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Getting With the Program

By Mike Snyder

In August, while awaiting the Fairfax County Public School system to schedule an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting to address my son's delays, my wife and I were getting him ready for his start at preschool.

We had pre-enrolled him in his sister's Montessori school. Sis was also attending day camp there over the summer, and the principal suggested that my son join in some outdoor activities to get him acclimated to the group. All was going well and he was excited and proud that he would starting school.

At the IEP meeting just before the start of school, I met with the public school principal, special educator and speech and language therapist at the elementary school that he would attend. They wanted my son in the morning program when classes began the following week, explaining that for my son to benefit fully, he should attend daily.

I hadn't realized that his IEP would put him in a fully structured daily program. I had assumed, from hearing from other parents, that it would be looser, more tailored to his individual needs. It seemed like it was going to be just another preschool classroom, albeit one in which every child had issues. Wasn't the "I" in IEP for "Individualized"?

His other preschool principal wasn't thrilled at the plan, either, mostly because the bulk of their Montessori instruction for three- and four-year-olds took place in the morning. My son wouldn't be getting much of what they had to offer -- and what we were paying for -- by coming only in the afternoons, she said.

Another concern was that we would be throwing my son a Major League curve ball. We'd been pumping him up all summer about going to his sister's school. I wasn't happy at the prospect of dashing that. In fact, I started to balk at working with the public school, which hadn't done anything to prove itself to me, whereas we had a history with the Montessori school. Why not just let his sister's former teacher have a crack at my son and perhaps she would help him get past his educational delays? There were transportation issues that would need to be worked out, too. I couldn't understand why my son would have to ride a bus for an hour a day to get a half hour of speech therapy a week. Couldn't he just go once a week to work on expressive language?

The plan that I'd had in my head was not the plan on the table. Compounding my anxiety was the rush for a decision following the lengthy evaluation process at the Child Find Center in Lorton. I told public school right off that I wanted to delay starting the IEP for two weeks because I didn't want to overload my son with two new schools on the same day. They said that would be fine. It also bought me some time. Then I asked if they had an afternoon program. They did, but there weren't any slots available at the time.

I was still hedging, thinking maybe the IEP was going to be a waste of time and energy. I also sensed some professional disregard for or distrust of the Montessori teaching methods among the public school teachers.

Thank goodness that my wife, who I thought would be in agreement with me on this given our earlier disagreement, took the opposite tack. She pointed out (as did the Montessori school principal) that we'd worked for months to get to this point and that if we didn't take the IEP, we might have to go through the entire bureaucratic process again to assess my son's eligibility next year. The thought of that was quite unappealing. We took the slot, amending the IEP to three days a week.

Thanks to the same teachers whom I'd undeservedly doubted, an afternoon slot was created for my son. We gave the two schools permission to share information about my son, and his public school teacher even visited him at his Montessori school to introduce herself.

So, my son had two first days of school this year. Transportation was a bumpy ride, initially, but has been smooth sailing since. Despite my early misgivings, I think I kept the experience entirely positive for my son. The other kids in his Montessori class are actually jealous of him because he gets to ride a bus and wear a backpack.

He's making progress toward his IEP goals, not by the leaps and bounds we had hoped for, but slowly and steadily, which is just fine. As parents, we feel he's in the right places, getting the right help, and that we made the right choice regarding the IEP.

In the end, in our case, the educators made the difference. But I wonder if navigating the bureaucracy could be made easier by assigning case workers to help guide parents. And as difficult as the process seemed for us at the time, I realize that parents with children in other jurisdictions might scoff at the relative ease we had in securing and initializing an IEP. For that matter, getting a decent general education in many of our school districts is a tough nut. So how is or isn't the system working for you? Share your advice, suggestions and helpful hints.

By Mike Snyder |  November 27, 2007; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Child Development
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Our son had an IEP for four years in elementary school. It worked well, in general. We found the teachers and school administrators to be very caring, very professional, and very interested in what was best for him.

