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Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Missing Autistic Girls

From Edutopia

By Carly Berwick
September 11, 2017

In the past two decades, autism diagnoses have soared—but new research shows that girls have frequently been overlooked, leaving them without crucial support.

On a recent hot summer afternoon, eight women sat at a table drawing and crafting at Felicity House, the world’s first community space devoted solely to women with autism. Opened just two years ago, the historic town house in the middle of New York City is a haven for women with a condition that limits their ability to communicate and interact with others.

The women who gather here have spent much of their lives seeking to understand how and why their brains work differently. While making art, learning poker, or attending classes, they’re able to talk to others who share similar experiences—confusing social interactions where they “said the wrong thing” or bosses or coworkers who’ve asked, “What’s wrong with you?”

"I find it easier to meet people here. You don’t have to explain yourself,” said Lauren, a woman in her 20s, that afternoon. “No one’s like, ‘What are you thinking?’” added Emma.

The women turned the conversation to high school, bringing up memories and reflections of living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) during their school years.

“I was a good test taker, but that doesn’t mean my executive functioning was up to par,” remembers Allison, who switched high schools to a “less pressurized one” because she needed to “go at my own pace.”

Many women at Felicity House discovered they had autism when they were older, missing a key intervention window that might have made their experiences at school and home easier. Far from being alone, they’re part of a group sometimes called “the lost generation.”

Autistic women are diagnosed much less frequently—and often at an older age—than boys or men. In the past two decades, as more research on ASD has been conducted, diagnoses among children have soared. Between 2000 and 2012, the percentage of kids diagnosed with autism more than doubled, and today, one in every 68 children is diagnosed with the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Yet the large majority of these diagnoses are for boys, who are diagnosed more than four times as often as girls.

That may start changing soon due to a growing body of new research finding that autistic girls are dramatically underrepresented in autism diagnoses—often overlooked or misdiagnosed—due to a mistaken assumption that autism exhibits in the same way in girls and boys.

“We’ve found that while boys and girls with autism are facing similar problems in school and at home, some of their underlying brain functions are different,” said Kevin Pelphrey, a leading autism researcher and director of the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute at George Washington University. “This results in some differences in the symptoms of the autism and suggests the need to tailor treatment approaches by gender.’’

Pelphrey, who encountered these disparities among his own children—two of whom are autistic—is part of a team conducting ongoing research devoted to uncovering what autism looks like in girls and how best to treat it. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the project brings together top autism researchers from around the country to explore different facets of the gender bias in autism, including genetics, brain imaging, and behavioral development—a significant breakthrough for autistic girls and the field of autism research.

In the coming months, Pelphrey and his team will start putting the findings into practice with the launch a new, 10,000-square-foot center for autism diagnosis and therapy at the university.

Dangerous Blind Spots

The researchers have already found biological and social differences in how boys and girls exhibit signs of autism, but the misconceptions around the disorder have been a long time in the making, and undoing them won’t happen overnight.

Popular stereotypes and generalities have played a role, priming parents and teachers to look for telltale signals of autism such as hand flapping and verbal tics, failure to make eye contact, or a laser-like fixation on trucks or dinosaurs.

And researchers, reacting to the apparent prevalence of autism among males, may have unknowingly created a gender bias in the science itself—by conducting their research predominantly on autistic boys and men, and then forming conclusions about the condition that have been applied to girls and women as well.

For autistic girls, whose lives can be changed by early diagnosis, the mutually reinforcing trends in culture and science represent a dangerous blind spot.

The new research is finding that autistic girls may display fewer repetitive behaviors than boys and tend to be more social, verbal, and engaged. Autistic girls are also more likely to be obsessive and have a harder time regulating emotions, leading to diagnoses of other problems like anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) instead of autism.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism by the time they’re 18 to 24 months old, with a diagnosis ideally made by the time a child enters school to maximize a key window for intervention. The consequence of missing that critical opportunity to diagnose girls is an increased risk for serious mental and physical health problems and lifelong struggles in school, work, and personal lives.

