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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Race, Class Contribute to Disparities in Autism Diagnoses

From Spectrum News

By Hannah Furfaro
November 20, 2017

The prevalence of autism continues to increase across the United States, regardless of socioeconomic class, according to a new study (1). Overall, black and Hispanic children are less likely than their white peers to have an autism diagnosis.

The findings highlight persistent racial disparities in autism prevalence: White children are about 19 percent more likely than black children and 65 percent more likely than Hispanic children to be diagnosed with autism.

Autism prevalence in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2002. Researchers have looked to changes in the condition’s diagnostic definition and greater awareness among parents as possible explanations for this rise.

They have also assumed that access to good schools and medical care would explain much of why white children and those of high socioeconomic status are more likely than black and Hispanic children and those of low socioeconomic status to be diagnosed with autism.

The new study upended many of these assumptions.

The findings suggest that socioeconomic status doesn’t fully explain the differences in prevalence across race and ethnicity.

“Everything is a little bit more complicated than we thought,” says Maureen Durkin, lead researcher and professor and interim chair of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We’ve been trying to understand the racial and ethnic difference in prevalence, and it isn’t so simple as that it’s explained by social class."

Prevalence Climbs

Durkin and her colleagues analyzed surveillance data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. The CDC database includes health and education records for more than 1.3 million children at age 8. Of those, the clinicians identified 13,396 children who either had an autism diagnosis or would meet the criteria for a diagnosis.

The team used census data on the proportion of adults with college degrees in a neighborhood as a proxy for socioeconomic status. They stratified the results by race and ethnicity to determine whether socioeconomic status alters their findings on prevalence.

Graph by Nigel Hawtin

Autism prevalence rose almost evenly among high-, middle- and low-socioeconomic groups between 2002 and 2010, the researchers found. The rates increased from 3.9 to 9.3 per 1,000 children in the low-socioeconomic group, from 6.2 to 11.6 in the middle class and from 7.9 to 13.4 in the high-socioeconomic group.

This was a surprise. The research team had expected that prevalence in the high-socioeconomic group in 2002 was “the true prevalence” and that the numbers for that class would stabilize over time, Durkin says. “But it really didn’t.”

Across the classes, prevalence roughly doubled in the three racial and ethnic groups: It rose from 6.7 per 1,000 children to 13.2 among white children, from 5.9 to 11.1 among black children and from 3.9 to 8 among Hispanic children.

This suggests that autism awareness and access to services are increasing across racial and ethnic groups, but the prevalence among minority children still lags behind that of white children.

Persistent Gaps

When the researchers looked more closely within each racial and ethnic group, they found that differences in prevalence across socioeconomic classes either stayed the same or became smaller.

For instance, the difference in prevalence between low- and high-income white children decreased over the study period. This suggests low-income white families are becoming more aware about autism over time, Durkin says.

Among blacks and Hispanics, however, the gap between low- and high-socioeconomic classes remained level.

Surprisingly, the rate of autism among black children in the high socioeconomic group was higher than that among white or Hispanic children between 2002 and 2010.

“It’s intriguing that in higher-social-class blacks, there’s no shortage of autism,” Durkin says. “Black children are much more likely to be in the low-socioeconomic group than white children,” she says. The finding supports the idea that lack of access to diagnostic services contributes to the overall lower prevalence of autism in black children.

There is no biological reason for autism prevalence to differ across racial and ethnic groups, says Katharine Zuckerman, associate professor of general pediatrics at Oregon Health and Science University, who was not involved in the research.

“The fact that we continue to see this in all of our prevalence studies in the U.S. suggests to me that we really just don’t know what the true prevalence of this condition is, particularly among minority kids,” she says.

Parents in some groups may be less concerned or aware about autism, and may not seek out a diagnosis for their child, says Craig Newschaffer, director of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia. Newschaffer was not involved in the study but wrote a commentary about the work in the same issue of the journal (2).

Another study published this month suggests black parents report fewer concerns about social problems, repetitive behaviors and other autism features than white parents do (3).

Language barriers may contribute to the lower prevalence among Hispanic children. A study from October showed that a child’s race or ethnicity isn’t related to the time between diagnosis and treatment (4).

Parental age may also contribute to the disparities. Advanced paternal age is associated with an increase in autism risk, and fathers of white children tend to be older than those of black or Hispanic children.


  1. Durkin M.S. et al. Am. J. Public Health 107, 1818-1826 (2017) PubMed
  2. Newschaffer C.J. Am. J. Public Health 107, 1698-1699 (2017) PubMed
  3. Donohue M.R. et al. Autism Epub ahead of print (2017) PubMed
  4. Yingling M.E. et al. J. Autism Dev. Disord. Epub ahead of print (2017) PubMed

A Parent’s Plea: My 8-Year-Old Wants to Ride the Big Yellow Bus with Her Friends, but Her School District Says That’s Impossible

via The 74 Million

By Beth Hawkins
November 17, 2017

"As adults, we need to focus on meeting each child where they are at. If we expect that at some time in the future they will be adults living and working in our community, why not give them tools to grow?"

Meet Melissa Davis, the parent of a lovely young woman whose journey through special education in school I’ve been privileged to follow. And on whose shoulder I’ve cried a moment or two when my parallel trip has hit speed bumps.

Those of us who love and advocate for children with disabilities spend a lot of time comparing notes about the principle of inclusion, which means always, always, always erring on the side of making it possible for a student to participate in the same activities as their peers without disabilities.

This is rarely as expedient for the adults in charge of the system as “managing” our children via a separate process, so we spend a lot of time pushing for things that to others may seem inconsequential.