The school system as a whole did create a bureaucracy that was difficult to work through. We took the advice of my mother, who was a public school teach for 40 years before retiring; and my sister, who is a public elementary school teacher with a Master's degree in education of gifted and talented students. They urged us to understand our rights and responsibilities going in. The key is to know FAPE - the law that mandates "Free and Appropriate Public Education" for all children in the US. The keys are "free", meaning either it's offered by the public schools or they pay for it at a private facility; and "appropriate" which mandates the IEPs, 504s, etc. Every accommodation the school system as a whole makes for a child takes some resources away from the system, so the central-office bean counters try to limit the resources made available. Don't let them; know your rights.

My mother's advice was, if all else was failing, threaten to sue they school system. They'll back down every time, because they know that you'll win, they'll lose, it'll cost them a lot of money and they'll look bad in the process. She cautioned us not to use that unless it was a last resort, because it makes the relationship completely adversarial for the rest of the time your child is under the plan. But if you absolutely have to "go nuclear", that's your weapon. Fortunately for us, it was never necessary to make that threat.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | November 27, 2007 8:19 AM | Report abuse

Actually, we have had a wonderful experience with the fairfax public school system special education preschool. Although the child is in a structured program, they do work individually with each student to meet their specific needs. I do not find the whole 1/2 hour of speech pathology all that useful. I actually think the work they do with their regular teacher and aides to be more beneficial. But our daughter has come from being preverbal at age 2 3/4 to speaking in sentences by 3 1/2. She still uses short sentences 2 -4 words. But her vocabulary has grown immensely and she uses, verbs, pronouns, nouns, and adjectives. VEry few adverbs at this point. I think the combo of morning Montessori (or private preschool) and afternoon special ed works well. My daughter goes to the 30 hour a week preschool autism class. So for two afternoons a week, she just goes to a day care and plays. But if she was in a noncategorical class at age 4 1/2, I would want the split that you are doing. Hang in there. I found the special teachers in Fairfax to be very caring, professional, and dedicated.

Posted by: foamgnome | November 27, 2007 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Our son (now in 5th grade) has had an IEP with Prince George's schools since he was 3 years old. We have never had an issue getting him what he needed. He, too, started out in Montessori preschool... but that less-structured environment did not work for him. But the bigger issue for us was that this particular Montessori school was COMPLETELY inflexible in responding to his needs (which at the time were more physical than learning-related). The difference is that the public schools are required to create and follow an IEP, 504, etc, whereas private schools can just say "we cannot meet your child's needs" and there are no repercussions. Just something to keep in mind as your child's school career progresses.

Posted by: Loren | November 27, 2007 10:14 AM | Report abuse

We've had nothing but fabulous experiences with my son's IEP process and school placement. Before we agreed to the plan the school set up, we were able to go and observe the classrooms--one designed for children with autism and one "non-categorical" classroom designed for children with various developmental delays, largely communication problems. Those observations put any doubts I may have had about the public school's abilities at rest--their facilities and teachers were a far better fit for my son than any of the other preschools we had looked at before he was diagnosed with autism. As he has progressed over the years we've been able to alter his IEP regularly to fit with his growing needs and abilities. I learned early on that while the school system might be ambivalent about each individual child's needs, the people who work with him every day and the principal of his school know him and want the best for him and knock themselves out to help him in whatever way they can. His teachers are our best allies in getting him the services he needs.

Posted by: Sarah | November 27, 2007 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Our son also has an IEP with speech therapy. Our experience was very different. The evaluators worked quickly and efficiently to outline a program and the "extra teacher" meets him at his preschool an hour before his class for a half-hour of one-on-one work. We didn't ask for it, that is what we were told would happen. Maybe it is because the school has the room to spare. Maybe it is location, being in Fairfax County. I don't know for sure. All the teachers have worked wonderfully together. Our experience has been nothing but awesome, from the school system to the teachers to the instructional guidance.

Posted by: Working Dad | November 27, 2007 10:50 AM | Report abuse

I'm so happy to hear that things are going well for you. I've been following your postings and have been rooting for you. I just read armybrat's comment and wanted to respond on the issue of threatening to sue. Personally, I just get annoyed at the idea of threatening to sue to get your way even if it's the last resort. Also it's incorrect to assume they'll back down. As seen in the recent Schaffer v. Weast supreme court case, the Supeme Court ruled that the burden of proof in IDEA cases is on the party that brings the suit (which I'm guessing most likely would be the parents as it was in that case.) So no, they're probably not going to back down.
You mentioned in the blog that you were a little concerned about the classroom setting the public school was providing because you wanted it to be individualized. But these things also cost the district a lot of money. Sometimes the individual attention we think our child needs isn't just practical in terms of finance and manpower.
I applaud you and your wife for working with the educators and coming up with a plan that works for you and your son and I look forward to hearing more updates.

