The Squeaky Wheel: Tactics and Pitfalls of Advocating for Your Kids in School

advocating for kids in schoolBy Kim Pleticha, Publisher of Parent:Wise Austin
Originally published August 2010 in Parent:Wise Austin.

When Susan and her husband saw their son’s first report card, they were shocked: a string of Bs and Cs littered the page. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been remarkable if he’d been taking advanced placement calculus, but their son was in first grade. Granted, he did have an auditory processing disability, but he’d always enjoyed school and kept up with his peers. At the first parent-teacher conference of the year, the two asked the teacher why their son seemed to be struggling.

“She said ‘You should just be happy that he’s doing as well as he is’ and we said, ‘hey we have a smart kid here’,” Susan recalls. “[The teacher] just kind of laughed. I didn’t know it at the time, but she thought I was poor and deluded.”

That’s because, as Susan later discovered, her son had been administered a verbal IQ test by the school, which pegged him as having below-average intelligence. Not only had Susan and her husband not approved the test, its findings were suspect: a child with an auditory processing disorder cannot be given an oral exam — especially one in which the questions may be asked only once — because his disability will negatively skew the results.

Both Susan and her husband protested the test results, chiefly because they were being used to determine their son’s academic potential.

“I went ballistic; I don’t usually lose my temper, but I did that day,” Susan admits. “We knew our child was not retarded, and we were determined that he not be labeled as such and parked on a shelf.”

It was her first serious step into advocacy, and she charged in with a vengeance.

Susan, like all of the parents interviewed for this article, asked that her real name not be used. Although her request is, on the one hand, designed to protect her child’s identity, the over-arching reason is that schools don’t necessarily take kindly to parents who push them too hard.

“When teachers and schools think about parental involvement, they’re usually thinking about the support parents give their children at home,” says Dr. Chrys Doherty, a senior research scientist with the National Center for Educational Achievement in Austin and the author of several books, including Asking the Right Questions About Schools: A Parent’s Guide. “Schools often are not expecting parents to say ‘my child needs more than what you’re giving.’”

High Expectations

Nearly all parents approach their child’s educational experience with high hopes and perhaps naïve expectations of what a public school can, and will, do to help their child reach his or her academic potential. Few peruse the Texas education code before sending their children to school, and even those who do would be hard-pressed to decipher the legalese that governs their child’s rights. Instead, most assume schools will do their level best to educate all children, and provide the necessary services to ensure academic achievement.

For parents whose children fall in the middle of the academic spectrum, this assumption holds true. But for those whose kids require special educational services —be they remedial or accelerated— they quickly learn that schools aren’t always forthcoming in the offering.

This was a surprising revelation to Lisa, whose son has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. When her son began kindergarten at an Austin school, both the principal and the special education liaison assured her that her son’s needs would be met. Yet several months into the school year, her son continued to experience extreme distress in the classroom. Lisa spent more and more time at the school, meeting with the teacher, the special education liaison, and the principal to figure out some way to improve her son’s educational experience. Frustrated, she began researching schools that might be a better fit. When she learned that a school in the Plano, Texas school district offered advanced services for children like her son, she and her husband moved there. At first, the school seemed to work. But as her son grew and required additional services, the school found reasons not to provide them.

“I continued to advocate for him whilst being super PTA mom and volunteer helper,” she says. “I got along with the school staff very well, but I had to continue to push for services and for them to follow his Individual Education Plan.”

The more she advocated, the more the district made her feel like she was the only parent unhappy with its educational offerings, she says. This type of alienation is not uncommon, say those who work with parents to obtain services for their children: providing specialized educational services costs a lot of money—often more than the district is willing to spend, despite both federal and state laws that mandate a free and appropriate education for all children— so schools sometimes try to find ways around doing it.

“Parents don’t alienate the school; they’re already alienated,” says Diana Pharr, an educational advocate who works with parents in requesting services for their children. “If you don’t have any issues with the school it’s easy to believe that the system is there for the children. But if you have a problem, you quickly discover that the system is set up for the administrators.”

Know the Law

That’s why it’s important for parents to know what the law actually provides for when it comes to special services in public education.

The Austin Independent School District’s website has a searchable database of all Texas education policies (http://www.tasb.org/policy/pol/private/227901/): simply type in a keyword or two and the system disgorges every match found in both the district’s and the state’s educational codes. Searching the system should be the first stop for parents who are wondering what, exactly, the district or the state is required to do for their child.

The federal government further codifies special education services in the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The IDEA website (http://idea.ed.gov) provides a wealth of information about what the government expects from states and local school districts when it comes to educating children with special needs that stem from specific disabilities. Once parents are familiar with IDEA, their next stop should be WrightsLaw.com, which contains a plethora of real-world legal advice for parents navigating IDEA.