We want our children to reach their full academic potential, and we also want them to have someone to joke around with at lunch, teachers who see their quirky behaviors as coping mechanisms and not defiance and a community that sees their strengths.

In addition to being a Minnesota warrior mother, Melissa is a graduate of Partners in Policymaking, a terrific program sponsored by the state that builds advocacy capacity among people with disabilities and their family members. As such, she’s got a terrific understanding of how special ed can fail to deliver on its promise to tailor each child’s experience to their unique needs. She has refused to accept lackluster compromises for her daughter. 

Melissa’s current struggle involves her daughter’s desire to ride the regular bus to school with her friends instead of the special ed bus. The district has responded with nonsensical and arbitrary reasons why they can’t (won’t?) accommodate the girl. The tussle has been going on for months now.

This is an important request for two reasons:

One, federal civil rights law guarantees the girl the right to the least restrictive placement possible, which rephrased in regular-person language means that she is to be included with her neurotypical peers as often and as much as she’s able.

Two, which bus she takes is an important part of the girl’s identity. My own son loved the special ed bus because he has sensory issues and appreciated the quiet. Melissa’s daughter doesn’t feel that way. If we can understand that the bathroom a child uses, or the right to sit with the other kids at lunch, are foundational to their self-image, why can’t we figure it out with regard to the bus?

Anyhow, here are Melissa’s own words about her daughter:

"My 8-year-old daughter Jayanna is my hero. I say this because at the age of 2, Jayanna was diagnosed with autism. At the time of her diagnosis Jayanna was non-verbal, struggled daily with sensory overload and the frustration of being unable to communicate. For the next six years, she fought tirelessly through therapies and interventions to now be in a general education classroom with special education services.

This brave little girl wakes up every single day and faces struggles that most will never understand. She never gives up and does it all with a smile on her face. As parents, we tend to have a bias toward our own child’s greatness, but I see Jayanna’s spirit as all the best qualities that are missing in today’s world. Her perseverance, empathy, and gentle spirit are all things that make her exceptional.

Since she started school in St. Paul at the age of 4, Jayanna has been celebrated as a positive member of her classroom and school community. Inclusion in the general education classroom hasn’t always been easy, but at those difficult times is when as a team we addressed issues with added support for Jayanna that would mean more one-on-one time with a paraprofessional or accommodations. Adding these extra supports not only allowed her to be in a classroom with her peers, but provided her the confidence needed to be successful academically.

Despite my daughter’s proven success in inclusive environments with supports, her general education busing was replaced with special ed busing once we moved to a new district. Even though she has ridden a general ed bus with the assistance of a bus aide since she was 4, she is being denied the ability to do so in her new school.

My sweet child who only five years ago could not verbalize her feelings tells me daily how much she wants to be with her peers. One would think that proven success, a child’s request, and a mandate called least restrictive environment would be enough. Well, sadly, it is not.

In the decades since society has moved away from institutionalizing and segregating people with disabilities, there has been a new focus on person-centered planning. The idea is that people with disabilities are individuals with unique needs and abilities. The school district’s desire to provide the support most convenient to the adults in the system, and not our kids, does not promote the equality that our country takes pride in.

I am by no means saying special ed busing should be abolished. For some students, it works well and they enjoy the smaller group of students riding with them. Once again, each student is an individual.

As adults, we need to focus on meeting each child where they are at. If we expect that at some time in the future they will be adults living and working in our community, why not give them tools to grow?"

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Why Aren’t More Students with Disabilities Graduating On Time?

From The Hechinger Report
via DisabilityScoop

By Sarah Butrymowicz and Jackie Mader
The Hechinger Report

November 15, 2017

As a teenager, Michael McLaughlin wanted to go to college. He had several disabilities, including dyslexia and bipolar disorder, which threatened to make the road ahead more difficult. He sometimes had trouble paying attention in class and understanding directions.

He also had an IQ of 115 — on the upper ranges of what is considered average. With help, he should have been able to graduate alongside his classmates, ready to pursue higher education.

But instead of graduating from Bartlett High School in Anchorage, Alaska, in four years, he took six. After high school, he did odd jobs for several years.

“Our son’s education was a waste,” Michelle McLaughlin, his mother, said. “We could get no one to listen or do what was needed.”

Experts say that almost all students with disabilities are capable of
graduating high school fully prepared to tackle college or a career,
yet just 65 percent of them graduate on time. (Thinkstock)

There are 6.6 million public school children enrolled in special education in the United States, 13 percent of all public school students. Kids like Michael make up the vast majority of them. Their disabilities shouldn’t keep them from achieving the same standards as their peers — and experts estimate that up to 90 percent of students with disabilities are capable of graduating high school fully prepared to tackle college or a career if they receive proper support along the way.

Yet, just 65 percent of students in special education graduate on time, well below the 83 percent four-year rate for American students overall. Many of those that do earn their diplomas find themselves unprepared for the real world. After high school, students with disabilities have lower college graduation rates than their peers and earn less once they join the workforce.

“For many children with disabilities, they’re capable of far more than their schools give them credit for,” said Kitty Cone, a special education lawyer who works in Arkansas. Their education “falls far short of what federal law requires or even what common sense dictates.”

In interviews with 45 parents and students and more than 50 other experts, advocates and lawyers across 34 states and the District of Columbia, families and advocates described systemic problems with special education in high school.

They spoke of teachers inadequately trained to support students in special education. Of districts lacking the funding to provide needed supports. Of expectations lowered to the point where they do students more harm than good. Of very capable students being pushed into “alternate” diploma programs, limiting their future options. Of students not being taught the soft skills, like communication and organization, that they’ll need in college and the workforce. And of parents who either don’t know what their children’s rights are or feel forced to fight long battles to make schools comply with the law.