Posted by: mommywriter | November 27, 2007 11:32 AM | Report abuse

mommywriter, I'm not a lawyer so I'm probably not qualified to fully assess the Schaffer v. Weast ruling. But from what I read as a lay person, all it did was say that, if there is a lawsuit, the burden of proof is on the person bringing the suit. Seems fairly straightforward. Frankly, if I disagreed with the IEP that the school set up for my son, I would have automatically assumed that it was my job to say why I disagreed and what I thought it should say, and why I thought it should say that.

But at any rate, what I mentioned in my original posting was the advice I was given by my mother and sister, two experienced teachers who have been through countless IEP and 504 reviews on the school's side. Both described as a 'tactic of last resort', but both (in two different school districts) reported that it had never failed - the school system had always backed down.

YMMV. But I am curious as to what you'd recommend if all other options had failed, and you didn't have an IEP you accepted. What's your "last resort"?

(As noted in my original post, in our case it never came to that; we worked well with the school principal, teachers and staff, came up with a good IEP, and the results over a number of years were very impressive. Our son is gifted in a number of areas but had delays in a couple of areas; the delays were addressed and he's now at the top of his class in high school.)

Posted by: ArmyBrat | November 27, 2007 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad somebody already mentioned FAPE, that's an important acronym for parents to have in their vocabulary.

Here's two more terms to add:

LRE, which stands for Least Restrictive Environment. It's a little bit tricky, because the child might be best served in a special day class. Our son (high functioning autistic, age 15) attended SDC for Communication Handicaps through 3rd grade, but we were very anxious to get him into mainstream classrooms with neurotypical peers as soon as we could. He absorbs and imitates everything he sees around him, and consistently rises to whatever is asked of him. When the school district didn't want to provide a one-on-one aide unless he continued in SDC, we used LRE to get him the aide he needed (and the mainstream teacher needed the aide's support too) with an appropriate placement in a mainstream classroom.

Necessary and appropriate - forget about what is *best* for your child, the law only requires the school system to provide what is "necessary and appropriate for the student to benefit from public education." Okay, none of us parents can really forget about what's best for our kids. But banish the word "best" from your vocabulary, and replace it with "necessary and appropriate". You'll have much better results getting your kid the services s/he needs.

If I sound like a lawyer, I'm not. But I've spent a lot of years reading state and federal law, and advocating for my son. We have an attorney on retainer, that we've fortunately never had to use. DH and I found that in IEP meetings when we sounded like we'd just come from the attorney's office the district's adminstrators were much more cooperative and acommodating. When we sounded like uninformed laymen, we had people lying to our faces about what the district would and could do. It's an implied threat of legal action, but because it's only implied everyone can be courteous and cooperative.

Interesting suggestion to assign case workers to guide parents, but in our experience, district staff members were little or no help. They worked for the district, and their role was to do what was best for the district, i.e. keep costs down. We had to go to outside sources to find out what was possible as far as services. Then we had to go all the way up the chain of command to the district's Director of Special Services to get agreement and her signature on our son's IEP requirements. It's the parents' job to advocate for their child, and the staff of the school district have a different job.

We found the best support, information and resources came from networking with other parents. We also try to really support the teachers who are with our child every single day. When it's time to fight for our son, we fight with the district adminstration, only. They see us coming once or twice a year, and after a few encounters know that we're not going to make unreasonable demands, but we are going to get the services our son is entitled to receive.

Unfortunately, we're in Oakland, CA and our school district has been under state control and administration for four years, and we've just had another turnover over adminstration staff, so we're back to teaching another bunch of new people what they need to know to keep us from being in their offices constantly.

