult time staying on task.Unfortunately for special education students in Douglas County, their educational choices were limited to a regular education setting of full inclusion with limited pull-outs to provide support services, or a self-contained classroom setting for the severely and profoundly disabled students; for some special education students neither of these environments is ideal.
Still somewhat inexperienced in special education, Dan and I believed that full inclusion seemed to match our philosophy on the type of educational environment that we had wanted for Chelsea. As Chelsea continued her first grade school year in Douglas County, we were happy to have her in a less restrictive environment that seemed to be conducive to her educational needs.We worked closely with district officials and the classroom teacher staying on top of Chelsea’s educational plan continually monitoring her progress.Unfortunately, as these things go, we wouldn’t know for some time whether this experiment of full inclusion was best for Chelsea or not.
Chelsea progressed through the second and third grade levels somewhat unremarkably.During this same period of time Trevor also began school, and after my experiences with him at home as a very bright and energetic toddler, I had my concerns about how he would fit into a classroom setting within the public school system.From the start of his first grade year, the teacher was concerned that Trevor would not settle down and tend to his school work during class time.I understood the teacher’s concerns, but I also knew my son – a very bright boy who needed to be constantly challenged in order to succeed in any environment.We would continue our struggle to keep Trevor properly challenged and motivated in the classroom from his elementary years and into his high school years, which is why we would eventually be forced to consider private school as an option.The public school system is simply not well-equipped to handle its brightest students.
Trevor was able to participate in a Gifted and Talented program in his elementary years which proved to be a diversion from his regular classroom time and quite beneficial as Trevor experienced things that he would have never had access to in a general education classroom. But the challenges continued in the classroom for Trevor as he spent most of his day fooling around as a way of handling the boredom and lack of stimulation.Luckily, I was able to establish and maintain a good relationship with Trevor’s classroom teachers who recognized his talents and remained patient with his extracurricular activities while working to provide him with appropriate curriculum separate from most of his other classmates.
Unfortunately, our educational choices for both Chelsea and Trevor continued to be limited in Douglas County.With the lack of charter school development and limited private schools to attend, the public school system, in spite of its inadequacies, still remained our best option for educating both of our children.We would remain diligent in pursuing the appropriate modifications for Chelsea and Trevor in each of their classrooms.With Chelsea, it was her fourth grade year where things would finally come to a head and we would experience challenges in working within the framework of a full inclusion program.
After nearly four years of following district prescriptions and a program of full inclusion with limited pull-outs, Chelsea’s lack of progress was finally becoming clear to everyone.So during the summer between the fourth and fifth grades, we ordered an outside evaluation for Chelsea to be performed by a Neuropsychologist, Dr. Manson – which remains to this date the most thorough psychological exam that Chelsea would ever experience. After four hours and a battery of tests, Dr. Manson’s findings included a diagnosis of Mild Mental Retardation.As Dr. Manson explained to us, there are varying degrees of Mental Retardation:mild, moderate, severe, and profound.Dr. Manson further confirmed to us that peoplediagnosed as having Mild Mental Retardation such as Chelsea, could experience a full life - get a job and have a family – as long as she were to get the right help.Dr. Manson urged us to continue our struggle with the school district in working up a beneficial and appropriate program for Chelsea.
After reviewing the report from Dr. Manson the district decided to taper Chelsea’s instruction and offer her simply a life-skills based plan of instruction.Instead of considering that perhaps her program hadn’t been aggressive enough, or that an educational plan based on full inclusion wasn’t right for Chelsea, or even that some of her therapists hadn’t fulfilled their contracted duties, the district felt that children like Chelsea simply weren’t worth investing the resources in. The district’s decision was based simply on Dr. Manson’s labeling of Chelsea as mentally retarded; they completely disqualified Dr. Manson’s recommendations and Chelsea’s potential, with the right help, to achieve an independent and productive life. Chelsea’s teachers also completely changed their attitudes about her instruction: her case manager, Mrs. Pill, exclaimed she now knew why Chelsea hadn’t been able to understand certain concepts, and her speech therapist, Mrs. Queenie, expressed that she could no longer be of service to Chelsea.An educational plan was then devised for Chelsea by her teachers and district officials that included of all things, making regular trips to the office where Chelsea could “buy pencils.”This and cutting back Chelsea’s speech therapy made up the district’s new educational plan for our daughter.(Ridiculous!)