In reading through these websites, it’s easy for parents to become excited about the array of opportunities available to, and even mandated for, their children — in theory, that is. Because in practice, many school districts do everything they can to skirt the law.

“I can tell you from personal experience that school districts outright lie to parents about what their children are entitled to,” says Myrna Silver, one of 12 attorneys in Texas who specializes in special education law. “The TEA [Texas Education Agency] contracts with law firms to train teachers and administrators as to what the law is and basically to train them what they can probably get away with.”

If that sounds outrageous, consider this: a Freedom of Information request filed by educational advocate Diana Pharr revealed that the TEA spends some $60 million in private attorneys’ fees per year. Some of that money now is being used to pay attorneys to meet with districts throughout the state to discuss the proposed changes to Chapter 19 of the Texas Administrative Code, which governs special educational services; this chapter is up for reauthorization in 2011. The district meetings discussing the reauthorization are closed to parents. Recently, Ms. Silver and the 11 other special education attorneys in Texas filed a motion to open those meetings to the public. The motion was denied — something that didn’t surprise Ms. Silver, who says the system is set up to make it difficult for parents to prevail when advocating for their children.

“School districts have lobbyists running around the Texas Education Agency and parents don’t,” she says. “That’s the simple truth.”

Advocacy 101

This doesn’t mean parents should be hesitant about advocating for their child’s needs. In fact, parents should demonstrate to the school that they are involved in their child’s education and are willing to work with the school to help the child do as well as possible.

Approaching the teacher with a concern can be tricky, though. Too many parents make the mistake of assuming any problem their child has in school is directly related to the competence of the teacher. This results in parents putting the teacher on the defense — not a good way to establish mutual accord for solving a problem.

Professional education advocates recommend that parents meet with their child’s teacher early in the year if they have a concern; waiting until the first parent-teacher conference is too late. During the meeting, parents should be clear that they want to solve the problem in collaboration with the teacher.

This is precisely what Natasha did when her gifted daughter began kindergarten in Cedar Park. She knew that her daughter was too advanced for kindergarten, so she met with the teacher the first week of school to discuss her daughter’s abilities, making it clear that she not only wanted but respected the teacher’s opinion. To demonstrate her willingness to work with the school, Natasha volunteered in the classroom as much as possible, making herself available whenever the teacher needed her. Within three months, the teacher recommended that Natasha’s daughter be moved to the first grade; the girl now is happily involved in the school’s gifted and talented program. Natasha admits that she “played nice” to get the school to move her daughter into a more appropriate educational setting, but she recognized that being overly aggressive would simply alienate both the teacher and the principal and not deliver the desired results.

“I wanted her teacher and the school to know that I was also an involved partner in my child’s education,” she says. “I understood that they were the experts, but I wanted them to understand that I was the one who would be shepherding my child’s education, far beyond elementary school.”

Clearly, not all parents have the ability to spend hours at the school volunteering in an effort to demonstrate their commitment to their child’s education. That’s OK: email and telephone conversations with the teacher demonstrate the same thing — as long as they’re not overdone. That’s the second mistake many parents make: inundating a teacher with requests for updates about their child and not being respectful of the teacher’s time. Linda, who has taught second grade for nearly 30 years, says the number of parents who want daily updates about their children has increased markedly in recent years. Last year, one parent walked her child to school every morning and buttonholed Linda into a conversation about the child’s performance. The morning “meetings” angered Linda because they distracted her from her primary responsibility, which was greeting all of the children and settling them into the classroom to begin the day.

“It’s not that I don’t like talking with parents — I do,” says Linda, who asked that her real name not be used so that she wouldn’t face reprisal at work. “It’s just that I have 20-plus other children in the class who need my attention in the morning; I don’t have time to chat with parents at that time.”

Most teachers send out an information sheet at the beginning of the year that details the hours they’re available to speak with parents and the best means of communicating with them. For purposes of advocacy, email is better than telephone calls because it provides you with a written history of what you’ve discussed with the teacher. Even if you speak with the teacher via telephone or meet with her in person, always follow-up with an email thanking her for her time and reiterating the substance of the conversation and what action you have agreed upon.

Above all, try to engage the teacher as an ally, not an adversary: successful advocacy at this level can mitigate the need for further action.

“The challenge that the parent faces is making clear they are not sitting in judgment of the teacher’s performance,” says Dr. Dougherty, “but [instead] simply trying to work in partnership with the teacher to solve a puzzle.”

Be Prepared—And Seek Professional Assistance

Solving that puzzle is a lot easier if parents have concrete information they can reference to demonstrate their child’s abilities or special needs. That’s where independent testing comes into play.

Most school districts offer a battery of tests to help determine children’s academic abilities or special needs. However, given the cost of providing special services, it’s not always in a school’s best interest to identify every single child who may need gifted and talented differentiation or special education services.

