Secondary Transition Begins in Preschool and It Requires Comprehensive Family Engagement Along the Way

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By Chioma Oruh, Ph.D.

While my children are only in the Pre-K 4 and the 2nd Grade, it was inspiring and also infuriating, to read the recent article by Sarah Butrymowicz and Jackie Mader entitled “Almost all students with disabilities are capable of graduating on time. Here’s why they’re not.”  Infuriating because I recall my children’s IEP meetings and literally having been called cruel by the speech-language pathologist because I suggested that my 7-year-old son participates in his own educational meeting.  Although she later apologized, the hours-long meeting that led to this momentary outburst was due to me insisting at every juncture they could be doing more to encourage greater development.  I refuse to accept that my son “will develop in his own time” when I have been fighting for increased out-of-school time hours for speech and behavioral therapies and been faced with too many barriers to access care via the medical model that makes inclusion possible through addressing maladaptive behaviors caused by overstimulation or sensory overload.

At the same time, Butrymowicz and Mader’s piece affirmed my experiences with the various anecdotal stories of students and parents. For example, they cite advocate Hatharsinge-Gerschler pointing out parents often don’t question how schools tend to use an autism diagnosis to exclude students from general education classrooms. And for my 4 year old, I am in a constant ideological argument with his teacher about why he would be in a self-contained classroom in preschool…I mean, it’s not like they are doing any heavy academic work or that he is participating in any additional activities that could not benefit all children in Pre-K 4.  But when the teacher can’t understand how segregation is a detriment to both my son and his non-disabled peers, it’s an uphill battle for any other academic accommodations that limit (and contain) his potential.

As a parent who has experienced both traditional public and public charter schools in Washington, DC, these problems are pervasive – with likely more resistance to inclusive education in the traditional public schools. Yet, in the case of my charter experience in a Montessori school, I found that the IEP was not filled with evidence-based practices to support positive early learning in my son with autism.

Factoring intersectionality, Butrymowicz and Mader note “just 65 percent of special education students graduate on time, well below the 83 percent four-year rate for American students overall.” According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), breakdown by race of American students reveals disparities behind the 83 percent overall average of adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR). Of the ACGR,  90 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander, 88 percent of the students are White, 78 percent Hispanic, 75 percent Black and 72 percent American Indian/Alaska Native.

Butrymowicz and Mader also point out that 13 percent of all US public school children are enrolled in special education programs. Another study by NCES reveals that the percentage of students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was the highest for American Indian/Alaska Native students (16 percent), followed by Black students (15 percent), White students (13 percent), students of two or more races (13 percent), Hispanic students (12 percent), Pacific Islander students (11 percent) and Asian students (6 percent).

Given that racial/ethnic and disabilities categories, Black students and American Indian/Alaska Native students have simultaneously the lowest graduation rates and the highest percentage receiving special education services, it is imperative that school districts come together as a whole to come up with comprehensive, evidence-based interventions.

Butrymowicz and Mader, point out countless jewels and this piece reads like an encyclopedia of my experiences as a parent and a truthful reflection on the shortcomings of the public school system that is clearly failing our children with disabilities and blaming parents for it.  I have considered homeschooling my children, like the mother of Michael McLaughlin, who homeschooled him starting in the sixth grade and have also looked into private placement options, yet because I believe so much in the democratic process and firmly believe in public education, I hold on - for now.

However, I know many parents that do exercise their rights to not participate in public education due to the shortcomings of the school system. From the lack of training that general education teachers receive in special education services to special education teachers being bogged down with more paperwork than their counterparts as well as not being prepared to work students with a wide variety or co-occurring disabilities, it is no wonder than graduation rates are dismal.

While I am always armor-ready for an IEP meeting, I also know teachers are not the enemy. I have confidence teachers and aides have my children’s best interest at heart. Also, as a member the Local School Advisory Team (LSAT) at my children’s school, I have the opportunity to participate in a democratic process to decide the local school budget. Through this, I also get a seat the table to also see some of how the extra funding that comes in from the 40 percent of “excess cost” of educating children with disabilities under the IDEA is reinvested at the school level. While this process is not overall transparent at the “state” level (living in Washington, DC), this snapshot and crash course in school budgeting informs how often teachers and administrators have to come out of their own pockets or through fundraisers by the PTA/PTO to raise additional funds just to cover basic supplies like printing paper and books.

My most concrete suggestion is school systems begin to more heavily invest in early learning because it is in preschool, kindergarten and early elementary school that students have the best opportunity to make the greatest strides for academic success.  It is also in early childhood education programs that children are provided learning tools for positive social-emotional learning to instill important character lessons such as endurance, tolerance, and compassion.  And while the graduation numbers are dismal and must be addressed, I observe an even greater problem: The number of children that begin their education journeys with IEPs that are set on a track of underestimation and under investment in their ability to learn. The good news is that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers improved federal guidelines to address why students with disabilities are three times less likely than their nondisabled peers to drop out of school or get in trouble with the law.   

These numbers are not shocking to me because I live the daily struggle of raising two young black boys with autism.  I, like so many other parents before me and those besides me, are mustering up all our energy to roll up our sleeves to be active members in improving the educational outcomes. I am grateful that ESSA puts such high emphasis on parent and family engagement, offering public schools incentives to invest in our families as partners. Yet, I know we are not equal partners. For one, raising children with disabilities with a myriad of complex healthcare needs is an expensive endeavor because many families live below the poverty line. So, with all the odds against our children, they are also coming from disempowered communities that have negative experiences of the systemic functions of government. As a mother, I am constantly exhausted and scrounging for resources in order to keep afloat in an extremely expensive city and I hold a doctorate degree.

I remain optimistic but not without caution and a constant dose of reality. The truth is that there are too many contending interests in education and other parts of a city, state or federal budget that point against making the right investments in our children. Despite the many federal protections offered by the IDEA and other laws, enforcement is a full time job monitoring the implicit and explicit biases that impact what services my children get access to in school as well as in the healthcare system. As is said, a luta continua!