As one might imagine this new prescription for Chelsea’s educational plan did not sit well with Dan and I.We could not believe that education professionals would actually recommend essentially giving up on a ten year old!In one meeting I had remarked to the district psychologist that the strategy they were proposing would be more appropriate for a high school student, not an elementary-aged student.It took several more meetings with Chelsea’s teachers and district officials to get them to agree not to limit Chelsea’s educational options and instead refocus efforts in providing Chelsea with more intense individualized instruction.However, there was no repairing the relationship with the speech therapist because by now Chelsea had been reporting that Mrs. Queenie had resorted to yelling at her.No doubt this was Mrs. Queenie’s way of dealing with her own frustrations in not being able to make, in her own mind, notable progress with Chelsea.Whatever her reason, it was completely inappropriate therapy and we would not allow Chelsea to suffer through anymore sessions with Mrs. Queenie - we requested that another therapist work with Chelsea right away.
As we reviewed the inadequacies in the district’s plan of full-inclusion for Chelsea that had led us to this point, there had been several indicators along the way that separately had not raised any red flags, but put together in the clarity of hindsight painted a telling picture.First and most obvious was that a program of full inclusion cannot possibly hope to meet the needs of every special education student.The district should have had an intermediate option for students to choose that was somewhere between full inclusion and a fully self-contained classroom for the severely and profoundly disabled students.
Also, we had complained for some time, perhaps not urgently enough, that Chelsea’s Occupational Therapist would not always show up for her scheduled appointments with Chelsea.Perhaps this hit and miss approach to occupational therapy didn’t directly affect Chelsea’s abilities or inabilities to date, but it was definitely a deficit in Chelsea’s program that had an overall impact. In addition to the inadequacy of the occupational therapy program, we believe that any speech therapist working with Chelsea should have received special training in how to work with children who, in addition to experiencing significant developmental delays, suffered from severe stuttering.Because of our concerns, we had graciously offered research materials to Mrs. Queenie on how to better work with Chelsea, but Mrs. Queenie never used any of those materials and instead made it clear to us that she knew what she was doing – the problem was clearly Chelsea as far as Mrs. Queenie was concerned.
In the end we were made to feel that we were in denial and that our hopes and dreams for Chelsea were unrealistic and no amount of educational planning or therapy could benefit Chelsea.The district urged us to accept her limitations (at the age of ten) and move on with developing a more suitable educational plan that excluded speech therapy, and included among other low key approaches, oh yes, “buying pencils.” Needless to say we could not go along with the district’s suggestions; instead our response was to follow Dr. Manson’s recommendations in outlining a more appropriate and aggressive educational plan for Chelsea.
Furthermore, we admonished the district for making the kind of irresponsible educational recommendations and suggestions that I suppose they had hoped would break us of what district officials saw as our staunch denial of our daughter’s disability.Although the district considered us to be in denial – we thought that we were merely hopeful.Dan and I believed that the district did not have the right to crush parents’ hopes and dreams for their children; this is not the job of any school district, teacher, or therapist.Sometimes all a parent has is the hope of tomorrow in better dealing with the challenges of today – this is not denial.A parent’s hope helps a child reach outside their comfort zone, ignoring the boundaries that society inadvertently places on them, and although they will undoubtedly experience failure (all children do), the small successes along the way are priceless.
Again, we were faced with the limitations of the public school system in delivering an appropriate education for both our children, but most especially for Chelsea.Children receiving special education are faced with unusual challenges that affect the entire family, and unfortunately for the children in Douglas County there were few choices for them.We decided early on in Chelsea’s education that private school would not be an option for her – we did not want her in the restricted environment of a school for kids with special needs and we felt that most traditional private schools were simply not equipped to handle children with learning disabilities.However, we would eventually be forced to consider private school for Trevor as he continued to push the limitations of his educational environment within the public school system.Just as we were reaching a precipice in Douglas County trying to find the right place for each of our kids, Dan was transferred to California. VACAVILLE, CALIFORNIA Dan and I were excited at the prospect of getting our children out of the Douglas County School District and into what we hoped would be a more appropriate educational setting in California.Dan’s job would take us to the San Francisco Bay Area where we would experience difficulty in simply deciding on a place to live. We learned that the Solano School District had a good reputation and did not suffer the extent of over-crowding that some other bay area school districts were experiencing.We ended up in Vacaville and were very pleased from the start with the administration and staff of the Solano Unified School District.While in Vacaville, we would experience absolutely no problems with educational placement options for Chelsea or Trevor – we simply shared our wishes and concerns with teachers and administrators and that was all that was needed. The absence of disputes was both a welcome and an unusual experience for us.
