Special Report
Families & the Community

How Parents and Educators Can Team Up on Special Education

By Christina A. Samuels — December 04, 2018 6 min read
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As its name suggests, the Dr. William W. Henderson Inclusion School in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood was founded with the goal of fully embracing students with disabilities and their families.

You can see that philosophy at work when you walk through the door—literally.

Unlike many schools, “the Henderson” doesn’t require parents to drop off their children at the school entrance. Usually schools make that request so they can efficiently get the kids to their classrooms.

But Henderson parents are welcome to take their children right in to the building each day—not just on opening day—and to chat with staff along the way.

“If they want to walk their student to class, they can come in and feel better and trust that their student is going to be well taken care of,” said Patricia Lampron, the principal of the 900-student school, which serves students in pre-K through 12th grade. “That’s the beginning of building relationships. You get to know people, and we begin to build partnerships that way.”

Strong partnerships between schools and parents of students with disabilities go beyond creating a pleasant atmosphere. A strong parent-school bond contributes to student success, research has shown. And in the case of students with disabilities, schools and parents are mandated to work together to draft a student’s individualized education program.

But all too often, that relationship is easily strained. Parents worry that their needs or requests are ignored, and school staff members feel that parent demands are unreasonable. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, parents have the right to legal remedies if they disagree with a school decision. And, though schools win the vast majority of such disputes, even the threat of such an action can leave both parties on edge.

Establishing Trust

Leslie S. Margolis, a managing attorney for Disability Rights Maryland, said that most parents she’s worked with have appropriate expectations.

“The vast majority of parents that I’ve come across know their children very well,” Margolis said. “They want the services that the law requires. They want staff that cares about their kids. They’re not expecting their kids to be rocket scientists, unless their kids have potential and want to be rocket scientists.”

Academic standards have gotten more rigorous over the decades, and with that has come a higher set of goals for students with disabilities, Margolis said.

But when parents are told that their children don’t need certain accommodations or when they’ve had the same IEP for years on end, that’s when they end up thinking “there’s something wrong here. You have to do better for my kid.”

There are some steps school leaders can take that create the foundation for a future success, however. Amy Gailunas, the director of the lower campus at the Henderson School, said parents often arrive at the school having gone through a bruising mediation process with the district just to get their students enrolled in the school, which has a lengthy waiting list.

The first step is to establish trust and collaboration, she said.

“One of our tenets is, we don’t want experts, we want problem-solvers,” Gailunas said. “A parent has equal voice to a teacher, to a paraprofessional, to a speech and language therapist. Everyone has an important perspective.”

Source: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

At Henderson, every classroom includes both a general educator and a special educator. Each has 24 students—19 students are in general education or have mild to moderate disabilities, such as dyslexia or speech and language impairments. Five students are classified as having significant disabilities that manifest in many different ways.

Because there are so many different needs in each class, “we kind of respond to the need of the population,” Gailunas said. “We don’t have a ‘wait to fail’ model. If you need rules-based phonics, like Wilson Reading System or Orton-Gillingham"—two educational methods commonly used to for children with dyslexia—"we’ll give it to you because you need it.”

Another facet of the Henderson school’s inclusion philosophy is that all needed therapies are given in the regular classroom. That means therapists travel to the classrooms, rather than pulling the students out to a separate location. The school nurse even visits classrooms to feed students who require feeding tubes.

“The class has to adjust to meet the needs of the child,” Gailunas said. Sometimes the parents worry that classroom-based therapy won’t be as intensive as their child needs. In such cases, “we say, ‘Why don’t you come in and lay eyes on it, and see what it looks like?’ That takes care of a lot of arguments before it gets to the IEP table.”

And sometimes, a change meant to accommodate a specific child can spread throughout the building. Gailunas told a story about one high-performing classroom where the teachers had abandoned whole-class instruction because two young children with Down syndrome were easily distracted during large-group lessons.

The outcomes for all the children in that classroom were so positive that Henderson’s lower grades have all set aside whole-class instruction in favor of smaller group and individual work.

Eliminate ‘Unequal Dynamics’

Henderson School used a creative approach with parent Carolyn Kain. Her daughter Mary, now 19, enrolled at age 4 with disabilities including an intellectual impairment and cerebral palsy. Kain fought to have her daughter enrolled at the school, and has since been deeply involved in special education advocacy, including serving as the chairwoman of Boston Public Schools’ Special Education Parent Advisory Council.

Rather than closing ranks, the school opened itself to her.

“I went to school with her the first six months, full time,” said Kain. “I knew that no one would know her or her needs.”

Kain said that first year, “I was basically an extra [paraprofessional] in the classroom.” But that connection with school staff helped them get to know her daughter as a person, and to be aware of her family’s expectations for her.

Other schools may not be able to immediately implement the philosophy and practice that Henderson has used for nearly three decades. (The school, once a typical neighborhood school, was converted to an inclusion program in 1989.)

But Margolis, the Maryland advocate, said some small shifts in perspective can help build a stronger relationship. For example, she said, during some IEP meetings all the staff members are addressed by their professional titles or their last names. In contrast, parents are just called “Mom” or “Dad.”

“It sets up this absolutely unequal dynamic, that you’re not really a member of the team, we’re the professionals and we know best,” Margolis said.

Failing to explain acronyms, assessments, and other materials can also lead to problems, Margolis said. Those conversations take time, “but it’s not a short process to really look at how you individualize an education for a child.”

More Money Needed

Kurt Hulett, a former principal in Virginia and Texas who is now an educational consultant, said that schools are constrained by a lack of resources. But, he added, they don’t help themselves by not looking for creative ways to solve problems.

“I don’t know if you can legislate common sense and creative thinking, but that’s where we need to move,” said Hulett, who manages a website called the Center for Special Education Advocacy.

He also said school officials can sometimes worry too much if a parent brings an advocate or attorney to such meetings, without keeping in mind that school staff often outnumber parents.

“You don’t want to be arguing over this,” Hulett said. “Principal, stand up, shake their hand, let them know you’re not frustrated and angry that they brought one person to your 12.”

In the bigger picture, Kain, the Henderson parent, said that “Congress needs to put more money into the IDEA. They’re asking local school districts to foot the bill for the majority of the costs. The needs are rising, and it’s continuing to put more of a strain on local resources.” That strain can lead to conflicts.

But children who aren’t supported in their education will often go on to be dependent on the government later in life, Kain said. Shirking the spending now “is backwards thinking,” she said.

Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as How Parents and Educators Can Forge an Effective Team

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