Camouflaging the Signs

School provides another window for invention for girls who may have slipped under the radar.

By the time a child starts school, the autism gender differences can be more magnified, says Connie Kasari, a researcher on the NIH study and a professor of psychological studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kasari’s research has focused on how autistic boys and girls interact and socialize in different K–12 school settings, such as the playground.

Girls tend to camouflage their autism symptoms more and engage differently with peers and adults than autistic boys, she says. Sometimes these social interactions make it even harder to pick up on the signs of autism because girls tend to try harder socially and have a greater desire to make friends. Girls will often turn inward when they sense they are not fitting in or understanding social situations, while boys may act out their frustration, becoming upset and signaling an undiagnosed behavioral issue more clearly.

Especially when autistic girls are more verbal or higher functioning, their autism symptoms may also present themselves as other problems like depression, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or anorexia, which are more easily identified and diagnosed, researchers have found.

If you are an adult in the school yard, you may notice boys with autism. They may try to enter a group and if they get rejected, they walk away. Girls tend to be more persistent. They hover. It might seem they are doing OK. But if you look closer, you will see they are not.

That was the case with Allison Hamilton-Rohe’s daughter, whose teachers first suspected she had ADHD, before realizing she was autistic.

Talkative, sociable, and prone to frequent hugging, the girl was diagnosed with autism at the age of 8, after a “very difficult year at school,” says Hamilton-Rohe, noting her trouble concentrating in a seemingly chaotic class and frequent temper tantrums over small changes—particularly at the end of a busy day.

Hamilton-Rohe had asked her daughter’s school to look into an evaluation three years earlier, but dropped it because the school thought it wasn’t necessary. Eventually, her daughter’s inability to process lots of stimuli at once, need for structure and time alone, and one-track mind led to a diagnosis of autism, she says.

Hamilton-Rohe’s family decided to move to Montgomery County, Maryland, in hopes of getting support for the girl within general education classrooms there. The school district has programs for students with autism within general education schools and classrooms, and has opened autism resource centers at both the elementary and secondary levels to address the growing number of autistic students.

Learning to Navigate

As with Hamilton-Rohe’s daughter, the experiences of autistic girls—both their diagnoses and services—often depend on what kind of classroom or school they’re in. A broad CDC-backed study of 11 states, for example, found that the ratio of boys to girls diagnosed with autism depended somewhat on the diagnostic services available within a district or school—schools with strong special education services had more comprehensive evaluations and earlier diagnoses for students.

When I tell people she is autistic, they have a hard time because she does look at them, talk to them, and ask questions. They expect autism to show up like it does in Rain Man.

Like many large districts, the 35,000-student Minneapolis Public Schools has both self-contained classrooms and inclusion programs for the nearly 900 students with autism.

While the more than 4-to-1 ratio of boys to girls diagnosed with autism applies in MPS, the district reports differences in how autistic boys and girls interact socially and what they’re interested in, affirming the new research.

One particular gender-specific challenge the district notes is helping older autistic girls—even as early as fourth grade—discuss their changing bodies and navigate interactions with the opposite sex.

It’s important to be as direct as possible, say district special ed teachers, scripting conversations and noting the appropriate time to give hugs. The discussion can take a particular urgency for older girls, who may not be aware when social rules are being broken or manipulated—a prospect particularly frightening for girls who are undiagnosed and could run a greater risk for sexual predation or abuse.

Without support, autistic girls can face a number of challenges and be “isolated and mistreated,” resulting in anxiety and depression, according to Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, an organization run and composed of people with autism.

“By the time a child is in middle school, they know they are different. If they aren’t given a reason, they come to the same conclusion—that something is wrong with them,” said Bascom, who is also on the board at the Felicity House. “The suicide rate for autistic individuals is nine times the general population. This information saves lives.”

