Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Public vs Private; Response to PragerU

Response to “Special Needs Students Want School Choice Video on PragerU by Jake Olson”

Not many topics can trigger me to action as quickly as those related to the education of special needs children.  At first I was excited to hear the success story told by Jake Olson in his PragerU video.  He overcame the loss of his sight academically and socially from the sounds of his video.  My excitement turned to disappointment when he started talking about school choice and private schools being the only way this could possibly have occurred. It worked for him but that does not mean that public school are unable and unwilling to provide similar levels of education to special needs students even those who are sight impaired.

From the video:
“I went to Orange Lutheran, a private high school in Southern California. My school gave me a tutor that was able to help me through Calculus and other Advanced Placement courses. They gave me the same opportunities and expectations as any other student. And now, I go to a great college. But this was only possible because I was born into a family that could afford private school.  In California, that’s the only way special-needs students can be assured a good education.
Why? Because in California, and in most states, if you’re a special-needs student, you don’t have any choices. If you cannot afford a private school, you are stuck -- in going to the public school that the government chooses for you. I tried that at first, but right off the bat there were problems. All the special-needs students in my district were grouped into one class. Academic ability didn’t matter; interest didn’t matter; it only mattered that you had a disability. Even if I were to outperform other students, say, in Honors Chemistry, I couldn’t take the class with them because I was blind. And this was in Orange County, California – home to some of the nation’s top public schools! Imagine what it’s like in less fortunate communities.
But, thanks to my parents, I had options. So I left the public school and went to a private one.”

My son was diagnosed with autism just shy of his third birthday.  At the time, he was very autistic. Non-verbal.  Non-social.  Non-everything.  His future looked bleak.  I won’t bore you with the details except to say it was a very long and difficult journey from the little boy who experts thought might never become independent to the college sophomore majoring in business and finance.  For this video, the most important part of the story- All His Education and Therapies Were Provided Through Our Local Public Schools. 

I never enrolled him in private therapy or private lesson.  Not even a tutor.  We never had the money to afford such things and we made sure that the local schools provided what he needed as is required by federal law.  At times, we were at odds with the schools and had to push for his inclusion in the local school with typically developing kids.  Always the goal was independence and integration.  By high school, he needed only minimal assistance.

IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) clearly defines the legal requirement to educate children with special needs in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).  The LRE should be used as a driving force for integrating the children with typically developing children as much as possible.  For most children I have known over the years, this means a special education class for core subjects and extra help but regular class for extra-curricular subjects and socializing.   Many are like my son and transition back into the regular class for more and more subjects as their skills develop. 

But my son wasn’t blind you may say.  So?  When we arrived in this small rural district there was a freshman in high school who had been blind since birth.  The only major placement accommodation made for her was to place her in one of the smaller elementary buildings rather than the large one.  This may have been her normal placement based on residence.  I don’t know for sure.  Therapists and tutors came weekly to help her learn to navigate with a cane and read braille.  An aide translated worksheets and tests into braille.  The student’s braille machine hooked to a computer to print her work for the teachers to read.  This student also played drums in the band and marched.  Yes, a blind student marched with the band.  She graduated with honors and later graduated with a degree in special education.

You may think this was just a couple of flukes.  A couple times when the system that usually fails actually worked.  I worked as a substitute teacher for years in my son’s school district.  I wanted to keep an eye on him and learn as much as I could about the various teachers and classes he would encounter.  Time after time I saw students with disabilities receiving quality educations comparable to typically developing students.  A student began losing his eyesight in elementary school.  Like the other blind student, he has tutors helping him learn to cope and a tutor to learn braille.  

A deaf student returned to our school after years in a school for the deaf.  He had an interpreter but was integrated with his peers.  Sadly, I can not tell you this deaf student graduated with honors and went on to attend college.  Elliot died suddenly during his sophomore year in high school. The week after homecoming, a Tuesday I believe, Elliot started feeling a little off.  The next day he died.  The same conditions that caused his deafness left his body much weaker than any of us knew.  The whole town mourned our loss.

I am eternally thankful that he and his parents decided that he should attend his local school instead of traveling to the city and the school for the deaf.  If Elliot had not attended our school, hundreds would have been deprived to the chance to know him and learn from him.  Despite his difficult life, Elliot had a spark of life that was beautiful and contagious.  That learning and growing as a community is one of the goals of the LRE.  Isolating Special Needs Students into private schools deprives all of the chance to become a community.  In only the most extreme cases who I advocate for alternative placements.  My goal for my children Is for them to become independent and contributing members of our society.  They cannot learn to become members of a community if they are isolated. The community cannot learn to accept them if they are segregated.

I have not always agreed with recommendations of my school district and have fought hard for my son to be challenged and integrated.  The IDEA provides the path for parents to advocate for their children and push for the student’s needs be met.  I do not live in California and do not know California law.  However, it can not over ride federal law which state a LEAST RESTRICTIVE ENVIRONMENT.  Placing all blind students in a single classroom and refusing to allow a student to attend a class just because he is blind is a clear violation of IDEA.  As a parent, I would have fought that. I fought for my son to be in regular classes as much as possible from the time he was in kindergarten until high school.  Parents have a voice and power in the IEP (Individual Education Plan) development.  It needs to be used. For those of us without the resources to send our children to expensive private schools, working within the system is the only option but it is an option that can be optimized and productive.  My son was once thought to need constant supervision and some had little hope for his future academically.  All his success is through our public education system.  It can be done.