What is special education?
What other alternative are there?
How do students qualify for special education services?
What is the parents' role in assessment?
If a child qualifies, what happens next?
How can you help your child?
How can teachers help?
What about the future?
What resources are available outside the school district?
This is an important question, which must be answered in both legal terms and easy to understand terms. Legally, special education is a service which is provided to children who have a disability which interferes with their ability to benefit from standard educational programs. Federal and state governments have established guidelines for eligibility, and students who receive services must meet those guidelines. An eligible student must be provided with a program which meets his unique needs, at no cost to the family. There are many regulations which guide the school and family in the process.
On a more human level, special education is a partnership between school, family and community which recognizes a child's special needs and works to help the child reach his potential. Many people feel that this is what should happen for all children. However, special education laws were developed for the 10-12% of children who require extra assistance.
"Special education is support. Support for the student when they are struggling. Special education is a resource available to help determine the needs and placement of a child who is experiencing difficulty in his or her classroom. Special education is support for the child and parent who may know that the need is there but do not know how to access the services. Special education is a link between the challenged student and his or her success in the classroom." (A Parent)
Sometimes, students have special learning needs, but are not eligible for special education. Other times, families prefer to try other ways of helping their student, and decline special education support. In these instances, there are options which can be successful.
One of the options is offered through the Title I and Learning Assistance Programs. These programs are available from preschool through high school and may offer help with reading, math, writing or study skills, depending on priorities developed by each school. Not all services are available at each school.
Another way children get individual help is from their parents, other family members, community programs or a mentor. This can be very effective if families have the time to work with their child and if there is close communication between parents and school staff.
Other times, families prefer to find a private tutor to help their student. Again, this is most effective if the tutor and the school communicate, so that the student doesn't get confused by two different approaches.
There is an additional alternative for students who have a temporary or permanent disability, but don't require a special education program. A document called a 504 plan or individual accommodation plan can be developed to describe how the school will provide modifications or accommodations that give the student an opportunity to learn.
"There is no one-size-fits-all solution for students with special learning needs. As much as possible, the district tried to have a variety of options for students, and be aware of outside programs and services which can assist children and families. Sometimes it is necessary to try several alternatives before success is found, and sometimes needs change as a student gets older. By working together, schools and families can develop an option which meets their needs."(A District Administrator)
Each state has established procedures which school districts must follow if it is suspected that a student has a disability.
The first step in the process is a referral for testing, which can be made by a teacher, parent, student or someone else involved with the student such as a doctor. The district must decide if there is good reason to test, and must notify the parents. No further action can be taken without parent permission.
If parents agree with the decision to test, a team of district staff members will schedule times to meet with the student for testing, talk to his teachers and observe in the classroom. Parents will be asked to provide information about the child’s early development and concerns that they may have. Sometimes, it is necessary to get information from outside sources.
When all of the information has been gathered, the team will meet to discuss their findings and determine whether the child has a disability that keeps her from learning in the usual way and requires specially designed instruction. Parents are invited to this meeting and participate in the decisions that are made. The state has established criteria for fourteen different types of disabilities, including:
"During the testing process the student is assessed by members of the Evaluation Team in a number of ways both formal and informal, which may include observations in a variety of school and classroom settings; formal academic testing in reading, math and written language by the special education teacher; formal intellectual testing by the school psychologist; vision and hearing testing by the school nurse, behavioral assessments by staff, parents, and/or family members; and informal interviews of teachers and staff who work with the student. Other assessments may also be necessary to gain a more complete “picture” of a student’s abilities and performance level. Among these may be assessment in speech and language – by the speech and language pathologist, gross motor and/or fine motor assessment – by the physical or occupational therapist, or assessment of learning style by the student and staff." (A Special Education Teacher)
In order for any testing to be done, parents must give permission in writing on a form which describes their student’s learning needs. It is best to discuss the referral in person with the teacher, school psychologist or principal, so the purpose is understood.
As part of the information which is gathered, there may be other forms or questionnaires for parents to fill out. These might ask questions about the child’s birth or early years, or they may ask about things the child can and cannot do at home. Sometimes, one of the team members may interview parents. It is important for the team to know about the child’s strengths, which may not be seen at school.
Oftentimes, parents may use this time to get more information about the suspected disability or about services that may be available. The referral may raise a lot of concerns, anxiety or fear for parents, and it can be helpful to talk with a staff member or others who have gone through the process.
It is important that the evaluation process be respectful of a family’s culture and language. The district must conduct tests in a child’s primary language and parents are invited to bring other family or community members with them if it will make them more comfortable.