Correcting the Imbalance

It may take a decade for the autism research on girls to correct the imbalance in diagnoses. When it does, there could be twice as many diagnoses for girls, and benefits for the entire field, as scientists refine or discard outmoded theories.

In the interim, others are identifying interventions to address the disparities in diagnoses and treatments now, noting that differences in autistic behavior may also warrant different treatments for girls.

Some districts, like the nation’s largest, in New York City, have found that it helps to pair general education teachers with special education teachers in a co-teaching model, where teachers share classroom responsibilities and both receive specialized training in teaching students with autism. Called the ASD Nest Support Project, the program helps ensure that all teachers know how to identify and support children with autism and serves more than 1,200 autistic students in 43 schools in the district.

And Pamela Ventola, a researcher on the NIH study on girls with autism and a professor at Yale University’s Child Study Center, has found that a long-standing behavioral intervention called Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) helps girls in particular.

PRT motivates children with ASD to learn typical behaviors, such as fluid speaking or give-and-take conversations, by having parents and practitioners ask questions such as “Can I play with you?” or “What is that?” to get a child to verbalize or take turns in an everyday play setting with immediate positive feedback. Ventola is now working with Connecticut’s New Haven Public Schools to bring her research to the classroom by helping teachers implement PRT with autistic students.

It’s not too late for adult women with autism either, after they leave the supports of school and home.

Thanks to the growing awareness of the particular experience of women with autism, a handful of female-only autism networks have emerged, among them social outings for teens called “Girls’ Nights Out” at Yale’s Autism Program and at the University of Kansas Medical Center, and Felicity House, whose programming re-creates school-based supports in some ways, but without the fraught experience of being an adolescent.

“When you graduate, it’s like, no more [individualized education program], no more help,” reflected Lauren at Felicity House on an afternoon this summer. “So it’s nice to have a place where people recognize you still might want to do things with others and people appreciate you as a person. It is nice to know you are not forgotten.”

DeVos Says Federal IDEA Mandates 'Piled On,' Don't Match Funding

From Education Week's Blog
"On Special Education"

By Christina Samuels
September 18, 2017

In an exclusive interview with Education Week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said that Congress needs to look at the special education requirements it has placed on states, compared toespecially considering the relatively small percentage of funding that the federal government provides to meet all those requirements. 

Here's an excerpt from the September 15 interview about the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act:

Would you push for full funding of IDEA? That's 40 percent of the excess cost of educating a child with disabilities.

"I think it's a fair question to ask Congress about what the funding levels should be. Right now it's about 15 to 18 percent. And yet, the regulations continue to sort of get piled on here and there. They just continue to sort of make it more and more cumbersome and more and more burdensome for states and for local districts.

There has to be, I think, a regular review of that and look at the balance of that, and see what's really right. But most of all what's really right for the students we're trying to serve and for the families and what kind of empowerment do they have in that decision-making."

So you want might want to call for slimming down regulation, but also upping the funding for IDEA. Do I have that about right?

"I'm not advocating one way or another right now. I'm just saying it's clear that Congress has not funded it at the level they committed to when the law was passed. And I think that is something that should be reviewed on a regular basis."

On this, DeVos finds herself on solid ground: Democratic and Republican politicians agree at least in theory that the federal government should provide more money for special education. But bills to accomplish this just haven't gotten much traction.

Back in 1975 when the special education law was passed, Congress set a path for the federal government to contribute 40 percent of the state average annual per-pupil expenditure. But Congress has never gotten close, and the federal contribution is currently about 15 percent of what Congress said it was going to pay, and what it later amended to be a funding "goal".

If Congress were to take this on—a big if—one question I would like to know is just how much it costs to educate a student with disabilities. The last research-based estimate is that it costs about twice as much as a student in general education. But no one has taken a nationwide look at this question for nearly 20 years.

(Unfortunately, the website for the Center for Special Education Finance/Special Education Expenditure Project, which produced that work, appears to be down, hopefully temporarily.)

A lot can change in two decades, including the demographics of the special education population, the widespread adoption of response to intervention as a framework to provide focused academic support, the push for inclusion, and more.