Special education is a broad umbrella. It includes students with specific learning disabilities (such as dyslexia and dysgraphia), hearing and vision impairments, emotional disabilities, autism and more severe cognitive delays. Students’ needs vary greatly by disability, and even two students with the same disability may need different supports to keep up with their peers.

In some cases, that means being given more time on tests or being offered the option of using technology for written assignments; in other cases it means having an aide in the classroom working with them individually.

Experts and parents widely agree that most students with disabilities do best academically and socially when they are in the same classrooms as their typically-developing peers, and when they are given the same opportunities to plan out their postsecondary lives. Even students with cognitive delays may be able to attend modified post-secondary programs if given adequate preparation and encouragement in school.

But too often, schools aren’t providing students with the appropriate help.

Janae Cantu has dyslexia and thus struggles with reading. Her disability doesn’t mean she can’t analyze and discuss a text; she can be taught strategies to help her decode words more easily. But, instead of getting that kind of instruction or preparing for college-level work with her peers, she left her general education classes in Oklahoma for one period every day in ninth grade to go to a special education class where students did activities like making cars out of cereal boxes and racing them.

Mark Nelson also has dyslexia, along with dysgraphia, which means he has trouble writing. Rather than being challenged, he was allowed to use a teacher-made study guide while taking exams at his California high school. He said he never had to study or actually learn anything to get an A. One time, a teacher gave his special education world history class all of the answers to their final exam.

Tyrone Colson is on the autism spectrum. His high school placed him on a track to get an alternative diploma, which would have made it impossible for him to enroll in most colleges or apply for most jobs. His mother fought the decision, and he graduated from his Washington, D.C., high school with a traditional diploma, proving that his disability didn’t prevent him from meeting the same standards as his peers.

Sean Sieleni, who has Down syndrome, was exclusively enrolled in general education classes for 11th grade, where he successfully studied with his peers, completed homework and took modified exams. Yet a teacher suggested that Sean should stop taking academic classes and have a “fun” senior year. Instead, his mom worked with the school district administrators to expand their expectations for Sean, and he re-enrolled in general education classes for 12th grade.

Kenyatta Burns, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder, was able to grasp grade-level material — she just needed a bit more help staying focused and completing long assignments. Instead, she was passed from class to class at her high school in North Carolina. When she dropped out at the end of ninth grade, she didn’t know how to use punctuation or do multiplication.

Such negative experiences can have lasting consequences.

Parent and special education advocate Sri Hatharasinghe-Gerschler recalls teachers telling her she’d never go to college when she was in middle school in the mid-1990s. Hatharasinghe-Gerschler had been diagnosed with a reading comprehension disability in elementary school. She said she never got the help she needed or was taught strategies to work on comprehension. Instead, her high school placed her in remedial courses for math and English, where she just fell further behind. Her parents hired a tutor to help her.

After she graduated from high school, she enrolled in a junior college to study child development while working full time. Two years later, she transferred to the University of California, San Diego.

Post-graduation, Hatharasinghe-Gerschler provided in-home behavioral services for students with disabilities and now helps parents and students navigate the special education system. At age 34, despite her ultimate success, she said her understanding of grammar and writing remains so poor that she still feels angry about her experiences in the classroom. The system, she said, “failed me.”

For years, many parents and students said, the system has denied their legal rights. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which passed in 1975, all students in special education are entitled to a “free and appropriate education” that will allow them to reach their fullest potential. Technically, the U.S. Department of Education is responsible for monitoring state compliance with IDEA.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos raised eyebrows in January during her confirmation hearing when she said that requiring taxpayer-funded schools to follow IDEA was “a matter best left to the states.” When pressed later on in the hearing if she was aware that IDEA is federal law, she said she “may have confused it.”

Not long after, the Department of Education overhauled the IDEA website. In a July speech, DeVos reaffirmed that she believed special education was important. “Ensuring that all children with disabilities have appropriately ambitious goals and the chance to meet challenging objectives is a priority for the department,” DeVos said.

Since then, the department has eliminated 72 guidance documents that dealt with the rights of students in special education. At least two dealt directly with the transition from high school to college or career. The department said the documents were “outdated, unnecessary or ineffective.”

The department did not respond to a request for comment on the rescinded transition guidelines or the administration’s plans for IDEA oversight.

At a local level, courts and state education departments often play an important role in making sure special education law is followed. They have found districts guilty of many violations of the federal law, including isolating children with special needs from their peers and, in the case of one South Carolina district, shortening the school day for students in special education.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a student with autism whose parents accused a Colorado school district of not doing enough to help their son meet his educational goals. The court ruled that students with disabilities must be provided an “appropriately ambitious” education. “A student offered an education program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts in a unanimous ruling.

That ruling “reinforced that you can’t educate children based on stereotypes,” said U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., who sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. She has a son with cerebral palsy and has focused on special education throughout her political career. “We all want our kids, no matter how they learn or what their physical condition is, we want them to be challenged to reach their full potential.”

The quality of special education services can differ vastly from district to district. “We tend to see the same districts over and over again,” Cone, the Arkansas special education lawyer, said. “I still think that they’re lazy in general and they will continue to try to play the odds that they won’t get sued.”

For every reported case in which a school or district is taken to court, experts and lawyers said there are many more in which families never realize they have the right to fight for better conditions for their children.

“Once they’re given this diagnosis, (schools) can use it and say, ‘Oh your kid has autism so they can’t be in a mainstream class,'” advocate Hatharasinghe-Gerschler said. “Parents that don’t know any better fall into this trap and say, ‘Fine.'”

