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Planning for Transition Before Graduation

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Graduation is usually a time of celebration, when young people complete their high school studies and move on to work or college. For parents of students on IEPs, graduation has an additional significance because it ends their child’s right to special education. Once a student accepts a high school diploma, special education services end. This makes planning for the transition to adult life especially important. Transition planning needs to happen first, followed by transition services, and only then by graduation. The goal is not to graduate on a schedule, but for the student to acquire the skills necessary to function independently in adult life and to become a productive member of society.

Why Transition Planning is Important

All too often parents do not adequately plan for their child’s transition to a post-high school life. If schools do not bring up this topic at Team meetings or do not make parents aware of its importance, parents may be unaware of how critical it is. Without appropriate planning, students with disabilities can graduate from high school without being prepared for post-secondary education or employment. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that the employment rate for young adults with disabilities is less than half the rate of their peers without disabilities.

The federal law IDEA requires transition planning for students on IEPs beginning with the IEP in effect when a student turns 16. A better time to begin planning is with the IEP that will be in effect when a student turns 14. In fact many state special education laws require transition planning and services to begin at this earlier date. A transition plan should outline a course of study and specify what services are needed to support a successful transition. This includes identifying any state agencies outside the school district that might be responsible for helping with the transition process.

Planning Should Address More Than Academic Needs

Appropriate transition planning includes addressing more than just academic needs. Such aspects as helping students obtain community experiences, employment training, and daily living skills are equally important. Schools should perform transition assessments to help a student’s special education Team determine the courses, vocational training, life skills instruction, or related services that the student will need during the rest of his or her publicly funded education.

When creating a transition plan, the Team should consider the student’s vision statement of what he or she would like to be doing in the future. This means looking at the many facets of a young person’s life, such as their interests, goals, and hopes for the next five years.

Parents can help their child think ahead beyond high school graduation. For example, does the student want to attend college, vocational school, work at a job, or live independently? Will the student need various services to become independent, such as travel training, remediation in reading, writing, and math skills, counseling, or occupational therapy? Teams also need to consider health care, transportation, and community experiences. Transition planning can be complex depending on a young person’s needs. It is not as simple as achieving passing grades and passing state mandated exams, as recent hearing decisions in Massachusetts have demonstrated.

Transition Planning and Graduation are Closely Linked

Since accepting a high school diploma means an end to special education services, there is a significant financial benefit for schools to graduate students on IEPs and end their obligation to provide special education services. Otherwise, the federal law IDEA allows for special education services to continue until a student’s 22nd birthday. This provides an incentive for schools to devise different and creative ways to move a struggling student along the path to graduation and for parents to carefully monitor whether their child has made sufficient progress in meeting his or her transition goals.

Since most states allow school districts to set their own graduation requirements, we have observed that some districts play a graduation game by adopting low graduation standards to move students out of the system. Districts can legally reduce the number of required credits to graduate, lower performance criteria, or substitute a different course for a student who might have difficulty passing a required one. Our school district actually tried to force our son to graduate before he had earned enough credits to apply to college. Since attending college was his primary transition goal, we filed for a hearing to prevent them from issuing a premature diploma. The lesson is that low graduation standards can be used as a tool to remove a student from a district’s special education obligations by forcing a student to graduate before he or she is ready.

We recommend that once your child begins high school, research your school’s graduation requirements. You may find them in your school’s handbook for students or online on your school’s website. Study the requirements carefully and plan which courses your child will need for a successful transition from high school to adult life whether it is college, volunteer work, vocational training, or adult education. If further education is a goal, make sure that he or she earns enough credits to apply to an appropriate school.

Alternative Diplomas and Graduation Certificates

In addition to a regular high school diploma, schools can offer students different kinds of exit documents that require a less rigorous curriculum. These include alternative diplomas, which go by names such as an IEP diploma or vocational diploma. Some schools offer certificates of completion or certificates of attendance. None of these documents end special education or transition services. The only document that will do that is a regular high school diploma. These alternative exit documents can be an appropriate solution for some students, but parents should be aware that they can flag the graduate as a special education student and may limit that student’s options for the future.

An alternative diploma or certificate may not be recognized as qualifying for attendance at a community college, vocational school, or enlistment in the armed forces without additional testing or certification. They can also indicate to potential employers that a job applicant has special needs or learning disabilities. Each state has different standards for diplomas and certificates, so check with your department of education to see what your state permits schools to offer.

What Parents Can Do

When a student with disabilities has proper transition planning and services, the opportunities for additional education and work are greatly enhanced. To this end we recommend the following:

  • Begin transition discussions with your child’s Team by the time your child enters his or her freshman year in high school, usually by age 14. Start looking at post high school options, such as vocational training, internships, or further education, and have the Team write a transition plan into your child’s IEP. Be sure to update the plan yearly.
  • Once your child begins high school, research your school’s graduation requirements. Study the requirements carefully and plan which courses your child will need for a successful transition from high school to adult life. If further education is a goal, make sure he or she earns enough credits to apply to an appropriate college.
  • If your Team doesn’t feel that your child can meet the course standards for a regular high school diploma, ask the following:
    What accommodations and services are in the IEP that would help your child meet the same requirements as other students receiving a standard diploma?
     Would staying in school until he or she reaches the maximum age of eligibility in your state allow your child to earn a standard diploma?
     Would any form of alternative diploma or certificate be appropriate for your child’s level of performance and would earning it give your child the skills to lead an independent life?
  • Request a vocational assessment if your child would prefer employment rather than further education after high school. The assessment should be performed by a vocational assessment specialist and should provide direction about possible career paths and employment opportunities, as well as provide information about performance in skill areas.
  • Likewise, request an independent living skills assessment, if appropriate, to determine what supports are needed for your child to live on his or her own after high school.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