For this reason, it really is wise for parents to arrange for independent testing if they suspect their child may require special services. Not all districts will accept independent tests —indeed, most accept only those tests administered by district professionals— but the independent tests give parents an idea of what kinds of services they should request for their child.

Once parents know what kinds of services would benefit their child, and what the law says the school should provide, they’re in a better position to advocate.

Still, even the most prepared and committed parent-advocates can strike out. That’s why it’s a good idea to enlist the help of a professional education advocate the moment you realize your child may require special services.

Professional education advocates may be attorneys, but most are simply parents who have advocated on behalf of their own children and have learned both the ins-and-outs of education law and how to work with school districts. Education advocates attend all school meetings with the parents and take detailed notes so that they can advise parents on the best steps to take to achieve their goals. When hiring a professional education advocate who is not a lawyer, parents should ensure that the person has a strong relationship with a licensed attorney. This is important should the need arise for legal advice or litigation.

For parents whose children attend a school in the Austin Independent School District, another alternative is to call the district’s ombudsman, Beverly Reeves. Austin is the only district in the state, and one of just a few in the country, that employs a professional ombudsman to work as a sort of mediator between parents and the district. Ms. Reeves’ sole job is to help parents navigate the maze of education policies and procedures so that parents are satisfied with the services their child is receiving. Although Ms. Reeves estimates that 85% of parents who work with her are satisfied with the outcome, she is clear that she cannot solve all problems.

“I cannot wave a magic wand and give people what they want,” she cautions. “[But] once I explain the realities of what can and cannot be done, there is a better understanding [on the part of parents].”

Don’t Give Up—But Be Realistic

One thing many parents don’t understand is that the clock is ticking when it comes to advocating for their kids.

“I’ve read that one year of having a sub-par teacher can take a child three years to get over,” says Jeff, a bilingual education teacher in the Georgetown Independent School District who requested that his name not be used because of district policy governing speaking with the media. Given the effect a poor classroom environment can have on children, he urges parents to take action early rather than late.

This advice is even more important for parents of children with disabilities because Texas special education law has a one-year statute of limitations. What this means is, if your child’s school promises you something—such as a paraprofessional or a specialized education program—but never fulfills that promise, you have only one year to address the issue at a due process hearing (a binding legal proceeding designed to resolve special education disputes).

“That one year statute of limitations is a killer and the school districts know it so they drag their feet,” says Ms. Silver.

The longer they drag their feet, the less likely the child is to receive the services he needs and to which he is entitled — and the more likely he is to slip further behind and develop other problems.

That is precisely what Lisa, the mother whose son has Asperger’s syndrome, learned. After spending years trying to persuade the Plano school district to provide services to improve her son’s school experience —including attending meetings and seminars, hiring professional advocates, and even presenting the district with turnkey solutions recommended by experts in educating children with Asperger’s syndrome— her son began harming himself at school and threatening suicide. Alarmed, Lisa removed him from school and began homeschooling. She says the move originally felt like defeat, but she now realizes it was the best thing for him. Still, she is angry that her child’s legally mandated right to a free and appropriate education was foiled: although the law provides for private education if a public school cannot meet a child’s needs, getting a district to pay for private school —even if the district admits it cannot educate the child— is extremely difficult.

And therein lies another key to successful advocating: being realistic about whether your child is well served by his school and having a back-up plan if he isn’t. If a school cannot, or will not, provide a specific service for your child, it may not be in your child’s best interest to launch a full-scale battle to demand the service — even if the law provides for it.

Susan didn’t know this when she “went ballistic” about the IQ test the school had administered to her son. Lucky for her, though, the special education liaison was in the room and agreed that the district’s handling of the case was flawed.

“In the end, once we had the explosion, we had another meeting,” she says. “I really didn’t want to leave everyone angry, but I was because my son had lost valuable time. Still, I wanted to make sure that we remedied the situation.”

That remedy included a new series of tests and a new Individual Education Plan for her son, one that addressed the specific concerns Susan and her husband had about their son’s academic achievement. The plan has to be revisited each year, because her son’s needs change, but so far so good.

“It’s never solved long term; we still have to be in there advocating,” she says. “We always have to say, ‘how can we make this year a positive experience for our child?’”

And that really is the bottom line: children have a right to a safe, academically challenging and positive experience in school — and parents have a right to ensure that their children receive it. That’s where advocating comes in, and parents shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed to do it.

“Education is a huge part of our children’s lives,” says Ms. Pharr. “If they don’t have a good experience and they’re not well served in their school district, then it permeates the rest of their lives.”

Kim Pleticha is a mother and the publisher/editor of Parent:Wise magazine.

Note: Permission to republish this article was received from the publisher of Parent:Wise Austin.

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