Once Congress knows just how much is being spent, federal lawmakers can at least work with some real numbers.

You can read the full Q&A with Betsy DeVos here.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Teacher's Struggle with Student Anxiety

From Education Week

By Chris Doyle
September 12, 2017

As anxiety diagnoses soar, do teaching methods need an upgrade?

Anxiety has become the most significant obstacle to learning among my adolescent students. In a teaching career spanning more than 30 years, I have watched as it has usurped attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which itself displaced "dyslexia," as the diagnosis I encounter most often among struggling students.

In contrast to dyslexia or ADHD, for which I have developed effective teaching strategies, anxiety in students leaves me feeling powerless.

As a new school year kicks off, I am left wondering how anxiety has become so prevalent so quickly. What can I do about it? Might my teaching actually contribute to it?

Until recently, I felt confident I could engage, challenge, and succeed with a wide range of learners, both at the high school and college levels.

My history classes are interactive, fast-paced, and student-directed. Discussions, projects, art, trips, speakers, and the occasional rap throw-down make up my method.

My students and I read and make sense of the most challenging authors together—Nietzsche, Foucault, Dostoyevsky. I work closely with learning-support teachers to assist students needing help. Students signaled that they liked my approach: voting for me to receive awards, giving positive evaluations, writing end-of-year thank-you cards.

Things have changed. School "refusal" has surfaced. Last year, half the high school seniors in my global-studies seminar missed a month of class time; 20 percent were out for more than two months, risking loss of credit.

Absenteeism also proved concerning in the two college classes I taught; a few students stopped coming altogether and failed. I had only limited success staunching the exodus of undergraduates by implementing a policy linking unexcused absences to grade reductions. It pained me to do so, but my department chair said almost the entire faculty had done likewise.

Explanations for absenteeism varied. There were the usual suspects: illness, death in the family, sports. But other themes emerged: "I just couldn't face school today." "I had two projects and felt overwhelmed." "I couldn't get out of bed," or "I had a counseling appointment and was in crisis." The best student in my college class offered this surprise: "I've never taken an evening class before, and I forgot we were meeting."

These comments suggest overscheduling, emotional distress, distraction.

It was a rare day when every student turned in work on time—that happened just twice during the spring trimester. My policy is to work with students who may occasionally be too busy to meet a deadline; I ask for 24-hour notice, an email requesting an extension, and a description of extenuating circumstances. Even so, I often found myself tracking down students who failed to turn in their assignments.

"I seek new ways to discuss anxiety with students and parents. I don't want to make things worse, but my gut tells me that sidelining anxious students in the classroom is counterproductive."

When students were called to account, two types of responses stood out: "I couldn't start; my mind went blank," and expressions of apprehension from my 12th graders about college readiness. I interpreted the first as a kind of paralysis. The second is a new phenomenon among the students I teach and suggests powerful ambivalence for life postgraduation.

Other signs emerged. I observed students traveling abroad suffering panic attacks, separation anxiety, insomnia, nervous stomachs, phobias, and similar symptoms. Over the last few years, some students could not complete trips to distant parts of the world and came home early. Overnight retreats or a trip to New York City were problematic; so were theatrical performances involving violence or sex.

Of course, travel and art should push people's comfort zones. Yet, I was struck by both the frequency of symptoms and that this debilitating anxiety was cropping up in seemingly "solid" kids. Enhanced vetting to assess potential overseas travelers' emotional health still proved inadequate. Many of my high school students were just a year away from college. I wondered how they would cope.

It is more difficult to employ my go-to tools—questioning and listening—to engage anxious students. Administrators instructed me not to discuss attendance or missed work with some (or their parents) because they feared raising familial stress. My interactions with families were therefore often mediated, with administrators and counselors serving as go-betweens. I understood the rationale, but things did not necessarily improve. Students failed. Grades declined generally.

