Navigating through the waters of special education

Posted: Friday, April 28, 2000

I am the mother of a health- and learning-impaired child. I spent nearly four years frustrated, not understanding the ``specialized'' education process. I discovered federal dollars were not being used directly for one-on-one applications with my child, but to pay ``observers,'' ``complainers,'' ``evaluators'' and undereducated aides.

There are promising time-proven research strategies to help impaired children learn. I found several publications about the subject that were not available to the aides in my son's classroom. The Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a service agreement created for impaired children, was of poor quality for my son. It listed virtually no program services and had him spend 24 hours of a 25-hour school week with the aide, who is not allowed to give direct instruction. Find out if specialized education is occurring for your child. Putting an impaired child into an inclusive classroom model to get the curriculum, without the supports, is abusing the child.

Mandates of the federal funding source for specialized education are designed to bridge the actual education gap that exists due to the impairment - so the child can get the curriculum he or she needs - not simply shuffling him along with an aide with the rest of the kids. My son needs specialized support. I was left to move up a due-process ladder. It is a difficult, time-consuming and an emotionally burdensome process. After three months, I was burnt out and removed my son from school to teach him the curriculum myself.

Difficulties in due process outweigh the benefits of continuing. I know I am not alone. I realize that there are many parents in my situation and would like to help them become more active without the trial-and-error process that I endured. After some research, I began to understand the specific mission of federal disability funds for school children and looked into seeing if that mission was being accomplished for my child.

If you do not understand your role in the specialized education process or the federal mandates of the money they allot for your child, here are some things to help you:

There is a manual called ``Special Education and the Law,'' that is an excellent navigational tool. It is available from the Juneau Disability Law Center.

Stop letting your child be evaluated and complained about until something is done to improve the child via strong, active supports for the child. An impaired child simply being put with an aide all day is not using federal funds appropriately.

Be astute. Ask the district specifically how much federal and state money your child's head count brought and how much of that is being spent on your child.

Get to know the strategies for success published on your child's disability and make sure the district is actually using them. Search the Internet for supports, libraries and doctor resources for information.

Go to school with your child as much as you can. Attend all their special education services. Arrive unannounced to the classroom to visit your child. Speak with other parents and all staff (including the aides) around the child. Talk to your child. Don't take for granted your child is being supported just because someone says they are.

IEPs contents have requirements as a matter of federal law - get to know their function and how to get the document working for your child. I used two specialists in DOE, Parents Inc., Hope Cottages, and other parents to rewrite my son's IEP.

Organize regular meetings with all special education families. Speak to our Juneau Assembly members that allocate the funds for the budget. Contact the legislators and the superintendent so quality controls are enforced. A point of responsibility needs to be created at the highest levels so the supports required by federal law for impaired children are carried out.

If you need support and have questions you can come talk with other parents, like yourself, at the Parent's Anonymous (790-4102) meetings. The Disability Law Office can be reached at 586-1627. Assembly members, who hand the district its budget, can be reached at 586-5257. Parents Inc., 586-6171, is the agency mandated by IDEA to advocate for impaired children. Attend the free Positive IEP writing class at 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., May 3 and 4, at Centennial Hall.

Understand your role in the special education process.

Joan Dangeli is the mother of a child with special needs.

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