Dr. Wes and Julia: I'm a local teacher, and I've read Double Take since its inception. I've been impressed by the range of topics that you've tackled and the balance of your perspectives. I appreciate that you provide a strong voice and valuable service to Lawrence's adolescents, parents and educators. Your recent column on Individualized Education Plan (IEP) was no exception.
You're right that it's becoming more difficult in this and other districts to get an IEP. Special education costs money, and both the federal and state governments mandate special education services but have failed to fund even 30 percent of the cost. The public doesn't like to equate quality education with money (taxes), but that's reality. There's also a scarcity of special education teachers across the nation as older teachers retire without enough new blood to replace them. Although it's an extreme situation this year, the three classrooms at my grade level include more than 20 students with IEPs, most for learning disabilities, some for behavioral issues, or English language learners. Not one of those 20 is frivolous.
Nevertheless, there are stipulations written into many IEPs that simply cannot be met, due to a shortage of staffing and time. An IEP can be written with the best of intentions and professional care. But unless there is someone to implement it, it's only a piece of paper. Just because there's a social worker or psychologist or SPED teacher on staff doesn't mean they are working with kids on IEP goals, or working with them at all. In an overcrowded classroom of 25 or more students, no teacher can possibly meet all of the needs, much less carry out IEP goals. The school district knows the research and has class-size limits as board policy, but it routinely ignores them.
Threatening lawsuits is effective - but only for one child. From my perspective, what would be more useful would be for a parents' group to press for more dollars for schools whether that is the LOB, a bond issue or in the legislature. Parents also need to make a HUGE commotion any time their kids are in oversized classes. Parents should also listen to what teachers tell them about what's really going on and what really works. There are many innovative educational ideas, but too often they are met with "but in Lawrence, we've always done ..."
Parents do have enormous influence ... real power. In using it to help secure an education for their own individual child, they should look to improving the lot of many children in the community, which, in the end, is the best guarantee that their own children are insured the best education possible.
- Lawrence teacher
Wes: While your letter is longer than we usually allow, I thought it was an intelligent and valuable resource, in line with other comments I received. Far from the "hate mail" I expected, concerns over IEP eligibility and compliance appear to be a wide concern, and both parents and front-line teachers are struggling with the issue on a daily basis. The advice to form a political action group is wise, and I would happily join up. However, parents must first focus like a laser on one thing: their child's best interests. By the time a successful social movement was formed on this issue, a given child will have experienced school failure. So both a micro and macro solution are needed. I would also point out that there is evidence that districts in which parents more routinely follow through due process and mediation do have high eligibility rates, so advocating for one child can improve the lot for others.
I want to clarify that I wasn't recommending that the parents line up an attorney and sue their school district back to the Stone Age. My proposal was much simpler than that. If you've spent a year attempting to prove eligibility for your child, and you've followed the steps on the sheet of paper that the school is mandated to give you at the point of an assessment, and you've read the bible of IEPs that I cited in the previous column, and you are still making no headway, it is reasonable to consult an attorney who specializes in this area of law. Only as a last resort will he or she march up to the courthouse and file a lawsuit. Instead, parents can receive specific advice than can level the playing field for the child. Remember, the school has an attorney and many years of experience on this topic. Most parents don't. So if the budget can afford it, a couple of hours with an attorney may be worth a lot of hours of frustration.
I've invited attorney Scott Wasserman to join me at 6:30 p.m. May 7 for a free two-hour program on this topic. He'll present a slide show that lays out the most important points on this topic and will offer further resources. We'll be at the Econo Lodge meeting room, 2222 W. Sixth St. Folks from any area school district are invited. If this goes well, we may do it again on different topics. It would be helpful if interested families would RSVP, but it's not necessary. Maybe some parents will even join together in the sort of political movement you suggest. It might be a good place to start.
Next week: A young reader wonders why life can be both "sucky" and "awesome." The ups and downs of adolescence.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.