After reviewing Chelsea’s IEP, the teachers at the elementary school in Vacaville recognized her previous placement in a general education setting with support services was inappropriate to meet Chelsea’s exceptional needs. Her teachers were also concerned to see that Chelsea had been placed in a general education classroom in Douglas County sometimes with an instructional aide, and sometimes without.They agreed that Chelsea needed to be in an intensive speech therapy program and also recommended that she receive Occupational Therapy services.Her new teachers in Vacaville also noted that Chelsea’s former IEP from Douglas County contained very general goals that were difficult to interpret and assess and they agreed that new goals and objectives would need to be worked up to provide a more accurate picture for the successful placement of Chelsea.
Luckily for Chelsea, Solano Unified School District had five levels of placement for their special education students: general education classrooms with support services; resource classrooms with more intense one-on-one instruction; a resource specialist pull-out program; a special day class for the more involved students; and a county-level classroom for the severely and profoundly learning disabled students.For parents with children in special education, choice is everything.We agreed with the IEP team’s assessment that the best place for Chelsea would be in the special day class with an instructional aide and additional support services, i.e. speech and occupational therapy, to be offered on a pull-out basis.
It was a relief to experience such ease in developing Chelsea’s program and we would thankfully experience the same ease in developing an appropriate educational program for Trevor.Trevor was promptly placed in the district’s Gifted and Talented program and his classroom teachers, recognizing his bright and active mind, developed separate curriculum for him in order to meet his needs. We were to become spoiled with the lack of problems in Vacaville as Chelsea completed middle school and Trevor finished up his elementary years, but we would soon be thrown right back into the mode of staunch advocate with our move to Fountain Hills, Arizona.
FOUNTAIN HILLS, ARIZONA
Dan was transferred to Phoenix, Arizona, a good promotion for him, and we landed in Fountain Hills, a small community located in the foothills about thirty miles northeast of Phoenix.We decided on Fountain Hills, again because the public schools had a good reputation, but also because the district was relatively small and so the schools did not suffer from overcrowding.We were fortunate to find a lovely home located near a golf course for Trevor to hone his golf skills that he had been developing for several years.
The kids were excited to start their new schools: Trevor began middle school with his seventh grade year, while Chelsea began her freshman year at Fountain Hills High School.It was no problem getting Trevor in appropriate classrooms as the middle school provided a very good honors program for their advanced students.Trevor would also have choices in his educational placement in high school as well as Fountain Hills High School provided their brightest students with an exceptional program in all core subjects. Unfortunately, our experiences in developing an appropriate program for Chelsea would prove to be much more challenging – certainly something we had become accustomed to over the years, with the exception of the time we spent in Vacaville.Upon our first meeting with high school personnel, it was evident that we held very different views about where kids like Chelsea should be placed.Although her new case manager, Mrs. B, held very strong beliefs about how kids like Chelsea should be educated based upon her own experiences as a special education teacher, we believed the one thing that Mrs. B lacked was practical experience with our daughter. We knew Chelsea – we knew her strengths and her weaknesses – we had seen her grow through both her successes and her failures.Mrs. B and her staff could not know about Chelsea’s determination to overcome difficult tasks, and they could not know how in spite of all the difficulties Chelsea faced, she still loved school and maintained her positive attitude about life and her motivation to learn new things.
It is because of the continued belief in our daughter’s abilities and our hopes for her eventual independence to live the kind of life we knew she wanted – to have a job, get married, and raise her own family – that we continued to fight on her behalf.The disagreement with Mrs. B and her staff at the high school centered on their educational philosophy of the placement of kids with special needs.They believed students like Chelsea were best served in a self-contained special education classroom where students remained for most of their day, versus small special education resource classrooms where students changed for each subject. We believed Mrs. B’s philosophy to be outdated and we expressed that we were in favor of the latter for Chelsea because we knew it would effectively motivate her to continue to improve her language and social skills.It had always been our opinion that in order for Chelsea to recognize some level of independence, she must experience the subtle nuances of socialization and also work to improve her communication skills with her peers; we were interested in Chelsea’s education as a ‘whole’ approach, not simply a series of academic goals.