The above is excerpted and adapted from Chapter 11, “Transition Planning and Graduation” in Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

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Gatekeeping 101: Withholding Needed Services

mountain sky 4 textSchools sometimes rely on a parent being unaware of their child’s rights to deny services that might cost money or be inconvenient to provide, as illustrated by a case that occurred in 2013 in the city of Somerville, Massachusetts. A local newspaper article provided the details along with a number of compelling (and revealing) quotations from the parties involved.1 The issue was that a high school student in special education was denied the opportunity to participate in a summer soccer camp attended annually by members of his high school soccer team. The school district had decided that the student, who was an active member of the team, must have an aide accompany him to the camp to act as a chaperone. Every year, the school didn’t seem to be able to locate a suitable one.

Though the parents (and grandparents) had offered to accompany their son and act as a chaperone, the school refused to consider their offer, telling them that they were not qualified. The parents then offered to pay for an aide that the school approved, but the school would not discuss their offer with them. The result was that their son was not allowed to attend the camp with his teammates. Each year was the same story. The parents would call school officials, including the district’s director of special education, asking to arrange for their son to attend soccer camp, and each year no one from the school would return their calls.

Finally, the summer before their son’s senior year, not knowing what else to do, the parents contacted the city’s disability coordinator, a person who worked for the city and not for the school system. Within days of this contact, and to the complete surprise of the family, the school managed to find a suitable aide. The article quotes the district’s assistant superintendent as saying: “I think the school department has gone above and beyond, we’re really pleased to be able to send [the student to camp],” while adding that the school was not legally required to provide access to an extracurricular program.

The Legal Reality

Fortunately for all children in special education, the assistant superintendent does not get to decide what the law requires. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was explicitly written to protect individuals with disabilities from this sort of discrimination. One of the regulations authorized by this statute, 34 C.F.R. § 104.37, specifically refers to this situation: “No qualified handicapped person shall, on the basis of handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or otherwise be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity which receives Federal financial assistance.”

All students in special education who receive services under IDEA are automatically protected by Section 504. Had the parents known their rights about this basic protection, they would not have had to put up with years of frustration and gatekeeping by their school district. It is always possible that the assistant superintendent was speaking out of a combination of ignorance and hubris, but it is not possible to believe that the special education department was unaware of the school’s obligation to this student. In fact, the school has the responsibility to inform all parents with children in special education of their rights, including this one, in writing.2

A Final Thought

In addition to prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities, Section 504 also contains a provision that permits the “prevailing party” in a lawsuit over a violation of the statute “to collect reasonable attorney’s fees as part of the cost of remediation.”3 We are sure that this possibility is one that the school district in question should devoutly hope the parents of the child described in the article do not pursue.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Notes:
1.
Family: Special Ed `Run-Around’ Nearly Kept Somerville Senior From Soccer Trip” By Dan Atkinson, Somerville Journal, August 22, 2013. (accessed 5 September 2013)
2. 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (d). The statute says, in part, that a copy of the procedural safeguards available to the parents of a child with a disability shall be given to the parents at least once a year. What is more, the notification should be written in the native language of the parents if necessary. In all cases the notification should be written in an easily understood manner. Model procedural safeguards form. (accessed 6 September 2013)
3. 29 U.S.C. § 794a (a)(1)

Getting FAPE: Asking the Right Questions

In a recent conversation, a parent asked us a question that was hard to answer. Her son’s school was changing his grades after they had been posted on the school’s website, raising them in an apparent effort to make it appear that he was making more effective progress than he actually was. She wanted to know what to do about it. The brief conversation didn’t leave enough time to find out all the details, and aside from recommending that she file a complaint with her state’s department of education, we really had no answer for her. This wasn’t very helpful, as complaints like this usually take a long time to investigate, and rarely, in our experience, do they result in more than a metaphoric slap on the wrist for the school district. In fact, the mother told us that the previous year she had filed a similar complaint and the school had been found out of compliance, yet the school had not changed its behavior.

A Problem, or Only a Symptom of the Problem?

After the conversation, it finally hit us why the question didn’t have an obvious answer. The grade changing tactic by the school was only a symptom of the problem. The actual problem was that the school wasn’t providing an appropriate education. Changing grades was simply an admission that the school couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide that education. Getting the school to stop changing the grades, even if it had been willing to do so, would by itself do nothing to improve the child’s education.

This highlights a situation that we have seen occur many times in other families and even experienced ourselves. If you don’t define a problem correctly and ask the right questions, you can’t know how to fix it.

When We Didn’t Ask the Right Questions

In elementary school, when our son wasn’t learning to read with his peers, we were told by the school’s reading specialist that he needed a tutoring methodology called Orton-Gillingham. This was, in fact, the proper researched-based approach for our son, and we agreed to it. What we missed was that his IEP limited the amount of time he was tutored in the Orton-Gillingham method so that he wasn’t able to make effective progress learning to read. As a result, each grading period he fell further behind the other students in his class in all subjects that required reading and felt increasingly frustrated.

