Education Series Part 3: Educator Perspective

Are parents truly enabled to participate in case conferences?  As a former special education administrator, I have sat in many conferences where I watched staff conduct more of an IEP presentations opposed to leading a conversation about an IEP.

As special educators, we are many times inundated with IEP lingo and compliance; however, for our parents who many times only sit in IEP review meetings once, maybe twice a year, this language can be difficult to follow – even if they are familiar with Article 7.

One rule which we encouraged staff to follow is that the parent should contribute to the conversation within the first five minutes of the meeting.  This goes beyond a simple introduction.  Parents could be prompted to list one to three things they are happy with regarding student progress and then one to three concerns or questions they have about creating a plan for the upcoming school year.  If parents are more reluctant to participate, teachers may need to work with them ahead of time, either through the use of a pre-conference form or through a phone call.  Another idea to get all participants involved in the meeting, including parents, is to give everyone a role such as, time keeper, tracking the agenda, note taker, etc.

The more parents have the opportunity to truly participate in the conference, the more invested they will be to the success of the educational plan.  So, do we dare ask how much opportunity the student has to participate in her or her case conference?

Education Series Part 3: Parent Perspective

In the first two parts of this series, I described case conferences and what goes into an IEP. It is important for parents/caregivers to show up to the case conference fully prepared. Proper preparation helps to ensure that the student gets everything they need for a successful education.

Preparing for a case conference, especially your first, can be overwhelming. It is important to do your own research and find methods best for you. Here are some tips for preparation to get you started:

  1. Know your rights: This is a big one. Go into the meeting already aware for what your child is eligible and the steps you can take to ensure goals are met. Though it is long, it would help to read the Indiana Board of Education Special Education Rules
  2. Review the past year: This tip, of course, is only if this is not your first IEP. Reviewing the previous year’s IEP is a good idea. This will help you to evaluate if goals were adequately met, what worked and what didn’t work.
  3. Come in with your own questions, concerns & recommendations: You know your child best and should feel confident sharing your own concerns and recommendations with the school personnel. Preparing these ahead of time will keep everyone involved on the same page as you work together to achieve your child’s goals for their future.
  4. Keep Folders: It’s important to keep any information on your child’s education from year to year. Correspondence with the school, report cards, IEPs, homework/tests and behavioral reports are all good items to keep. It would also be helpful for these documents to be organized in separate folders and by each year.
  5. Bring Notes: Write out everything you want to cover in the meeting and bring it with you. This will ensure you don’t forget anything. It would be best to bring a notepad with you to take notes during the meeting, as you are not able to take the IEP home with you.

From the CEO: Disability Rights

In visiting family in Atlanta this past Thanksgiving, I took advantage of the opportunity to also visit the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Much of the museum was, as one would expect in the home city of Ebenezer Baptist Church, dedicated to the civil rights movement of the 60s and the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The story didn’t stop there, however. Significant exhibit space examined global human and civil rights. Disability was alongside gender, race and religion when speaking of discrimination; specifically the story of Bob Kafka.

At 27 years old, Kafka broke his neck and gained firsthand knowledge of transportation as a barrier to work for those whose lives are in wheelchairs. He helped found ADAPT to counter his experience that most thought of disability as a medical issue rather than one of civil rights. Too often he found that people whose disabilities couldn’t be “fixed” were placed in nursing homes. He fought for change. He was profiled in this museum because of his nonviolent advocacy to protect the rights of those with disabilities. The same nonviolent advocacy as MLK and Gandhi. He has been arrested more than 30 times fighting for the civil and human rights of people with disabilities. I was reminded that disability rights are civil rights.

Later that same week, we all heard the news of the death of President George H.W. Bush. He considered one of his greatest accomplishments of his presidency the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); the equivalent of the Civil Rights Act for individuals with disabilities. He was proud of being the president who made people with disabilities a part of their community .
ADA required all sectors of society to remove barriers that prevented people with disabilities from full participation in their communities. While many think of ADA in relation to ramps and elevators, this legislation also included the social and interpersonal aspects of accommodation, as well as employment.

President George H.W. Bush was reported to have been particularly receptive to the discussions with the National Council on Disability when the ADA was first proposed to Reagan. It was theorized that perhaps his son’s dyslexia or his daughter’s illness and ultimate death had contributed to that empathic position. Signing ADA was a prescient one considering he would spend his final years of a wonderfully active life, in a wheelchair, and thus directly see the benefits of the act he signed.