However, Mrs. B’s plan for Chelsea was to focus on academic goals, and she proceeded to resist many of our suggestions. Eventually, we were successful in persuading Mrs. B that Chelsea should attend most of her core subjects in resource classrooms, but Mrs. B disagreed, to a fault we believe, when it came to the subject of math.Instead of trying it our way for even a short trial period, Mrs. B continued to resist and unfortunately the real loser was Chelsea.We fought for nearly three months to get Chelsea into what we considered to be an appropriate classroom setting for math – a resource classroom with an instructional aide.We again experienced the frustration in dealing with a public education system that remained inflexible in meeting the diverse needs of a varied student population.
Mrs. B fought us to the point that we had to file a formal complaint with the district in order to secure an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment for Chelsea, as the law states.We understand that Mrs. B has very strong views on how to educate children, but we believe that she let her pride and ego get in the way of developing an appropriate educational program for Chelsea.Perhaps she had never experienced parents who were so insistent when it came to their child’s education – whatever Mrs. B’s issues were they had no place in the development of our daughter’s educational plan.We would eventually work through our differences with Mrs. B and develop a successful educational plan for Chelsea, including mathematics, whereby Chelsea would attend all of her core subjects in resource classrooms, changing classes for each subject as her general education peers would do.
Another major issue we would face during our time in Fountain Hills occurred at the beginning of the 2005-06 school year when the district suddenly decided to do away with resource classrooms for their special education students.The district blamed their new policy on changes in federal law due to NCLB and specifically the provision about “highly qualified” teachers.This provision requires all teachers of core academic subjects be "highly qualified," i.e. have a bachelor's degree, be fully certified, and have the ability to demonstrate "competency" in core academic subjects. In spite of district attempts to eliminate resource classrooms due to the highly qualified teacher provision, Dan and I remained staunchly opposed to this not only because resource classrooms were the appropriate educational setting for Chelsea, but also for her many classmates who also benefited from this environment.
We pursued a course of action that would preserve these classrooms by simply filing a complaint with the district citing that a general education classroom setting for Chelsea was not appropriate.That the district’s new course of action would violate the foundation of all special education law - “a free and appropriate public education” for each student. We argued that a general education classroom is not appropriate for Chelsea because she is easily distracted; we had had plenty of experience with this arrangement in the Douglas County School District and their plan of full inclusion for their special education students.
Aside from these problems, the most satisfying placement for Chelsea was dance class and she would attend this class with her general education peers throughout her years at Fountain Hills High School. Dance was offered in a general education setting with three levels for students to choose from:beginning, intermediate, and advanced.Chelsea had loved dance since she was a toddler, and because we kept her involved in dance throughout her life, Chelsea had had the opportunity to develop good skills so it seemed like a natural placement for her.Dance was a class that Chelsea had always felt successful in, and for kids with special needs successes were few. Unfortunately, we would experience some resistance from Mrs. B about keeping Chelsea in dance class each year. I suppose because Mrs. B felt that Chelsea’s time would be better spent in an academic setting allowing her to improve her reading, writing, and mathematical skills.But we insisted, not only because Chelsea wanted to be in dance class, but also because Chelsea eventually decided that she wanted to become a dance teacher (or more realistically, assistant dance teacher).A vocation that we believed she could become efficiently skilled at in order to recognize her dream of independence.We were lucky to have the opportunity to get Chelsea involved in an exceptional dance program like that offered at Fountain Hills High School under the instruction of an exceptional teacher, Renee Peterson, who would come to see what we saw in Chelsea and the potential for her to recognize her dream. We would leave the Fountain Hills Unified School District during the 2006-07 school year as Dan would take a job in Coos Bay, Oregon.I initially resisted moving the kids during their high school years, but it was a good opportunity for Dan and the kids were ready to get out of the desert and head for the beautiful southern coast of Oregon. COOS BAY, OREGON Our initial experiences with the Coos Bay Unified School District have been mostly favorable.We would be strongly impressed with the level of compassion of all those involved in developing a successful IEP for Chelsea - we experienced absolutely no problems with Special Education directors, teachers, or staff – certainly a welcome event as Chelsea culminates her academic career in the public school system. However, the offerings for advanced students would prove to be somewhat limited. Although we were able to get Trevor in Advanced Placement courses for Calculus, Chemistry, and English, he had to settle with placement in a general education U.S. History classroom, a tolerable yet inappropriate setting for Trevor and other very bright students.
With few alternatives to the public school system in Coos Bay, educational choices for students are limited.There are however, signs of change on the horizon as evidenced by the expansion/development of charter schools in the area.The dialogue that this new proposition has created between district officials, parents, students, and other interested citizens will further press the issue of expanding educational choices in the district causing it to inch ever so slowly forward to a future of greater school choice for all students.