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Families and teachers fight for individualized special education from public schools

Under CC license from Flickr user maltman23

For the past two months, KALW has spoken to families making their way through the special education system here in the Bay Area. A similar thread between all the families has surfaced: having advocates helping you navigate the system makes the special education waters a little less rough.

Just getting access to services can be tough. A lawsuit is currently making its way to the California courts saying that school districts aren’t giving special needs kids what the federal government guarantees them – access to a free and appropriate education. While not all parents are bringing the district to court, many involved in special education admit that just making this system work is a lot of work. 

JT Werth is a ninth grader at Mission High School. He is full of surprises.

When I ask him how he feels about his learning disability, he replies, “I love it because it makes me creative. It makes me different. I get to meet cool, nice people. And I just think in the long run, it's going to be a great help for me.”

JT is a really confident kid. But when he was younger, he struggled with his learning differences.

“I was kind of competitive with other kids who would finish much faster than me or do things much faster than me,” he says. “And it just got really upsetting and really annoying that kids would be finishing faster. “

“There were great teachers at his school, they knew something was up, too,” says JT’s mother, Anne Werth. “So they were trying to help and they pulled him out of class and they had some interventions. But in second grade, we talked to the school psychologist and requested an evaluation, and it was abruptly stopped because he was, quote unquote, getting by."

“So that's an example of an error that is avoidable,” explains Rachel Norton, President of the Board of the San Francisco Unified School District. “Procedural errors, like not generating in writing a denial of a service or a parent request. Not responding to a parent request within a certain amount of time. That's a procedural error that happens a lot.”

Without the diagnosis, JT couldn’t get an IEP, or an Individualized Education Plan. That’s the document the government requires to give kids special education services. No diagnosis, no IEP, no special ed. services.

JT’s mother says, “I had more than one person tell me that it's not the special education department's job to bring a kid up to their learning potential. It's just to make sure that everyone's at the proficient level. And as a mom, I think my job is to make sure my kids are learning to their potential.”

His family decided to independently take him the Pacific Medical Center for a neuro-psych test. He was diagnosed with dyslexia. Putting a name to what he’d been struggling with was tough for JT, because it made it feel permanent.

“I knew that I had to deal with this thing. All throughout my life. And I hated knowing that I had to deal with this thing throughout my life and I couldn't get rid of it. It pretty much flipped my whole world upside down,” says JT, adding, “usually when I tell someone I have dyslexia, they, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, so you read things backwards. And I say no. And then they give me something to read. And, I read it perfectly. And then they tell me that I'm not dyslexic.”

These misconceptions are not uncommon for people with learning disorders. Just ask Laura Maloney, the director of the Parent Education Network, a group working to deepen parents, students, and educators of learning and attention differences.

“I'm a person who grew up – even though it was a really long time – with learning and attention differences. So I was diagnosed with dyslexia in third grade, which wasn't the norm back then. I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was in my 40s,” explains Maloney.

“I think the big misunderstanding and the one I still struggle with personally,” Maloney continues, “is that it has something to do with your intelligence. It's how you take in information. And sometimes it just needs to be presented in a different way.”

JT’s diagnosis did not come from a school. It came from an independent medical center, so he still wasn’t receiving any special education services. His family decided to pull him out and enroll him in Charles Armstrong, a private elementary school specializing in helping students with language-based learning differences. The annual tuition is $32,500 per year.

“We were very fortunate,” says Werth, “that both sets of grandparents helped us with the tuition. He wouldn't have a college fund if they didn't help us with that. I just always wonder what happens to these families and these kids that don't have access to this.”

It was here that JT and his family started figuring out how to deal with his learning disorder.

“They did a wonderful job there,” says Werth, “helping support, you know, identify his strengths and provided him with tools and ideas.”

Most importantly, they got him an IEP, stating what accommodations he needed in the classroom. Again, SFUSD Board President Rachel Norton.

“The key, the key aspects of special ed, what guides an individual child's plan is something called the Individual Education Plan. And the law says that the plan must be individualized to the child,” says Norton.

When JT reentered the school district in 6th grade, IEP in hand, he was armed with confidence and access to special education services.

“It just makes accommodations for me, like extra time on tests. Extra time to turn in homework,” says JT. “I have a support class, and it really helps.”

JT’s support class is led by Sarah Wieder. This study skills class is part of Mission High School’s resource support program. It’s for kids like JT, who have IEPs but are in general education for most of the day.

Wieder is JT’s Learning specialist. He sees her three mornings a week.

“I teach them about why they have an IEP, what they're learning strengths are, what they're learning differences are. And uh I feel that's the most crucial part for a student to know. In order for them to go on and become successful,” she explains. “Because once they graduate high school, no one's going to be there like me to help them out in school.”

Wieder says the toughest part of her job is getting kids “bought in” to trusting that she is there to help. We asked how hard it was to get JT’s trust.

“That was an easy case – almost immediately he was already bought in. I think there's been a lot of work done with other special ed teachers and with his family in the past.

“He's such a good kid,” she continues.

JT is in a good place, but it’s been a struggle to get there. And this imperfect system isn’t lost on the San Francisco Unified School District. As Board President Norton explains from the district’s perspective:

“The lion-share of special education funding comes from the federal government. Well, not the lion share but it's supposed to. The law says that the federal government will pay 40 percent of the costs of the extra costs of educating a child with a disability, because it does cost more. It requires more physical attention. It requires more equipment. More training. So the law says the federal government will pay that amount, but they never have. They don't appropriate that amount of money. The most that the federal government has ever chipped in for their share of the tab is about 25 percent of the cost.”

That shortfall, Norton explains, has to come from the general fund.

“So special educators are always very cognizant of that,” she says. “There is pressure on the budget. So you are always watching the bottom line because you don't want that shortfall um between you know that has to come from the general fund to get too big right and take away from other things.”

The search for a balanced budget might leave some kids without everything they need, kids like JT before he got his IEP. But now, with a learning specialist helping to guide him, JT is thriving.

“Ms. Weider, she's kind of like an angel guardian,” JT says. “Someone who just looks after you in the school.”

I asked Weider what she thought about JT’s name for her. “That's pretty sweet. That's pretty cute. I'm glad that I've been able to help him so much. That's just very flattering. I'm in this job because I love when I see success. And, I think JT is definitely a success story. He's worked really hard. And definitely I think he's an example of how it takes a community to create success for a student.”