Research confirms a rising trend. National Institute of Mental Health data show that 38 percent of 13- through 17-year-old girls and 26 percent of boys the same age have an anxiety disorder, according to a New York Times report. Those statistics contrast with studies from just a decade ago, when an estimated 3 percent to 5 percent of teenagers manifested anxiety disorders.

Positively, the authors of Primer on Anxiety Disorders, a 2015 book that compiles writings from leading researchers in the field of anxiety disorders, suggests that "Big Science" and "Big Data" are having revolutionary effects in addressing this national crisis. Advances in brain science and decoding the human genome make it easier to diagnose and treat anxiety. Better detection signals progress and is a precursor to relief.

However, other scholars point out that illness always derives from historical and societal factors. Histories of anxiety describe its uptick as the Cold War fueled fears of nuclear annihilation and pharmaceutical companies invented and marketed "tranquilizers."

Anxiety diagnoses are thus symptomatic of a cultural matrix that is a hothouse for producing more anxiety.

Psychologist Stephen Hinshaw has described anxiety in teenage girls as stemming from an existential crisis: a reaction to a culture that makes impossible demands and offers little meaning beyond achievement. Hinshaw suggests beating teenage anxiety necessitates a sweeping reordering of families, schools, and the cultural packaging of adolescence.

My students' words and behavior support this view. Thus, I intend to do more to show them how developing their intellectual lives can bring existential meaning. I am also rethinking how I challenge my students. Maybe my classroom, with its variety and speed, should feel slower. Our culture prioritizes "rigor," but what if the cost is paralysis, massive attrition, or—my worst fear—violence or suicide? Such outcomes are unacceptable.

I seek new ways to discuss anxiety with students and parents. I don't want to make things worse, but my gut tells me that sidelining anxious students in the classroom is counterproductive.

I'm also coming to terms with my limits. Socioeconomics, genetics, ethnicity, personality, gender, social media, and family may each play more important roles than school in determining adolescent anxiety, studies show. Teachers cannot shoulder all the burden, or blame, for anxious students. This epidemic demands societal responses.

Chris Doyle begins a new job this fall teaching history at Avon Old Farms School, a boarding high school in Connecticut. He writes about history and education.

As States Seek to Reduce Suspensions, Schools Look for Ways to Handle Discipline

From EducationDIVE

By Linda Jacobson
August 28, 2017

Administrators aim for balance between addressing racial disparities while still supporting teachers.

The year before Sonia Stewart became principal at Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School in Nashville, 88 students were arrested, often escorted off campus in handcuffs. But Stewart, who came to Nashville after working at one of Chicago’s community schools, had different beliefs about how to respond to behavior infractions.

“I came in immediately and said, ‘We are not kicking kids out of school,’” she says.

She trained the staff at the high-poverty, mostly African-American school on culturally responsive and trauma-informed practices and replaced some teachers with those who would adopt the core values of being “clear, consistent, positive and firm” in how they interact with students.

Teachers began to adopt classroom routines such as CHAMPS, which stands for conversation, help, activity, movement, participation and success. At each transition from one part of the class period to the next, students are reminded of the appropriate behavior.

“You can’t hold kids to expectations that you didn’t tell them about,” Stewart says.

Teachers each have a “bounce buddy,” meaning another teacher on staff where they can send a student who has repeatedly been disruptive. Sometimes just 10 minutes in another classroom is enough to correct the behavior. The school also has a resiliency center for students who need more than just a “bounce.”

Since 2012, the overall number of infractions has declined from 3,451 to 1,837, and suspensions have dropped from 1,121 to 253.

At the time, Stewart wasn’t under a district or state mandate to reduce out-of-school suspensions, but Tennessee will soon begin to track and rate schools on such data as part of its plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which now requires states to include a nonacademic or school climate indicator as part of its accountability system.