Parents who do know better often don’t want to deal with the hassle of months or years of court battles, or may not have the time or resources to do so. Many parents said that advocating for their children’s rights can feel like a full-time job.

Even when students get the services to which they’re entitled, some parents said, schools and teachers don’t grasp how individual disabilities affect different children differently or have reasonable expectations for what their children should be able to do.

Oftentimes, parents find themselves not only advocating, but problem-solving as well. Back in Anchorage in the early 2000s, Michelle McLaughlin started doing research on her own to determine why her son, Michael, was falling further behind in elementary school.

Every student in special education is assigned an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which describes the student’s current ability level, sets goals and details any accommodations they will need for classes and exams. Schools are supposed to revise the IEP document annually in partnership with the student’s parents and conduct a barrage of assessments to re-evaluate the child’s disability classification every three years.

Over the course of Michael’s education career, he received some help, such as a class with other students with mood disorders in which he worked on communicating and controlling his behavior. Michael’s IEP allowed him to work in small groups, have extended time on assessments and use a computer for written assignments. But he still struggled. McLaughlin said that at one point school officials delayed updating his IEP for several months.

Her research turned up strategies, like using sheet protectors to outline the page, which helped him focus, and trying to decode words from the beginning instead of from the middle — strategies she said his teachers were unaware of. With these strategies in place, McLaughlin said, Michael was able to focus and comprehend more when reading.

Margie Gillis, president of Literacy How, a Connecticut-based group that trains teachers and administrators in literacy instruction, said that what Michael and students like him really need is “explicit and systematic instruction in the structure of language.” Unfortunately, she added, teachers often don’t know how to address this — a problem that stems from teaching preparation programs.

Special education is a matter of neuroscience: the brains of students with disabilities work differently than those of students in general education. Many students and adults with disabilities interviewed explained how they process information in a particular way. Experts say that teachers need to learn the physiological differences in order to effectively teach their students. A lack of understanding often results in an assumption that students can’t handle academic material.

Yet general education teachers rarely have much training in special education. Few teacher education programs require more than one class on students with disabilities. Meanwhile, special education teachers have to balance completing extensive federal paperwork with planning lessons and teaching classes. And they aren’t always taught everything they need to know to handle the full range of disabilities they face in the classroom, or even, Gillis said, how to teach reading to children with different neurological obstacles.

Carole Banks, a special education teacher at a charter school in California, said that the only reason she felt prepared during her first year of teaching was because she’d worked as an assistant special education teacher for five years prior to going to school for her teaching degree.

“My program, they tried, but if I hadn’t had experience, I would have just been feeling like I was thrown in the middle of an ocean with no life raft,” she said.

Banks works in a resource lab for students in special education who are mainstreamed in general education classes; they come to see her for one period each day. She said she holds her students to the same standards as their general education peers. But she’s had to do research on her own to find strategies for how to help them cope with their disabilities. And the schools she’s worked for have not had the funding to send her to an expensive training session for a reading program she believes would be extremely helpful.

“In every setting I’ve worked in, special ed has been the red-headed stepchild,” Banks said. “I wish that special education services were more respected and people knew how much special education teachers do.”

Many parents interviewed expressed frustration that special education teachers aren’t better supported and said that the root of the problem is not individual teachers in the classroom but administrators’ lack of understanding and districts’ lack of incentive: special education services are usually expensive to provide.

Under IDEA, the federal government is supposed to fund 40 percent of the “excess cost” of educating children with disabilities — meaning the money above and beyond what’s needed for a general education student. The government has never reached that target, forcing school districts to make up the difference — when they can afford it.

In fiscal year 2015, the federal government gave states about $12 billion, or 16 percent of the excess costs, according to a report by the New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy institute. To reach the 40 percent target would require roughly $18 billion more, the report said.

Senator Hassan said she plans to push for full funding during the next budget process.

“Nobody likes to be the family or the child whose special education needs create budget cuts in other parts of the school budget,” she said. “We know how important it is to make sure that investments in education don’t fall just on local and state taxpayers.”

When Michael McLaughlin was in sixth grade, his mother gave up on the public schools and began to homeschool him. But by tenth grade, she worried that he was missing out on the opportunity to communicate and work with his peers, an important skill his autism diagnosis made even more critical. Michael returned for half days. His special education teachers worked with him on the goals that they’d laid out in his IEP.

“A lot of it was socialization,” McLaughlin said about her decision to send him back to school. “Another part of it was … I didn’t feel like he was getting enough with homeschooling with me. We were just concerned with what his education was going to be.”

McLaughlin worried that he wouldn’t be prepared for college. He enrolled full time in 11th grade. At first, the district wanted to put Michael on a track to earn a certificate of attendance. Unlike a GED, a certificate is not equivalent to a high school diploma and is not accepted by most colleges and employers. Certificates of attendance are designed for students with severe cognitive limitations who cannot meet high school academic standards.

Experts say there is little accountability to make sure districts aren’t limiting students like Michael — who, with special education supports, can handle a rigorous high school curriculum — to those alternate certificates.

McLaughlin said that the school also wanted him to transition into a life skills program. Life skills programs are designed for students with ability levels and IQs far below Michael’s. He would have learned independent living skills, like doing laundry and grocery shopping.

“That just made absolutely no sense to us,” McLaughlin said.

Michael’s family insisted that he earn a regular diploma, even if it took him a little longer than other students. He ended up repeating a year of high school to earn more credits. (Under IDEA, special education students are allowed to stay in public schools up to the age of 21.) He graduated in 2013.