"When I brought my child in to the special education office for assessment I was really scared. I was afraid of what I might hear about my child’s ability or that we might not be given options. To the contrary, we were overwhelmingly supported and welcome. My child and I were treated with respect and dignity. The process of assessment was virtually painless and the outcome was viewed as a positive step forward in the education of my child. My first contact with the special education staff was warm and comforting. Our interactions with the special education staff continue to be a very positive experience for both my child and myself." (A Parent)
The development of an IEP (Individualized Education Program) for a student who qualifies for services is the next step. The IEP links the findings from testing to the child’s special education services, and sets goals and objectives which can help the child improve his/her skills. For students who are 15 or older, it also describes the ways in which the school program will prepare the student for college, job training or employment after high school. Children who are younger than age three have an IFSP (Individual Family Service Plan) which describes support and linkages for the child and his family.
The team of people who participate in the development of the IEP includes the child’s parents, a special education teacher, a general education teacher, an administrator, an individual who can interpret the test results (such as a school psychologist or speech therapist), other individuals with special knowledge of the child, and if appropriate, the student. Parents may bring an advocate or advisor to the meeting, if they desire.
At the IEP meeting, the team discusses the child’s strengths and learning needs, progress that is anticipated, the way in which special education will be delivered, and classroom supports and modifications which are needed. Team members sign the IEP to indicate that they have participated and also indicate whether they agree or disagree. In addition to signing the IEP, parents also must give written permission to begin special education services.
Each year, or more often if needed, the IEP team meets to review the student’s progress and to determine new goals and objectives. Every three years, the student may be re-evaluated to decide whether special education is still needed, based on progress the student has made.
"After my son was tested by the school team, we were invited to meet with them to learn about the results. We were very worried about what they would say. Because the team talked about his strengths first, we relaxed a bit. It was hard to hear about his learning problems, but they proposed a plan to help him. They suggested goals they would work on with him and talked about what we could do also. By the end of the meeting, my husband and I felt relieved to know our son was in the hands of caring professionals who knew how to help him." (A Parent)
"Being a parent of a child with disabilities has required continuous adjustments of our goals and expectations. When our daughter was very young, we didn’t know what directions to take to help her. Help has come from many directions: our community, school, parent groups and associations. They all hold pieces of what has been necessary for her to succeed. It has been important to focus our efforts with the time and resources that we have and be consistent for her and those who work with her. Our experience has been to set goals high (at the edge of what may seem reasonable), but keep our expectations grounded in her actual performance." (Parents of an Elementary Student)
"A special education student who was in my fourth grade class for math was successful at the beginning of the year, but by mid-November, his grades began to fall. He stopped turning in homework and test grades fell from B to D. I talked with the student, his parent, and the special education staff, and as a group we determined that with a little extra help, he might be able to do better. We found time for an instructional assistant to help him understand his homework, and it did not take long for his grades to return to B range." (A General Education Teacher)
This can be a worrisome question for families of students with disabilities, whose dreams for their children sometimes must be adjusted as they get older. The process of developing transition plans for students 14 and older has helped focus attention on the future, so that students do not reach graduation without the planning they need to take the next step.
Special education students can (and have) successfully attended college. For students who have this goal, it is important to understand the changes in services available to them once they leave high school. It is necessary for the student to make a connection with the Disabled Students Services office of their college to make arrangements for accommodations ahead of time. After leaving high school, students, rather than parents, are responsible for requesting assistance and advice when they need it. Teachers and counselors are usually willing to help, but the student must be able to request the services he needs.
Job-training programs are another option which special education students have successfully accessed. These opportunities include apprenticeships, community college or industry-sponsored training, and on-the-job training. Often, these programs are shorter in length than college degree programs, and include more hands-on experience.
Some special education students need support with daily living, housing and recreation, in addition to vocational training. There are agencies in the region which assist with these needs, but because of limited availability, contact with them should be made well in advance of graduation. The Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and the Department of Developmental Disabilities can be good resources for students who need this kind of training.
"Federal and state guidelines require that the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) be reviewed annually by the IEP team. This process is undertaken to develop an educational plan to meet that student’s needs for the next year. Beginning at age 14, the law also requires the development of a transition plan. As the student gets older, this plan becomes the ‘driver’ for the IEP as it describes preparation for the next environment beyond high school. Transition planning is specific for each student, and includes vocational evaluations which help match a student’s expressed interests and aptitudes with the available options in the community. Planning for the next environment beyond high school could be pointed toward entry into the job market or some type of post-secondary training – for example, vocational training, community college or a four-year college. Linkages may be established between the student and other agencies that provide support services to adults, such as the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), the Department of Developmental Disabilities (DDD), the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), or trade union or apprenticeship programs. Again, depending on the individual, the transition plan may include planning not just for work, but also for living, socializing and getting around in the community." (A Special Education Teacher)
To find out what services are available in the district, parents are encouraged to talk to their child’s teacher or contact the district special education office at 466-3171. There are many services that school districts cannot provide. While this is not an exhaustive list, the agencies listed here have been of help to La Conner parents and students. Parents are also encouraged to talk to their child’s teacher or physician about other resources.