As we all reflect on the advent of ADA with President Bush’s passing, there is the opportunity to ask how we can make our communities more accessible, remembering this to mean not only physical but attitudinal. We still have more that can be done. Bob Kafka’s battle with transportation for work is not fully resolved. It saddens me that the quality of life for a person with disabilities is dependent on the law. Any community is better when everyone has equal opportunity. But my reflection of Thanksgiving included those of appreciation for all of those before me who have built the laws for civil rights and human rights…including King, Bush and Kafka.

“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” JFK

AWS Logo

Who Are The Champions?

The lyrics from Queen’s We Are The Champions took on new meaning at the October 1, 2018 Northeast Indiana Human Resources Association (NIHRA) monthly meeting on inclusive employment.  More than 150 human resource professionals heard this call to action:  “Will you be the champion in your company to start the conversation about hiring individuals with disabilities?”

A panel discussion involving Greater Fort Wayne, Inc., Scherer Resources, Partners in Autism and a recent graduate from Ball State who has a disability challenged the group to be intentional in expanding hiring practices that included disability.  Greater Fort Wayne, Inc. added a disability employment coordinator to begin the dialogue with its member organizations.  Scherer Resources launched a training program on understanding disability and the business culture necessary to embrace and support inclusive employment.  Partners in Autism has an employment training program and builds relationships with employers to hire individuals with autism.  College graduates with disabilities are well-qualified with bachelor and master degrees in public service, library science, computer technology, and marketing and communication yet when the disability is disclosed an interview rarely occurs.

What can you do to champion inclusive employment in your organization?  Start by asking who knows someone with a disability.  You might be surprised how many people do.  Then ask about their employment status.  You might be surprised by those answers – “I don’t know or never thought about it.”  Expand the conversation and questions to your professional network, vendors and contractors.  More surprises?

As you read this, will you answer the call to action….Will you be the champion?

 

Educator Series Part 2: Parent Perspective

So, now that you know what to expect in a case conference, you may be wondering what an IEP entails. Aside from general information about your child (grade, diagnosis, parent/guardian, etc.), you will also find names and titles of those present in the case conference. Knowing these educators is important for proper communication to ensure your child’s success. The rest of the document, of course, lays out your child’s education plan, placing them in the least restrictive environment their course of study allows.

  • Evaluation Information and Student Data: This is where your child is now. His/her strengths and weaknesses, behaviors and skills will all be included in this section. This helps to identify needs of the student which will direct the rest of the IEP.
  • Concerns of the Parent: This is where you as a parent can express your concerns and have them documented within the IEP. Your input is very valuable to the development of your child’s IEP and education.
  • Participation in Testing Programs: This section will identify what type of testing your child will participate in that is appropriate based on their grade level and skill level. Some examples would by NWEA, IREAD and/or ISTEP.
  • Goals: In this section, achievable academic and functional skills goals will be described with clear objectives. Be sure SMART goals are used (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound).
  • Progress Reporting: Documentation will entail exactly how you will be updated on your child’s progress throughout the year.
  • Services & Accommodations: Here you will find all services your child will receive in the year, including location, description and frequency. This could also include an extended school year (depending on the needs of your child) and transition planning. The accommodations outlined in this section are needed by your child to mitigate the effects of their disability but cannot provide your child with an advantage over other students.
  • Participation: This is where you will see how involved your child will be in general education classes and activities.

As stated in last month’s segment, you do have a say in your child’s goals. It is important that both parents/guardians and educators are on the same page, so keeping open communication through this process is key. If you would like to have a more in-depth explanation of the IEP, you may find a guide here.

Education Series Part 2: Educator Perspective

To be an active partner, parents must be informed. An IEP is a very overwhelming document, and this is coming from someone who had years of undergraduate and graduate classes learning about the legal components as well as years writing and developing IEPs with various team members. As professionals, we get frustrated and have a difficult time keeping up with the continuous changes to the documents and procedures even though this is a part of our daily work. Can you imagine how these documents make parents feel?

Having children doesn’t come with an answer key, and this is especially true if you have a child with a disability. Learning about a disability and all of the service providers that might be beneficial to the family can be utterly exhausting. The school is one of many service providers parents must work with to support their child. The IEP is just one set of documents a parent of a child with a disability must encounter.