Bartlett High School principal Sean Prince said he can’t speak to the details of Michael’s experience because he did not become the school’s principal until 2014, a year after Michael graduated. But he said he feels “helpless” that he couldn’t do something to help Michael.

“I wish we could have helped more,” Prince said. “I hate that (Michael’s) mom still has bad feelings about this. … It really makes me feel bad if she felt we weren’t doing a good job because we try to meet the needs of students every day.”

Now 24, Michael is enrolled in a three-year painting apprenticeship. His dad works as a foreman at a painting company and has hired Michael. He’ll continue to work for his dad when he completes the program.

McLaughlin said Michael likes the program. But she said his experiences at school hurt him in more ways than limiting his future career and education options. “It’s impacted him in every possible way that it can,” McLaughlin said. “The biggest thing my son still struggles with, to this day, is his feeling of self-worth.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Young and Homeless in America

From EdSource

By Carolyn Jones
November 16, 2017

More than 4% of adolescents and 10% of young adults nationwide were living on the street, in cars or shelters, or couch-surfing at some point in the last year, according to a sweeping study by the University of Chicago released Wednesday.

The study, Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America,” was based on random phone surveys of 26,000 young people ages 13 to 25, and represents one of the most accurate, wide-ranging overviews ever conducted of homeless youth, a group whose numbers have long eluded researchers, educators and social workers, advocates said.

“We just haven’t had definitive numbers like this before,” said Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project, a state agency. “It’s fantastic to have this data, but the numbers are staggering. We as a country really have to face the truth about youth homelessness. I hope this report finally spurs us into action.”

Homeless young people are usually counted through their schools, as required by the federal McKinney-Vento Act, or through “point in time” counts, in which case workers count how many people were in shelters or living on the street on a given day.

Both counts are considered low because families might be reluctant to answer school surveys truthfully, or because homeless young people tend to drift in and out of homelessness and might not be counted on a specific day, Hyatt said.

The University of Chicago study, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and private foundations, included young people in cities, suburban and rural areas in every region of the country, and breaks down the data down by race, education level and sexual orientation. Young adults were defined as those 18 to 25 years old and adolescents were those 13 to 17. The study did not break down its findings by state.

Among its findings:

  • Rural homelessness was nearly equal to urban homelessness.
  • LGBT youth were 120 percent more likely to become homeless than their straight peers.
  • African-American youth were 83 percent more likely to become homeless than other groups.

Among those homeless youth who were 18 to 25 years old, the primary reasons they were homeless were high housing costs, low wages and large student debt, according to Matthew Morton, a research fellow at University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall policy research center who oversaw the study.

“This really is a call for urgency and alarm,” he said. “It shows we need to look at this with a wider lens than we have been. Clearly, affordable housing is vital, but it’s not the only factor.”

Young people without a high school diploma or general equivalency degree were 346 percent more likely to become homeless than their peers, underscoring the important role that schools play in preventing homelessness, Morton said.

“Teachers, coaches, school staff, every adult in a school can look for the signs of homelessness among students,” and ensure those students get assistance and stay in school, he said.

The study recommends that Congress invest more in safety-net programs, such as child welfare, education and counseling, and promote more affordable housing. Better cooperation between schools, the juvenile justice system, public health agencies and other groups that deal with low-income families would also help, he said.

Sherilyn Adams, director of Larkin Street Youth Services, a homeless youth shelter in San Francisco, said the University of Chicago study provides an accurate depiction of a group that’s often invisible. Young homeless people often don’t appear obviously homeless, and therefore can be difficult to identify and help.

“What’s significant about this study is that it gives us long-needed data about the prevalence of youth homelessness. And the numbers are huge — they’re wholly unacceptable,” she said. “This tells us there is a daunting need that we all need to take seriously. If you know a kid who’s sleeping on someone’s couch, you should get involved.”

More affordable housing, job training, education and shelter space would help provide long-term solutions, she said.

In California, just over 3 percent of the K-12 public school population was homeless last year, according to data submitted by schools to the State Department of Education. Those numbers include students who were living in cars, motels, shelters, on the street or with their families “doubled up” with other families.

The University of Chicago study did not ask respondents specifically if they were living “doubled up” — some of those families would have said they were couch-surfing, or living under a roof but in a highly unstable situation, while others would not, meaning that the study data is not precisely comparable to California’s data, Morton said.

High housing costs and low wages in some parts of the state have left California with a child poverty rate of 23 percent, according to a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California. The group found that the highest rates of child poverty are clustered in the San Joaquin Valley, Los Angeles and the Central Coast. Schools in those areas also reported some of the highest rates of student homelessness.

College students are also affected by the high cost of living. A study released by California State University found that 10 percent of its 460,000 students are homeless.

“We know what needs to be done. We all need to advocate louder for housing,” said Hyatt at the California Homeless Youth Project. “People need to talk to their elected leaders at the local, state and federal levels about creating a safe and stable housing supply.”

Monday, November 20, 2017

IDEA and the IEP Process

By Eve Kessler, Esq.
November 13, 2017

At a Glance
  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is federal legislation that guarantees the rights of children with learning and other disabilities to a free and appropriate public education.
  • Several provisions in the IDEA pertain specifically to the IEP process.

For students with LD and ADHD, the Individual Educational Program (IEP) serves as the vehicle to ensure participation in the general education curriculum, a right established by federal law in the IDEA.

Following are 6 key provisions of IDEA to keep in mind as you undertake the IEP planning process.

1.) Measuring ProgressThe IDEA requires that an IEP contain a statement of measurable annual goals, which includes functional goals, as well as academic goals. The school must provide a description of how it will measure progress toward meeting the annual goals and when it will provide progress reports to parents.