Our problem was that we were only paying attention to the Orton-Gillingham instruction, and missed connecting it to the fact that it wasn’t being given often enough. This is a common mistake that parents make when approving their child’s IEPs, and is one reason we recommend that IEP goals include service delivery information in the text of the goal itself and not just in the service delivery grid.

To compound the problem, while our son was struggling to learn to read we investigated a private school near us that specialized in teaching the Orton-Gillingham method as an integral part of their overall curriculum. Reassured by the public school, however, that our son was getting the “same” instruction provided by the expensive private school, we felt satisfied and didn’t ask any further questions. Only later did we realize that the problem wasn’t the type of instruction our son was receiving, but how much of it he was being given. Had we been asking the right questions about frequency and duration, we would have either focused on getting him additional tutoring or placing him at the private school that was better prepared to provide the amount of service that he needed.

So What Was the Right Question?

Getting back to the mother’s question, her frustration came from believing that the problem was the school’s changing her son’s grades, not the fact that this was simply evidence that the school wasn’t providing FAPE. Her question should have been “What can the school do to give my son an appropriate education?” The answer could then be defined as either getting the school to provide a more appropriate curriculum and teachers who were properly trained to understand her son’s needs, or an out-of-district placement at a school better prepared to teach him.

If such a solution couldn’t be negotiated informally, then the mother could have used the grade manipulation as evidence in a mediation or a due process hearing. Of course, pursuing a due process remedy is not a simple task and has no certain outcome, but the evidence was strong (she had screen shots of the “before” and “after” grades from the school’s website). In short, she had caught the school trying to hide a lack of effective progress, an apparent violation of IDEA. But focusing on the violation without addressing the underlying cause wasn’t going to improve the educational outcome.

The Lesson to Learn

The lesson is that to solve a problem, you first have to define it properly and ask the right questions. This is true in almost every situation, but it is especially important for parents in special education where the emotional aspects of their child’s situation can misdirect parents into focusing on the symptoms and not the root problems.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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The Social/Emotional Component of Special Education Eligibility

One question that we have gotten more than once during our presentations on “Empowering Parents in Special Education,” has to do with the relationship between social and emotional deficits and eligibility for special education.

For example:

“My child’s eligibility meeting for special education is soon and I would like to know the extent to which the law requires social and emotional concerns to be included as eligibility criteria for an IEP.”

Another form of the question is:

“My school tells me that my child’s documented disability doesn’t qualify him for special education because he is at or above grade level in his academic skills, despite the fact that he has had many behavior problems that have led to suspensions from school.”

The Laws Require Social/Emotional Assessments

With the caveat that we are not lawyers, we would refer readers to the federal regulation 34 CFR § 300.304 (c)(4), which states: “The child is assessed in all areas related to the suspected disability, including, if appropriate, health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status, and motor abilities.” (emphasis added)

Some states have even stricter requirements. For example, in Massachusetts, 603 CMR § 28.04 (2)(a)(2)(ii) states that the school is required to perform an educational assessment that includes “an assessment of the student’s attention skills, participation behaviors, communication skills, memory, and social relations with groups, peers, and adults.” (again, emphasis added)

These regulations suggest that assessing a child’s social and emotional status is important in determining eligibility. This is not to say that social/emotional concerns are a learning disability as defined by either IDEA or state special education laws (each state has different criteria), but that they are strongly related to the presence of a qualifying disability and that schools should be evaluating them and formally assessing their relevance in any determination of eligibility for special education services.

Testing for Behavioral and Social Functioning

According to Ellen Braaten and Gretchen Felopulos, two staff psychologists at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and authors of Straight Talk About Psychological Testing for Kids, the two most commonly used tests for assessing behavior and social interaction are the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) and the Behavior Assessment System for Children, second edition (BASC-2). Each test includes multiple check lists, one for parents to fill out, one for teachers, and one for the student (self report). In addition, the evaluation report for the student should include clinical observations of behavior and social functioning under the heading “Behavioral Observations” or “Behavioral/Social Functioning.” Informal observations by teachers or other school staff who are not trained in performing psychological evaluations are not considered a valid assessment of social and emotional functioning.

The bottom line for parents seeking special education services for their child is that they should expect the school to formally evaluate social and emotional performance as part of a suspected disability in any determination of eligibility.

Effective Progress Includes Social and Emotional Issues

As a post script, it should be noted that once a child is on an IEP, IDEA requires schools to address the social/emotional issues before the school can demonstrate that the child is making effective progress. Again, many state laws are even more specific in that regard. Massachusetts requires that the child have “documented growth in the acquisition of knowledge and skills, including social/emotional development…” 603 CMR § 28.02(17)

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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How to Use a Paper Trail

lily pads- 3As we wrote in our previous article, How to Create a Paper Trail, special education generates an enormous amount of paperwork. There are many different types of documents such as letters, meeting notices, IEPs, consent forms, and evaluations, that your school district creates as well as documents from outside sources, such as your pediatrician and independent evaluators. The longer your child is on an IEP, the more the paperwork accumulates. All this paperwork shows the chronology of your child’s educational experience and you must file it and organize it so that you can find important documents when they are needed.