Have you ever tried to be someone’s partner in a particular card game and no one had explained the rules to you? Think about how you would feel each time it was your turn to play a card. As a player you might lack confidence, become defensive and even become unwilling to play. Regardless of what specific experiences, you would not walk away feeling like an equal teammate and certainly would not be looking forward to another game at any time soon!

Schools need to invest in a partnership with parents. Helping parents understand the many parts of an IEP is critical in order to incorporate parents as an equal partner during the case conference process. Schools might consider offering IEP training to parent groups or even individual parents on school grounds. Or, if school staff are not able to take this on, another option might be to consider partnering with a local, reputable advocacy agency to help train parents. What a great, collaborative opportunity for schools and advocates creating a shared vision and working together to educate parents. Both of these options go above and beyond the requirement in the law, but when there is research to show that partnering with families will improve student outcomes, can we afford not to invest in these extra efforts?

From the CEO: Disability Employment Awareness Month

The first Friday of each month the economic geek in me watches for the phone alert on new job growth.  I didn’t do well in high school economics and thankfully I didn’t have to take it in college. However, I recall enough to know that job growth, or lack thereof, can trigger responses from Wall Street and is sure to generate a tweet or two.

Recent numbers continue to show that the number of people filing for unemployment benefits is at the lowest level since I graduated from college (four decades!) More jobs are being added. Wages, even in Indiana, are slowly creeping up. We watch, waiting for comments about what is “full employment” and have people quit looking?  Seasonal fluctuations are evident.  What can I make of all of the numbers?

The first Friday in October brought additional numbers in light that this is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The labor force participation rate for people with disabilities is up one percentage point over the same month last year.  This is the percentage of population working or actively looking for work. Good news…right?  The thing is that participation rate is 34.1% compared to 76.6% for people without a disability. It may not be great, but it is moving in the right direction and it has been a positive trend since early 2016.

I can’t speak for the entire country but I can speculate on a few factors that might be influencing that trend in Northeast Indiana.

  • Focus on Transition. Select high schools have clear programming for all students directing options, including employment, for post-graduation.
  • Increasing Universal design in office buildings and other facilities. Employers who evaluate work space by universal design criteria rather than just ADA are sending messages to people of all abilities that they are welcome to join their workforce.
  • Transportation efforts . Transportation to the worksite continues to be a major barrier for those with varying abilities. Grants from AWS Foundation have helped increase ridership with both Citilink and CTN.
  • Repeated messaging. When any individual repeatedly hears the question about “what do they want to do when they grow up” they build a future plan based on an assumption of work. More and more, those with disabilities have that question as part of a school IEP and from supportive communities.
  • Experience . As we build a more inclusive community in the arts, recreation, and other aspects of Northeast Indiana we send the message that the entire community, including employers, is welcoming of people of all abilities.

All of these elements are helping NEI provide employment options for people of varying abilities. But let’s end with one specific story because it really is about each person as a unique individual.  I have been told the story of a young woman with a disability who did not do well with the typical interview format. She wanted to work and had ability! A keen interviewer realized that rather than conduct a face to face inquisition, a casual conversation while walking through the place of employment might be a better gauge of her ability. During this walk, they talked about her personal likes and why she wanted to work there.  The job she wanted wasn’t available, but he realized they had a qualified candidate for another position. She got the job and gave it her all and according to my source “…the department managers absolutely love her …and she recently celebrated her first anniversary with that store. “

Yes, the national economic indicators say that as a country we are doing better with employment, but what are you doing to help? Do you consider the individual and not the job? Do you look at abilities rather than disabilities? Do you send the message that you are welcoming and inclusive? Help celebrate with us National Disability Employment Awareness Month and help make the November and December numbers a little bit better.

Children’s Stories

How do we teach our children to appreciate differences?

This week, AWS Foundation dedicated one of the dozen buddy benches across the region.  This is an initiative to foster friendship among all children, with the goal of having no child alone on the playground. Any child who would like to make a friend or join in a playground activity can sit on the bench and that lets the other kids know to invite them to play.  In talking with the students who joined us at Deer Ridge Elementary, I asked them to tell me about the intent of the bench.

I was moved by how each of the children who raised their hands was able to clearly express the intent of the buddy bench.  They knew that feeling of exclusion and that the reciprocal act was to extend an invitation.  By having the bench there, the teachers had talked with those children about inclusion.