2.) Research-Based ServicesThe legislation specifies that services be based on peer-reviewed research. Encouraging implementation of time-tested, research-based programs discourages schools from using their own combinations of various programs.

3.) Team Meeting ParticipationTeam members are not required to attend meetings if their area of the curriculum or related services is not being modified or discussed. In such a case, both the district and parents must agree that the member’s attendance is not necessary.

If a team member’s area is being modified or discussed, that member may be excused if the district and parents consent, and the member submits written input to the team prior to the meeting. Under both circumstances, parental consent or agreement must be in writing.

Parents should not feel pressured to consent to a team member’s absence. The purpose of an IEP meeting is to address the whole child. Fruitful discussions require the expertise of all team members.

4.) Making IEP ChangesThe parents and school may agree not to convene an actual IEP meeting to make changes. Instead, they may make changes through written documentation that amends the current IEP. In addition, if the parents and school agree, they may use alternative means of meeting, such as video or phone conferences.

5.) TransitionsThe IDEA mandates that transition statements, which include courses of study needed to assist the child in reaching measurable post-secondary goals, must be incorporated beginning no later than the first IEP to be in effect when the child is 16 years old.

6.) Transfer StudentsFor children transferring between school districts in the same state, within the same academic year, the IDEA requires the new school to provide services consistent with the previous school’s IEP until it adopts the IEP or develops a new one.

For children transferring between states, the new school must provide consistent services until it conducts its own evaluation, if necessary, and develops a new IEP. The new school must take reasonable steps to obtain and transfer a child’s records promptly; the old school must take reasonable steps to respond promptly.

Federal law requires that an IEP include the following elements:
  • The child’s present level of academic achievement and functional performance, including how his disability affects his involvement and progress in the general education curriculum.
  • Measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals designed to meet the needs resulting from his disability.
  • A statement of special education, related services and supplementary aids and services, based on peer-reviewed research.


'There Is No Oversight': Private-School Vouchers Can Leave Parents on Their Own

From Education Week

By Arianna Prothero
November 14, 2017

Erica Florea and daughter, Jessica, 14, at home in Jupiter, Florida. The family had
a difficult experience with private school choice. —Josh Ritchie for Education Week

Erica Florea was fed up. The Jupiter, Florida mother had feuded for months with her daughter's middle school over her special education needs. Florea believed Jessica, who has dwarfism and epilepsy, also had autism.

But the school system, Florea said, had missed the diagnosis and was not providing the supports she insisted her daughter needed. So, before school resumed in the fall of 2015, she took a friend's advice and applied for one of Florida's publicly funded voucher programs to help pay tuition expenses for Jessica to attend a private school.

With a taxpayer-funded McKay Scholarship worth nearly $6,000, Florea pulled Jessica out of a public school system that faces some of the most stringent accountability in the country and entered into a largely unregulated private school sector with wide latitude over who it admits, who it kicks out, and few requirements for informing the public on how it serves students who are attending its schools with the help of taxpayer funds.

This, despite the fact that the state's private schools collected nearly $832 million last year for tuition expenses, paid for by public money and tax-credits for businesses.

In the Florea family's two-year odyssey through Florida's private school choice programs that has followed, the first school Jessica attended closed down. Another refused to enroll her because she was too far behind academically. And a third school expelled her midyear in a dispute over bullying.

Florida's Voucher Program: A Data Snapshot and List of Participating Schools

"The private schools get to do whatever they want, but they're taking the state's money," said Florea.

A Sound Investment?

Nowhere has private school choice been embraced as much as in Florida, a state that has led the charge in rewriting the rules of traditional education in recent years. With 140,000 students using vouchers or tax-credit scholarships, more children attend private schools there with the help of the state's three private school choice programs than in any other state.

States across the country have adopted many of Florida's policies both on school choice and public school accountability. And U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos holds up Florida as a model for the rest of the nation.

Plans from President Donald Trump and DeVos to create a federal private school choice program have hit roadblocks, but there's a strong push to create new voucher programs in some states and expand existing programs in others.

That's raising critical questions over how well vouchers and other similarly-styled policies serve students and whether there are guardrails in place to ensure the public money being sunk into private school choice is a sound investment.

Findings from a string of recent studies in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio border on alarming, showing that students who attend private schools with the help of public money may end up doing worse after they leave their public schools.

But school choice advocates vigorously argue that parental demand for private school choice proves that it's working. Excessive state oversight, they contend, undermines private schools' ability to be flexible. And there's no better system of accountability than the market-style kind that comes from giving parents the freedom to choose schools.

“What Are School Vouchers and How Do They Work?”

Critics counter that a lack of state oversight puts voucher students—many from poor families or with disabilities—at serious risk of falling even further behind.

Florida's first foray into private school choice started in 1999, and its oldest, continuously operating program is the McKay Scholarship, which provides tuition vouchers of up to $7,000 to students with qualifying disabilities.

When families use a voucher to enroll in private school, they give up, knowingly or not, most of the protections that federal law requires for special education students. If a private school decides not to admit a student, or to ask a student to leave, there's little legal recourse for parents to challenge those decisions.

"Parents apply to a private school, they say, 'Yes, we will take your child,' and the parent un-enrolls from the district and is basically out on their own," said Michelle R. Davis, a special education expert and consultant based in Florida. "There is no oversight."

It's a tradeoff parents in Florida and other states have made in pursuit of a better education for their children, including Erica Florea.

One Family's Odyssey

Jessica, 14, looks like a child who has grown up on the beach. She has wavy, sun-streaked hair and a broad smile. She also has deep scars on her ankles, knees and thighs from two leg-lengthening surgeries, the second of which put her in a wheelchair for eight months last year.