Lawyers call this the paper trail, although there are actually two paper trails: yours and your school’s. While these two paper trails may contain many of the same documents, they serve different purposes and often get used in different ways. Parents should understand why they need a paper trail and how they can use it. They should also understand how schools use their paper trails.

How Parents Use a Paper Trail

A clear, well organized paper trail has many benefits for parents. The most immediate benefit is to help you understand your child’s educational history and progress. It can also improve communication with your school district. Ultimately, if you should have a dispute with your school district, your paper trail will be important evidence to support your position.

Here are some ways to use your paper trail:

  • Periodically study your child’s special education documents in chronological order. You will see certain trends emerge as you analyze the data over time, giving you the “big picture” of your child’s educational history. You should do this because your IEP Team members are transient and they aren’t aware of the overall history that you can see. This will improve your ability to communicate with your Team members and advocate for your child. For example, pay special attention to your child’s IEP goals over time. If you notice that one goal stays the same for many years, that means your child hasn’t achieved it and the goal needs to be updated or changed to reflect the lack of progress. An unattained goal might mean that there is a need for different services or that it wasn’t realistic and needs to be rewritten.
  • Use the follow-up letters that you write after every Team meeting (see How to Create a Paper Trail) to document your understanding of what was discussed and agreed to at the meeting. If there is a misunderstanding, you can get it straightened out while memories are still fresh and it is easier to correct. If an agreed on item recorded in your letter doesn’t take place, then a copy of your letter serves as a diplomatic reminder to the person who had agreed to the action item.
  • At least once a year compare your child’s IEP goals and IEP progress reports. Make sure the progress reports reflect your own observations as recorded in your parent journal. If these progress reports do not contain accurate information, be sure to question them in writing to your special education liaison. This will become part of your paper trail, and will prevent the school from using inaccurate progress reports to prove that they were providing an appropriate education in a due process hearing (see “How Schools Use a Paper Trail” below).

How Schools Use a Paper Trail

In our book, we describe how we would get consistently positive progress reports, even after it became apparent that the comments in the reports didn’t match what our son was experiencing. The reason for this, we realized, was not just to try to make us feel better, but for the school to create a paper trail to indicate that it was providing an appropriate education. If you should be compelled to take your district to a mediation or a due process hearing, the school can produce all their positive progress reports to prove they were providing the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) required by law. When the progress reports you get don’t match your observations and you don’t dispute them in writing, the school can use them to demonstrate to a mediator or hearing officer that your child was achieving his or her IEP goals.

This is not just speculation; schools are always prepared with written documentation to supply as evidence in a hearing. A few years ago, our school district used progress reports as part of its defense in a hearing with another family, claiming that the student’s progress reports showed he was meeting the goals and objectives in his IEP. Throughout the thirty-page hearing decision, there are seven references to the school district quoting from progress reports about how well this student was doing in the public school. This was in sharp contrast to the parents’ and the experts’ testimony as to how much the student was struggling and not making progress. Happily for the student and his family, there was enough other evidence for the hearing officer to rule in the family’s favor.

A Parent’s Right to Inspect School Records

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives parents the right to inspect and make copies of their child’s school records. It is important to periodically examine these records because they may contain information that you have not received or may have misplaced. Make copies of everything you don’t have and include these copies in your files. In our case, we discovered handwritten notes in the margins that we hadn’t seen on the copies of documents that the school had sent us. These notes, even if they don’t seem important, should be part of your files, too.

You can inspect your child’s records by writing a letter to your school district requesting a convenient date and time for you to view them. Be sure to request the complete file, as documents may be in different locations; for example, medical records in the nurse’s office and academic records in the special education department office. Most states have regulations that specify how much advance notice you are required to give and how quickly the school is required to respond. You can check the regulations on your state’s department of education website. For a nominal copying fee, you can make copies of anything you want. If you have misplaced any of your school documents, you should find them in your child’s file and make a copy for yourself to complete your records at home. You may even find documents that you did not know existed. Going through your child’s school file is a valuable exercise.

Correcting Inaccurate School Records

Although we have not had to do this, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) gives parents the right to ask the school to correct records that they believe are inaccurate or misleading. If the school refuses, parents then have the right to request a hearing to compel the school to make the correction. Some state laws may give you similar rights. Of course a hearing is an expensive and time-consuming process that has no certain outcome, so it is best that you only attempt one if an error significantly impacts your child’s education, and then only after you exhaust every other means to reach a mutually agreeable solution to the problem.

The Importance of Being Prepared

Your paper trail is evidence of your child’s progress or lack of progress in special education. Someday you may need these documents to help tell your story to an impartial observer in a mediation or a due process hearing. You may think that a dispute that requires mediation or even a hearing will never happen to you. But if it should happen, you must be prepared. Your school district can even demand documents from you in a legal process called “discovery.” We have been through this, compelled to supply many of our records, and our paper trail was critical to doing it successfully.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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This article is adapted from Chapter 9 of Parents Have The Power To Make Special Education Work.

How to Create a Paper Trail

Special education generates an enormous amount of paperwork. The longer your child is on an IEP, the more paperwork you will accumulate. It is essential that you organize and manage this paperwork. Take this job seriously, for without ready access to a complete history of the documents that describe your child’s experience with special education, you run the risk of missing important opportunities.