Books are another wonderful way to approach the subject.  This year’s Newberry Medal winner is Hello Universe by Erin Extrada Kelly.  To read this book with your children will allow you to discuss bullying, feeling out of place and ultimately self-acceptance as four young people, while being different, find courage, teamwork and their inner heroes.  Or were you a fan of Dr. Seuss’s, Sneetches?  Are the sneetches with stars on their bellies superior to the plain-belly sneetches?  What about Elmer the Elephant by David Mckee?  Elmer learns that what is unique about him (his patchwork skin) is what should be celebrated and not hidden. I grew up with The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.  Ferdinand was a bull who preferred lounging under the trees sniffing flowers and refused to fight as the other bulls did.  The final message of the enduring story is the importance of being true to one’s self.  As with Hello Universe, self-acceptance is so much a part of understanding differences in that we are all unique.

Ferdinand, Plain-belly Sneetches, Elmer and Kelly’s characters of Virgil and Valencia all tell that story.  The child who first learns self-acceptance is the child that will be accepting of others; accepting of their uniqueness, their differences and will be the one who helps build a more inclusive community. I would love to know your favorite story.

Camp PossAbility by Dustin Faurote

Bicycles are often banalities that are easily ignored; they rust and decay in yards, garages, or are simply forgotten. Many people may find bikes to be a nuisance upon society when health conscious cyclists bogart the road while ignoring the beautifully painted bicycle lane. It can be easy to take cycling and other activities for granted. Opportunities to ride bikes, swim, participate in sports, and essentially embrace life are all too easily accessible for many of us, but for the many people with physical disabilities we too are seen as banal and easily ignored. Thankfully, Lauren Harmison is an undeniably wonderful person who created a place for the physically disabled to embrace life and have fun in ways that are normally impossible; this haven is known as Camp PossAbility. 

For one week a year the camp allows people with physical disabilities to participate in activities that were seemingly far beyond our grasp. For the first time in over a decade I rode a bike, played volleyball in a pool, and enjoyed a lake for more than the view. The week is not an escape from the reality of our disabilities, but a reminder that we can still embrace life and have fun. Camp PossAbility is not only full of many adapted activities to explore, but also great people. Volunteers from all walks of life provide the support many of us need, but this support is not limited to physically assisting campers. A week at Camp PossAbility is a blessing that allows us to experience the many opportunities and adaptations of which the disabled are unaware. Upon leaving camp I could hardly fathom all I had gained: friends who share the same trials and triumphs that accompany disabilities, friends who chose to give their time to help us, as well as the knowledge that I am capable of so much more and there are many opportunities for me to enjoy the banalities I so dearly missed. 

Education Series Part 1: Educator Perspective

Two questions come to mind for any parent/guardian getting to know those working with their child: ‘Do you care about my child?’ and ‘Do you know my child?’  As a teacher this may be your third conference of the day or possibly your fifth conference this week, but for each and every parent it is likely their only conference and by far the most important.

My oldest daughter had taken a math test at school and did not do well.  The school informed me because of the test score she would be placed in a remedial math group; however they completely failed to take into account other factors that strongly pointed to the fact that this test was a fluke.  I am a strong advocate that every child get the instruction he or she needs, but as we left the school that day I walked away feeling my child was seen only as a number.  Instead of the staff truly knowing her, her personality and abilities, she was minimized to a test score.   Needless to say, I walked away from this interaction feeling like the school was not truly invested in my child.

Knowing that strong, school-parent relationships do in fact improve outcomes for students, how do school personnel convey to a parent that they care about and are invested in their students?  Case conferences are a prime time to build positive parent relationships.  Here are some general tips to help use this time as a relationship builder:

  • Be careful not to make the conference more about compliance than the student. The IEP is more than a checklist – it is a plan for an individualized student.  Keep the theme of the meeting focused on Who this conference is about as opposed to What this conference is about.
  • What preparation have you invested in the meeting? Along with data and other academic recommendations, what other positive stories and information have you made a plan to share?
  • Can you speak in depth about any of the student’s interests or involvement beyond school, such as extra-curricular activities?
  • Don’t judge! Raising a child with a disability poses many challenges.  Listen to understand and offer ways the school can support.
  • Be prepared. Be professional. And be passionate about the child’s success.