"She loves life," Florea said of her daughter. "She loves the beach. There's nothing she won't try."

But school has not come easy.

Getting the McKay Scholarship, Florea said, gave the family new hope for Jessica, who first enrolled at Jupiter Academy, a private school near their home. But halfway into her first year, Jupiter Academy announced it would close. The next school, Jupiter Christian School, took McKay recipients, but did not admit Jessica. She tested behind grade level and the school couldn't meet her needs, officials told Florea.

So, for the third time in less than year, the family began a search for a new school. They landed at Providence Education Group, a small school on the second floor of a shopping center above a sandwich shop. Providence's assessment of Jessica's skills found she was reading at a 4th grade level and doing math at a 3rd grade level.

At Providence's suggestion, Jessica switched for the 2016-17 school year to Florida's newest private school choice program—the Gardiner Scholarship, which gives students with more severe disabilities roughly $10,000 a year and more flexibility over how they spend the money. Initially, Florea was pleased with Jessica's progress. But her optimism evaporated when, she said, students began making fun of Jessica's small stature.

Things went downhill as Florea complained about the bullying and accused the Providence staff of ignoring the problem. She took matters into her own hands, confronting one of the students she believed was harassing her daughter. (Officials at Providence Education did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

In late spring, Providence officials told Florea that Jessica was no longer welcome. Its director emailed some readings and assignments for Jessica to complete, and told Florea her daughter would have to finish the school year at home.

"I said fine, that's probably best, but you need to provide a teacher," to support Jessica's home study, Florea said. "I never heard back. I sent email after email. Text after text."

In May, she emailed a complaint to Step Up for Students, the nonprofit group that administers the Gardiner scholarships on behalf of the state, but Florea said she never got a response.

Ron Matus, the director of policy and public affairs for Step Up for Students, told Education Week that the group had forwarded Florea's complaint to the state because "investigating those kinds of allegations is outside our charge as a scholarship funding organization."

In July, Florea sent her own complaint to the state department, which responded by explaining that private schools are solely responsible for "student regulation, dismissal, and expulsion policies," and therefore, the school had not violated any laws or rules. (State officials didn't respond to Education Week's request for comment by press time.)

State officials also told Florea to consider switching private schools, and that she check schools' accreditation status before enrolling Jessica. The state then said it would forward Florea's complaint to Step Up for Students.

Few Regulations

Despite a bulging roster of Florida students attending private schools with the state's help, there's scant data and information available to show how they do.

That laissez-faire approach to regulating the private schools stands in stark contrast to the state's unsparing rules for public schools.

Private schools receiving state aid don't have to track or tell the state how many students graduate from their schools, nor how many are bullied, expelled, or drop out—some of the most basic measures of student success.

Private schools do not receive letter grades based on how well students perform on state standardized tests as their public school peers do, and they are not required to be accredited by an independent agency.

A recent Orlando Sentinel investigation found several instances of private schools fudging health and safety records, and hiring staff with criminal backgrounds. The state was often slow to catch the misdeeds and respond, the newspaper reported.

Officials in Florida's education department declined to provide an agency official who could answer Education Week's questions about the lack of regulations for the state's private-school choice programs. Instead, they cited four state statutes outlining that private schools participating in a scholarship program must:
  • Meet requirements regarding Florida antidiscrimination rules, fire and building safety, and screening staff for criminal backgrounds;
  • Hire teachers with a bachelors’ degree, unless they have three years of teaching experience or an “expertise that qualifies them to provide instruction in subjects taught”;
  • Prove that they are fiscally sound by getting a letter of credit from a bank, unless they have been open for three years, in which case they are not required provide proof of fiscal soundness.

Florida statute explicitly states that the state does not “regulate, control, approve or accredit” private schools.

No Accreditation Required

The vast majority of Florida's private schools are not accredited.

Absent a stamp of approval from the state, accreditation—a multiyear process carried out by agencies that conduct independent evaluations of schools—provides a way for private schools to prove that they meet certain fiscal, curricular, and, in some cases, religious standards.

Of 2,124 private schools participating in the state's private school choice programs, only 629—fewer than 30 percent—are accredited, according to an Education Week analysis of state data.

States use accreditation to help regulate private schools that receive public funding, and nearly half of private school choice programs nationally require participants to be accredited, according to the American Federation for Children.

But for many schools, said Robyn Rennick, the president of a group that advocates for private schools participating in the McKay program, going through accreditation is impractical and burdensome, especially for smaller schools.

And as many proponents of private school choice and experts on accreditation point out, there's a wide range in quality among accreditation groups and most public schools are not required to be accredited.

While Florida's public school accountability system is viewed as among the toughest, its hands-off approach to private-school choice programs is not contradictory, said Patricia Levesque, the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and Jeb Bush's deputy chief of staff for education while he was Florida's governor. The main source of oversight and accountability in private schools are parents who regulate them with the choices they make, she said.

"The goals of choice are not to turn private schools into public schools," said Levesque, whose organization was working in more than 20 states last year alone to pass bills related to private school choice.

In many ways, Florida is in the middle of the regulatory pack compared to other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Indiana and Louisiana have stricter rules for private schools taking vouchers. Like its public schools, Indiana gives grades to private schools receiving taxpayer money based on test scores. Schools that perform poorly get booted from the voucher program.

Louisiana also requires private schools in its voucher program to take the state test, and it doesn't allow them to pick which students they admit.

Levesque points to the nationally norm-referenced tests students are required to take in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program that shows low-income students in the program score about average when compared to their peers of all income levels, nationally.