Why Organize Your Papers

Planning for the future by organizing your documents now doesn’t come naturally for most parents of children in special education. By necessity, you are intensely focused on just managing the present. How are you going to get through the next week or month, or finish the school year successfully? Or, how are you going to begin the new school year on a positive note? Remember, however, that school employees follow procedures that require sending parents a variety of documents, such as evaluations, Team meeting invitations, consent forms, IEPs, and progress reports. It’s easy to slip the latest document into a drawer filled with bills and bank statements. Even a recently mailed IEP can be misplaced or lost for good if your incoming mail is disorganized. Don’t let this happen to you.

Starting Down the Trail

You need a system for saving and organizing your documents so you don’t have to undertake a major search for them later. Begin by creating a file for each school year and put all the school documents you receive into that file. Make sure each document has a full date, including the year, and if you need to make marginal notes or underline anything, make a copy and mark the copy up. Never write on an original and never give the original to anyone, even if it is a professional evaluating your child. Only share copies. Keep the original documents in a safe place and in good condition. Even if you can do no more than this at the beginning, it is an important step to take before the papers become scattered and lost.

Types of Documents to Manage

There are many different types of documents to keep track of. These include forms from school, independent evaluations from outside professionals, notes from meetings, and logs from telephone conversations. The following are some suggestions of what to keep:

Paper Documents:
In a file drawer or simple file box, create and label folders for your child’s documents from school as well as documents from outside evaluators. Be sure to also include any pertinent medical records. When you receive a letter or document from the school, keep the envelope that it was mailed in with the document. The postmark date on the envelope can be important later to show whether the school complied with a specific deadline.

Electronic Communications:
Emails are as important as formal letters, so be sure to keep these messages organized. Make and file paper backup copies of all your email and other electronic communications that you write to and receive from teachers and other service providers, your special education liaison, or the school district’s director of special education. Also back up the electronic files on a CD or other non-volatile media. The headers and date notation can serve as proof of an agreed-upon service or notification.

Conversation Logs:
As soon as possible after a conversation (telephone or person-to-person) with school personnel, record the essential points of that conversation in a notebook you keep especially for that purpose. Be sure to include the date and time. If something important was said, write a letter to that person describing what you understood in the conversation. Your letter can be a reminder of what was discussed, especially if it was about an action item.

Parent’s Journal:
In addition to the conversation log, keep a journal to record your observations about your child’s progress. Write about his or her activities and other interests. Be sure to include the full date and any details you think are significant. A parent’s recollections can be important to let the Team know how things are going at home and outside of school. You can read more about keeping a journal here.

Meeting Notes and Follow-ups:
Take notes at all your Team meetings or have a friend or relative be the note taker. Be sure to transcribe all handwritten notes as soon as possible while the specifics of the discussion are still fresh in your mind. Also, after reviewing your notes, send a letter to your liaison with a list of all the topics that were discussed and agreements that were made. This provides a record of your understanding of what happened at that meeting. If there is a misunderstanding, you can get it straightened out while memories are still fresh and it is easier to correct.

Proof of Receipt:
When you write a letter to the school, either send it with a return receipt or hand deliver it to the school’s secretary with a second copy that the secretary can stamp with the current date so you can prove that the school received the letter and on what date. FAX transmission can also be useful for this purpose if you save the confirmation sheet and mail the original copy. This may sound extreme, but certain communications between parents and schools must be in writing and must be received within a certain number of days either before or after a specific event, such as unilateral placement in a school outside the district. Otherwise, you may jeopardize some due process rights.

Canceled Checks and Invoices:
Another category of records are receipts for the cost of services that you pay for related to your child’s education. There are situations where having these records available will lead to full or partial reimbursement.

Public Records:
Look for and file any public documents that describe the schools in your town or contain interviews with administrators or teachers. This would include newspapers, magazines, or even minutes of school committee meetings. These documents can provide valuable background information about the attitude of your district toward the special education programs your school offers.

How You Benefit

You need well-organized files (your “paper trail”) because there are inevitable breakdowns in communication between parents and schools. Having a clear, written record of who has said what, when it was said, and to whom, serves to reduce misunderstandings and increase positive communication.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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This article is adapted from Chapter 9, “The Paper Trail,” of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

Special Education and “The Art of War”

Special education can turn into a battle for many parents, which is an unfortunate reality. This happens when parents and school administrators have different beliefs about a child’s needs. Emotions can run high for parents because their child is involved. Administrators can also have strong feelings about protecting their budgets, keeping costs under control, and defending their programs. This is the conflict that we describe in a previous article, Surviving Team Meetings.

When the beliefs of both parties are far apart, and when parents feel their concerns are being ignored or minimized, then a dispute can arise. For those involved, this conflict can feel like a psychological war. At this point, the relationship with the school district is frayed and parents usually consider hiring an attorney to help them resolve the impasse.

Of course, we are not suggesting that getting into a battle with your school district is a good thing to do. As we have written in our book, we feel it is important to maintain a polite and functional relationship with school personnel to make sure your child has the best possible chance of success. For many reasons, hiring an attorney should always be a last resort because once the school knows you have done so, it can be interpreted as a hostile act. But if you are at the point of needing an attorney, then detailed preparation and a tough mental attitude will go a long way towards achieving your goals.

