With high-stakes testing and the grueling competition to get into colleges, special education seems to have lost its stigma. Parents want accommodations for their children — more time on tests, less homework, more individualized instruction.
In wealthier towns such as Greenwich or Westport, parents are fighting for horseback riding and dance lessons for sensory integration disorders and coordination; others have fought for and won an education at therapeutic day schools to the tune of 40 grand a year, paid at the district's expense.
Despite these extreme examples, what's apparent in most suburban towns, wealthy or not, is that special education services are not always easy to access. I've experienced it firsthand and have spent close to $1,700 on a private evaluation, along with clocking hours of research to advocate for my son and his needs.
I'm not alone.
Parents of today are impressively vigilant and savvy, educated in the laws and procedures. Many attend planning placement team meetings with lawyers and advocates. Parents, once hesitant to access special education, now insist that their children be tested at the school's expense. If a parent disagrees with a school's evaluation, according to Wrightslaw (the leading website about special education law and advocacy), they can fight it and seek a private evaluation at the district's expense.
In Hartford, the story is different. Many kids fall through the cracks and are promoted despite lacking sufficient reading and computing skills. Meanwhile, children without skills in West Hartford are placed in basic skills classes or given support to make sure they are reading at grade level. If there is still a problem and the child appears incapable of learning, a thorough evaluation is provided and appropriate services are implemented.
Forced to educate myself on the laws and various labels, I was astounded by the number of kids at Hartford Public High School with possible disabilities such as dysgraphia (writing disability), dyscalculia (math disability), dyslexia (reading/math disability), autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, OCD, GAD, Tourette's — all undiagnosed.
It is no surprise that special education in one of the lowest-performing school systems in the country should be lagging behind its neighboring suburban towns. More than 50 percent of students come from Spanish-speaking homes, and parents or guardians are often not able to advocate. The more educated the parent concerning disabilities, the more likely the child will receive the appropriate diagnosis.
Minority children's failure to excel academically is often blamed on their socioeconomic status and stress at home. Yet if a child has a neurological problem such as an autism spectrum disorder or dyslexia, the child was born this way and deserves services. If a child can't write or do math, it should be investigated and not assumed that it's due to lack of parental support and stresses at home. Issues are too easily dismissed for this reason.
The child who never receives early intervention is the same child who ends up in my senior English class, lacking key skills, anticipating graduation. Do we blame the student? According to such students, they have earned this long-awaited diploma, worked hard to become a senior. Yet it doesn't make sense in this day and age to have an ill-prepared student graduating from high school. It is preposterous and immoral that we allow it.
By the time a student reaches high school, it is too late. The teenager refuses services, drops out or develops conduct problems. Some will graduate and realize, tragically, their limited possibilities. Some will be incarcerated. Others will get pregnant and some will float through life going from one low-paying job to another trying to survive.
West Hartford, from where I recently moved, goes above and beyond what is necessary for each special needs child. Special education in West Hartford compared to Hartford would be like comparing services at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to the Super 8 Motel in downtown Hartford.
One might point out that Hartford receives more per-pupil spending in special education than West Hartford, but this is a moot point. Hartford needs more because, yes, there are more issues, more kids in need of special education. Not only do children with special needs deserve a highly qualified special education teacher, but the paraprofessional assigned to implement interventions should be educated and have all the necessary training in each child's particular disability.
Maybe with our new superintendent, Steven Adamowski, who is progressive and not afraid to clean house, it's time to revisit special education in Hartford, dust off the current policies and programs, ensure they're up to speed and that kids are being diagnosed accurately and efficiently, that parents are educated properly concerning their rights, and that objectives written in students' individualized education programsare being implemented. If goals are not met, the education plan should be re-examined, and support added where needed.
Someone should be held accountable as this is a legal contract. How many parents in Hartford are aware of this? I'd wager a bet — not enough.
Elizabeth Brown of Avon is an English teacher at Hartford Public High School.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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