And, a new study from the Urban Institute found that students participating in the tax-credit scholarship program enrolled in college at higher rates than their peers in traditional public schools.

Those studies are proof that Florida's private school choice programs are working, said Levesque. That, and the swelling demand for scholarships.

'Precious Little Evidence'

Indeed, there are many stories of families who have been happy with their voucher experience. Ebony Smith of Tampa says the state's tax-credit scholarships—the largest of Florida's private school choice programs—has been pivotal for her family. She used the scholarships—meant for low-income families and funded by corporations that get generous tax credits in exchange for their donations—to send her three daughters to private school.

"We did not live in an area where the public schools were good," said Smith, a single parent and third-generation teenage mother. Her oldest daughter recently graduated from Bard College. Her other two daughters currently attend college in Florida. "We broke the cycle of teen parenthood in my family, and hopefully, we'll break the cycle of poverty," Smith said.

But new research on vouchers in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio is complicating an already complex debate over private school choice. More regulation and oversight doesn't necessarily guarantee students will do better in private schools, nor do low test scores dampen parental demand.

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"If anything, it looks like that ... kids might do worse," said David Figlio, the dean of the Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy, whose study of Ohio vouchers for low-income children in low-performing schools found they performed significantly worse on state tests than peers who were eligible for vouchers but stayed in public schools.

"There are possible explanations: they're getting a worse education ... they're getting a different form of education—and I don't think we really know the truth," he said. "But I think there's precious little evidence so far that these kids do better academically."

Erica Florea, Jessica's mom, has all the evidence she needs to persuade her that private school choice isn't working. Jessica is now back in public school where, Florea says, she is thriving with the support she requires.

"So, three years later, after all this drama, she was properly diagnosed and has the proper resources," Florea said.

Data Specialist/Staff Writer Francisco Vara-Orta and Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this report. 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 Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

What Every Parent Needs to Understand About Teens’ Mental Health

From HuffPost "Healthy Living"

By Lindsay Holmes
November 17, 2017

Data shows young people are struggling more than ever.

A new report is painting a bleak picture when it comes to teens’ mental health, as well as their access to professional support for those issues.

Data published by the nonprofit Mental Health America shows that rates of severe youth depression have increased from 5.9 percent to 8.2 percent over a five-year period. Half of those screened between the ages of 11 and 17 reported having thoughts of suicide or self-harm throughout the course of a week.

South Dakota was the state that ranked the “best” in terms of good youth mental health. (The data measured access to treatment as well as prevalence of mental health conditions.) Nevada was ranked as the “worst” state.

Researchers collected public mental health data from each state between 2010 and 2015 (the most recent years of available information) to examine the state of mental health across the country. While they found some dizzying statistics about how adults are faring ― for example, 57 percent of people with a mental disorder did not receive proper treatment over the study period ― researchers were most alarmed by the findings surrounding youth mental health.

“I feel like it’s only something people have started to talk about in the last couple of years, if that,” Theresa Nguyen, vice president of policy and programs at Mental Health America, told HuffPost. “We’re starting to see data come out that shows not only are youth struggling significantly, but the numbers indicate ― like in our current report ― that the trend is getting worse.”

The overall findings from the 2018 State of Mental Health Report published by Mental Health America.

How Access to Treatment is Failing Young People

Although access to services and insurance increased overall from last year’s report, researchers say there’s still not enough people receiving the care they need. This is especially true for teens: More than 76 percent of young people studied who had a major depressive episode ― which equated to approximately 1.7 million kids ― did not receive proper treatment for the issue.

Mental health treatment, whether it be therapy, medication or both, is the most effective way to manage a mental illness. Experts say that in extreme cases, treatment can also mean the difference between life and death.

“I wish I could say the mental health of our children is improving. Our report shows the opposite,” Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, said in a statement. “Far too many young people are suffering ― often in silence. They are not receiving the treatment they need to live healthy and productive lives ― and too many simply don’t see a way out.”

What Needs to Be Done

Experts say parents play a pivotal role in changing the conversation when it comes to their kids’ psychological well-being. Here are a few ways to spot if your kid is dealing with a mental health issue and how to realistically help them through it:

Look out for striking changes in behavior. Nguyen says that drastic changes in mood ― especially in a month or a shorter period of time ― could be a sign that something bigger is at play. This can include withdrawing from social activities kids once loved, or displaying anger or sadness more than usual. Teens who might be engaging in self-harm may wear longer sleeves, even in warm weather, Nguyen added.

“That’s a huge red flag,” she said. “It’s kind of hard because these things correlate with puberty and sometimes adults are like, ‘Oh, my kid is just going through those shifts.’ It gets hard for parents because this period of time is so muddy.”

Talk about anything you notice. Make your home an environment where teens feel comfortable approaching you about mental health issues, Nguyen said.

“Talking to your kid is really important,” she explained. “They’re really good at hiding problems ... it’s really good for young kids, especially around puberty, to start having that conversation as you would with sex education.”

Let them know about any family history of mental health issues. If you or a member of your family has experienced a mental illness, Nguyen says it’s vital that you bring it up with your kids. The more informed they are about their family history, the more likely young adults are to open up if they’re having issues of their own.

“As scary as it is, talking to kids about your own experience is a huge thing a parent can do,” Nguyen said. “Lead by example. Teenagers know a lot more than people give them credit for.”

Remind your child that mental health issues are nothing to feel shame over. Bottom line: Mental illness deserves just as much attention and care as physical illness. Negative stereotypes surrounding mental health disorders only do more harm.

“It might help to think about [a] health perspective,” Nguyen said. “We wouldn’t be afraid to talk and hear about cancer or diabetes. Why are we afraid to share about mental illness?”