We went through this experience on two separate occasions, and we have some advice to those who may be approaching the same situation. Once we could no longer continue informally negotiating with our school system, we felt forced to hire a special education attorney. It was a serious step to take. We had worked with an advocate, who had pointed out all the violations of special education law that had occurred, but once we felt that our district was unreasonably ignoring our concerns, there was no other option. We realized we needed legal representation.

After an initial consultation, our attorney confirmed that we did have a strong case. The question was, how to proceed? We decided to work with her behind the scenes. She coached us before each Team meeting, advised us how to interact with school personnel, and told us what evaluations and classroom observations were necessary to build our case. She had an overall vision of what had to be done. We worked like this for many months, but at one point, she decided it was time to write a demand letter. It was then that the school knew we were working with an attorney.

Around this time we discovered a book titled The Art of War written by Sun Tzu approximately 2,500 years ago. Sun Tzu was a member of a Chinese family with many generations of experience as military advisors. While Sun Tzu wrote his book for military leaders, his philosophy applies to conflicts of any kind. We began to study The Art of War since we were then in a major conflict with our school district over differing beliefs about what our son needed to get an appropriate education. It was a stressful time and we needed to gain a psychological advantage to succeed. This book helped give us that.

The overall philosophy of the book is how to use strategy, not force, to prevail in a contest. One of the most significant passages reads: “To win without fighting is best.” The way to do that is to know your opponent and to be thoroughly prepared in all aspects of a conflict. The book teaches that tactics are individual acts and that strategy is planning and executing these acts. With this in mind, we turned to our attorney to advise us on the overall strategy.

Sun Tzu advised his readers to pick their battles:He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight,” so we focused on the most important issues of our son’s education, not minor procedural violations. Sun Tzu also advised: ”All warfare is based on deception,” so we were careful not to broadcast our moves before it was necessary. As Sun Tzu wrote: ”All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.

Our strategy evolved with specific steps to take, such as doing certain evaluations and classroom observations to strengthen our case. We kept our information private until it was time to share it. We began to refer to the experience as the special education chess game. Here are some examples: first we would make a move (send a demand letter), then the school district would make the next move (ignore the letter). Or we would have an independent evaluation performed and the school would then have to convene a Team meeting to discuss it. We would send a discovery request to the school and then the school served us with their discovery request. Each move required a counter move that we anticipated and planned for. The key to success was to regard these moves as part of our overall strategy rather than as individual tactics. Our attorney explained that a hearing officer would want to know that we had taken all the appropriate steps in the process.

Our attorney also advised us to keep our emotions in check as we pursued this path. We realized that venting our frustration at Team meetings was not a good tactic, so we presented our evidence in a business-like manner. We realized that negative emotions are very draining, so we preferred to stay focused on what we could do to build our case and succeed in our efforts. As Sun Tzu wrote: “Those who are skilled in combat do not become angered.”

As the chess game progressed, Sun Tzu advised us: “To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.” We began to see cracks develop in the presentation by the school. These cracks involved inconsistent accounts by many people of what had actually happened, or not happened, in our son’s educational experience, and claims of professional credentials that we had documented proof did not exist. As Sun Tzu wrote: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” We knew we were on the high ground with the school’s history of noncompliance and our documentation.

Sun Tzu’s final lesson for us was that there can be unexpected developments in any dispute and that it is important to remain flexible and be ready to shift gears when necessary. For example, we had scheduled a pre-hearing conference at the Department of Education to present our case to a hearing officer. The school’s director of special education and the school’s lawyer would also present their case. We were about to leave the house to attend the meeting when the phone rang. It was our attorney’s paralegal who informed us that the school had canceled the pre-hearing conference at the last minute. A new conference was scheduled a month later. We accepted the change and used the extra time to do more research and strengthen our presentation. As Sun Tzu wrote: “Military tactics are like unto water… just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.” Be ready to adapt to unexpected developments and look for ways to turn them to your advantage.

Successfully resolving a special education dispute requires a cool head, detailed planning, and a strong psychological attitude. A book written 2,500 years ago helped us to succeed in these areas, and it can help you too!

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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The Three Essential Parts of an IEP Goal

mountains-27 textThe Individualized Education Program (IEP) is the cornerstone of special education. The individual goals created for a student on an IEP are the way that the student makes progress toward the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) guaranteed by special education law. An effective goal is both specific to the student and measurable by objective standards.

Our experience is that it is up to parents to help their child’s IEP Team understand and create effective goals for their children. This requires knowing the three essential parts of an IEP goal: the current level of performance, specific and measurable milestones, and services to support attaining the goal. The following sections describe the three questions you and your Team should be asking to create goals that are realistic and effective for your child.

What’s your starting point?

Every goal begins with an assessment of the student’s current ability in the specific skill area covered by that goal. This is called the student’s “current level of performance.” The importance of this is to establish the starting point for the goal. Knowing how far a student is below grade level, for example, helps answer the question about what kind of specialized instruction is needed and how intensively it should be given. A student who is three years below grade level in math, for example, will need more intensive math instruction than one who is only a year below grade level.