Oh, one last thing about district finances - it's okay to be sympathetic to the staff member who is concerned about the costs of something your child needs, but it's not okay to let the district deny your kid what s/he needs. What we say is: "I appreciate your concerns about district finances, and I'm confident that you'll find the funds to provide this necessary service/support device/etc."

The law says they have to provide for the kid's education, and the law doesn't excuse that obligation because of expense. If it's that big an expense, maybe the district needs to organize more car washes and bake sales, and we parents can help out with that.

Posted by: Sue | November 27, 2007 12:35 PM | Report abuse

One big help for me, was taking an introductory course in Special Education at the local community college. The class was offered in the evenings and the adjunct instructor who taught it worked for my child's school district as a Special Ed. coordinator. Not only did I learn a lot of standardized jargon, I found out details about working with the specific system that my child was enrolled in.

Posted by: cotopaxi | November 27, 2007 1:05 PM | Report abuse

If you are in Maryland, a very good resource for navigating the system when you are starting out or encountering difficulties is the Parents Place of Maryland. They offer workshops for parents of kids with disabilities that teach you what your rights are, how to develop an IEP, how to resolve conflicts, etc. They also offer parent advocate training, and can refer people to these parent advocates to help out when parents are having difficulties with the school system. I would guess that this organization isn't unique--probably other states have similar groups working on behalf of the parents of kids with disabilities.

Posted by: Sarah | November 27, 2007 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Didn't get a chance to check the comments again until today. I didn't mean to say that you shouldn't complain if you feel that the program is unsatisfactory. Of course you have to be your child's advocate.
But at the same time, the process should not be like too adversaries meeting. Of course parents want what's best for their children, but so do educators (even though they often have to work within budget and resource restrictions.) Mr. Snyder's story is a great example (and I really do hope everything continues working out well) of how parents and educators might start out with two different ideas, but can work together to help children.
With Schaffer vs. Weast (if I remember correctly), as the case went through the court system, the side that was assigned the burden of truth always lost the case. When parents don't like the IEP there is a structured appeals process (but at that point you're not really suing). But if it were to come to the point where you felt like suing, obviously bearing that burden of proof is not going to be easy. It's important to realize that and really try to work hard with the district to come up with a suitable program.

Posted by: mommywriter | November 28, 2007 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Please keep us informed with regard to how your son works out with Montessori. We initially planned for our daughter to go to Montessori but then we realised that there were some developmental issues going on. we still have no real diagnosis. She very clearly has a significant speech/language delay (receptive and expressive, but her receptive delay is not as bad as her expressive) but the other areas - it just isn't clear if there is a delay or a deficiency. We opted to go to the public school pre-school, which while it has been great, and she has made lots of progress, well, I just am not sure that is the best environment for her. its been great for pre-school, but I just don't know about kindy. We really are struggling to figure out placement for kindergarten. During all of this we have been re-districted from a wonderful public elementary school to one I am decidely not excited about. My daughter is very bright, and is 'ready for kindergarten' according to her teachers, but still has the language delays, and I wonder how much she will get from someone standing in the front of the class teaching? We have been in discussions with the Montessori school about her attending there next year, with the understanding that she may have to do an extra year in the children's house program to catch up academically. I wonder if the hands on learning in Montessori will allow her to continue to progress academically without being hindered by the language issues.... Parenting special needs kids can be so tough!

Posted by: mommylawyer | November 28, 2007 6:08 PM | Report abuse

To mommylawyer re Montessori: I'm not sure that my son's been there long enough to make any judgments. We had parent-teacher conferences in early November. Public school teacher was very pleased with his progress. Montessori school teacher said he still seemed a little lost during "work" time in the morning, needing a teacher to initiate activities. The Montessori philosophy (as I understand it) allows children to seek out what interests them, then applies its structured (some say rigid) teaching methods. My son appears to be tentative on the former, but fine on the latter. We're stepping back to give it time and see what happens. (We were extremely pleased with his older sister's Montessori pre-K and kindergarten educational experience.)

Although there aren't any more pre-scheduled conferences until the end of the school year, we're planning to meet with both teachers again in January, after things become routine following the holiday break. I'll keep you posted.

Posted by: Mike | November 29, 2007 2:08 PM | Report abuse

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