The most effective way to determine the current level of performance is through testing. In reading, the Woodcock-Johnson Test or Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT) is considered a good indicator of current performance. In non-academic areas, a psychological evaluation is an effective indicator of social-emotional or behavioral performance while a test of fine or gross motor skills can indicate occupational or physical therapy performance. More general assessment methods, such as the completion of a reading skills class or participation in a sports activity, can be helpful.

We have found that there is a definite relationship between the quality of the assessment and the quality of the goal. The less objective the assessment of the current level of performance the more vague and ineffective the goal. In IEPs where the current level of performance is simply an anecdotal description of behavior, our experience is that the resulting goal is often so vague that there is little, if any, chance of the student achieving it.

Where are you going?

The goal is the IEP’s road map for achievement. You need a specific, time-limited goal that can take your child from his or her current level of performance to a realistic higher level during the time period covered by the goal, which is usually a school year.

In their book, Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives, Barbara Batemen and Cynthia Herr describe the four characteristics of a measurable goal:

1. It contains a method for measuring whether or not the goal has been achieved.

2. The criteria for measuring progress are clearly defined in the goal and do not require any information other than what is contained in the description of the goal.

3. The measurement can be validated by multiple observers. For example, if two different observers measure the progress of a goal using the criteria described in the goal, they would independently come to the same conclusion.

4. It is possible to determine how much progress a student has made toward attaining the goal at any time, such as in a quarterly report.

We have seen too many IEP goals that provide little of this information. Most are impossibly vague, contain no standards by which anyone could determine if the goal was ever achieved, and perversely, often place the responsibility for achieving the goal completely on the student without any teacher or specialist assistance.

How Are You Going to Get There?

A goal won’t work if there aren’t services to help your child achieve it. This makes adequate services essential. The service delivery grid is the part of the IEP that specifies what services are needed to help the student achieve a goal, where and how often the services are given, and who is providing the services. Unless the grid specifies adequate time and a properly qualified person, it is unrealistic to expect a student to make satisfactory progress toward even the most well-written goal.

When examining a service delivery grid pay special attention to the the following:

  • The type of service.
  • The dates that service begins and ends.
  • Where and how often the service is provided.
  • The kind of professional responsible for providing the service. Vague references to “sped staff” are not helpful, and not even permitted in some states.

In addition to making sure that service delivery is clearly spelled out in the grid, we recommend that you have this information written into the description of the goal itself. The reason for this is that the service delivery grid often appears pages after the goal and can be overlooked by both you and your child’s service providers. The duplication also helps remind everyone that the most important part of an IEP goal is achieving it.

Putting It All Together

The three parts of an IEP goal: current level of performance, specific and measurable goal, and service delivery all need to support each other. When you know your starting point, where you are going, and how you are going to get there, then your child’s journey toward an appropriate education can be a rewarding one.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

What has been your experience creating IEP goals with your Team? Do you feel that the goals were effective? Please send us a comment on our Contact Page.

This article is excerpted and adapted from Chapter 7, “Writing Effective IEP Goals” in Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

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Eight Evaluation Essentials

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Evaluations are a major part of the special education experience.
The purpose of evaluations, aside from determining eligibility for special education, is to inform parents, teachers, and other specialists how a student’s disabilities may be affecting his or her ability to learn and interact socially with peers. This information is important in providing a road map for the student’s Team to develop an effective Individualized Education Program (IEP). The evaluation process should be an ongoing and interactive experience with parents and professionals seeking the answers to questions that will benefit the student and provide guidance to the school personnel and specialists who work with the student.

Evaluation reports are not always easy to understand, however. When parents are exhausted and grasping for answers, they can read reports with complicated charts, vague statements, and confusing statistics, and still not fully understand their child’s needs. Unless the report clearly describes the meaning of the testing data and includes recommendations that are practical and comprehensive, an evaluation can be unhelpful and possibly even damaging if it misleads parents and teachers as to the true nature of the problems a student faces.

Eight Essential Things to Look For

We have read many evaluation reports and seen our share of both good and bad ones. From our experience, we have compiled eight essential elements you should look for in all the reports you receive:

1. Personal Data:
Evaluations should begin with personal information about the student and why that student was referred for evaluation. Make sure this section describes your son or daughter accurately. Also be sure you agree with the reason for the referral.

2. Test Goals:
The purpose of the evaluation should be stated at the beginning of the report. This may seem obvious, but we have seen many reports that don’t describe the goals of the test being given. How can you know if a test has achieved its purpose if you don’t know why it was given?

3. Review of Existing Data:
IDEA requires that school examiners review any previous relevant evaluations, including those performed by independent evaluators and supplied by the parents. The report should acknowledge these evaluations and indicate whether the current testing confirms or contradicts the previous data and conclusions.

4. Behavioral Observations:
An important category of information is the examiner’s observations of the student both before and during the test. Is the student confident and willing to take risks in answering questions, or uninvolved, anxious, and hesitant? If the student is making a sincere effort, that increases the likelihood that the test results are a valid measure of the abilities being assessed.

5. Explain All Test Scores:
The evaluator should explain the importance of all the test data clearly and in terms that you can understand. One school report we read had this to say: “A statistically significant discrepancy is observed between student’s Verbal and Performance Indices, with the Performance Index falling thirty-five points below the Verbal Index.” The report made no further mention of this discrepancy or what it might mean. In another report describing a similar discrepancy, a different examiner wrote: “There remains a statistically significant difference (36 points) between verbal cognitive ability and visual-spatial ability, consistent with the student’s diagnosis of Non-Verbal Learning Disability.” In addition to acknowledging and confirming previous testing data, the second evaluation clearly states the significance of the discrepancy while the first one essentially ignores it.

6. Recommendations:
Make sure that the report contains specific recommendations on how the school can help the student. We have read many reports that end with a summary but no recommendations. If you receive a report with no recommendations, ask the evaluator to add them. We have also seen reports that say “Specific recommendations will be discussed at the next Team meeting.” Do not accept this either. Team meeting discussions are not always written down, and it is almost guaranteed that any verbal recommendations will be forgotten and not acted upon.

7. Examiner’s Signature and Credentials:
If an examiner believes that the testing and conclusions in the report are valid, then you should expect that person to certify the validity by signing the report. We have seen many evaluations where the examiner’s signature was missing. We have also seen reports that only list the examiner’s credentials as “teacher” with no further information. IDEA expects all evaluators to be qualified, so the credentials should be listed next to the name. You have the right to this information.

8. Clear and Understandable Language:
Make sure you understand the contents of the report. Sometimes evaluators use specialized terminology that lay people find hard to understand. If you receive a report like that, ask the evaluator to rewrite the parts that are not clear to you. We have seen reports that use phrases like “imbalance in functioning” or “processing impairment” without any further explanation of what these phrases meant.

What You Can Do

As a parent, you must make the effort to understand the evaluations you receive and question any parts that aren’t clear to you. Do not be afraid to ask for more clarification and rewriting if necessary. You should not accept a report that is lacking important information. You may not have the advanced degrees of the examiner, but you are the one who knows your child best and you are the one who needs the information in the report to help your child get an appropriate education.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

This article is adapted from Chapter 4 of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

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Your Role as Your Child’s Advocate

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As the parent of a child with special needs, one of your most important jobs is to be an advocate for your child in the school setting. You are vital to the success of your child’s education. You cannot be a passive observer; you need to be involved.

Here are some reasons why:

You Are the Only Permanent Member of Your Child’s Team

You are the only permanent member of the Team that decides what services and accommodations go into your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). New people who do not know you or your child will join the Team each fall and leave it the following spring. Occasionally a Team member might stay on for more than one school year, but most do not.

Schools Think Short Term, You Think Long Term

You and the school see your child’s education from different perspectives. In a way, this is natural since school personnel are focused on the current school year. You, on the other hand, are looking ahead to when your child becomes an adult. These different timelines can result in a source of conflict as you may want services that will help your child acquire skills needed in later years, but the school may only want to provide services that will meet more immediate needs.

As an example, students today are not given much instruction in handwriting and instead are taught keyboarding. But functional handwriting has not disappeared from the adult world. Our adult children will still have to fill out job applications or medical forms legibly by hand. Most of us are aware of other basic skills that may not have an immediate application in the classroom but which we know our children will need in later life. We have to be patient but persistent advocates for teaching these skills.

Skills Not Learned in School Have a Lasting Effect

Take the role as your child’s advocate seriously, because eventually your child will leave the public school. If he or she does not receive an appropriate education, who will help your child in a post-high school setting to balance a checkbook or fill out a job application? Many children who do not receive an appropriate education will need to take remedial courses after high school to learn skills they missed when they were younger.

What You Can Do

To become a better advocate for your child’s education, we recommend the following:

  • Periodically study your child’s special education documents in chronological order to better understand the progression of your child’s education. Trends will become apparent as you study the details and analyze the data over time. You must do this since Team members are transient and they don’t see the “big picture” that you can see. This exercise will show you the areas where your child has made progress or areas where he or she hasn’t.
  • Compare your child’s goals from year to year. If some goals never change, that means that either the goals aren’t appropriate or that your child isn’t making effective progress. Also compare the service delivery grid for each goal. Are the frequency and duration of services adequate to achieve the goal? If you notice that services are being decreased and the goal hasn’t been accomplished, you will want to discuss this with your Team.
  • Keep a notebook in which you record the important details of conversations you have with school personnel. If there are any action items, make them the subject of a follow-up letter or email to that person. If there are any misunderstandings about what was agreed to, this will help correct them before too much time and too many opportunities have passed. This improves positive communication with the school.
  • Keep a parent journal of your observations of your child’s experience. Record details about progress or lack of progress, and be sure to date your entries. Write in this journal on a regular basis and review it periodically. Progress almost always happens gradually, and you will only begin to see it when reviewing entries from past weeks, months, or even years.
  • Review your child’s IEP progress reports as you receive them. Compare the reports with the IEP goals and make sure these progress reports reflect your own observations as recorded in your parent journal. If these reports do not accurately describe your own observations, be sure to question these reports in writing to your child’s special education liaison. This will document your concerns.
  • Realize that every year of your child’s education matters. Time is essential in special education. If there are too many delays getting services, your child may fall behind. Each new year builds on the skills learned the previous year. It is remarkable how quickly a school year can go by and how the academic demands intensify as students advance in the grades.

Being your child’s special education advocate is an additional job for you on top of all the other things you are already doing. But it can be one of the most rewarding jobs you will ever have. Giving your child an appropriate education is an essential foundation for a productive future.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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