Many administrators, however, are already being required to implement alternatives to out-of-school suspensions as states and districts seek to reduce the racial disparities in school discipline — what is often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

In Texas, under a law passed this year, schools can no longer suspend students in pre-k through the second grade unless the cases involve drugs, weapons or extreme violence. California lawmakers are considering a measure that would extend the ban on out-of-school suspensions for disruption and willful defiance from third grade through fifth grade and add grades six through 12 to the ban on a pilot basis through 2023.

And in West Virginia, the state Department of Education is also considering a policy that would make out-of-school suspensions, for anything other than the most severe offenses, count against a school’s attendance rates as part of its ESSA plan. The policy is meant to encourage districts to use alternative discipline approaches.

Getting Students ‘to Do the Heavy Lifting’

Efforts to find alternative consequences have increased in recent years in an effort to reduce the racial gaps that exist in school discipline practices. Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released data showing that black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.

But administrators and experts note that it takes work to implement new models that teachers will support and that will truly result in students becoming accountable for their behavior.

"Administrators are sometimes caught between wanting to give students opportunities to correct their behavior and leaving teachers with the perception that they have “gone soft on discipline...”

Administrators are sometimes caught between wanting to give students opportunities to correct their behavior and leaving teachers with the perception that they have “gone soft on discipline,” says Barbara Higgins Perez, who served as the director of student services for the Oceanside Unified School District and worked with colleague Barry Tyler to develop strategies to keep students from being sent away from school.

That’s why, she says, alternative approaches to discipline must involve “getting the kid to do the heavy lifting.” She adds that while training in restorative practices provides educators with the philosophy behind alternative models, teachers often don’t know “what it looks and sounds like” when they return to their classrooms.

She and Tyler founded Blue Water Educational Consulting, which has trained educators in several California counties to implement Alternatives to Suspension (ATS). ATS is a class taught by a teacher in which students who have violated the behavior code can spend up to five days working through the steps in a restorative curriculum — owning and recognizing the behavior, creating and implementing replacement strategies, making amends and then reintegrating into the classroom.

The key, she says, is for teachers to know the replacement strategies so they can provide reminders when the students get back to their classrooms. It’s also important to “tend to that relationship” between the student and the teacher.

The Standard School District near Bakersfield is one of the districts that went to Blue Water to provide training for staff members to implement the ATS model. The first year was especially hard “because the program was top down,” says Superintendent Paul Meyers. Because he was new to the district, he says, “The staff kind of raised an eyebrow of doubt.”

In addition to implementing ATS, the district has also added lunchtime activity coordinators to organize games for students and supervision aides to better monitor students during recess. Suspensions and expulsions have dropped, but Meyer says, “more importantly and harder to measure is the improvement in the school climate.”

Perez says she can tell that the ATS program is gaining support among teachers when they start dropping by the ATS classroom to help their students with assignments. But she also notes that completing regular classwork is not the goal of ATS.

“We want the kids to sit and think and grapple and do some thoughtful writing,” she says, adding that while teachers also provide social-emotional support, ATS “can’t be fuzzy walls and unicorns.” Besides, she says, in her 20 years as an educator, she never once had a suspended student return to school with any completed assignments. Any academic work completed during ATS “is 100% better than what they would be doing at home,” she says.

Perez adds that if schools implement ATS but then continue to hold after-school or lunch detention programs, that’s an indication that they haven’t really bought into the restorative concept. ATS is also not just another name for in-school suspension where students serve time, so to speak, and don’t learn from their actions.

A 2016 report from WestEd, a San Francisco-based research organization, listed some elements that school leaders should consider when starting and trying to maintain restorative practices — most of which won’t be surprising to administrators. One is the issue of how to fund training for professional development or staff positions devoted to implementing the practices. The report suggested grant opportunities, Title I funding and partnerships with community organizations.

Meyers used the flexibility provided by California’s Local Control Funding Formula, which replaced more restrictive categorical funding for specific programs.

ESSA also includes the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grantsprogram, which can be used for to “reduce the use of exclusionary discipline and promoting supportive school discipline.” This school year, however, states will receive much less funding from that program than was originally expected, Education Week reports.

The WestEd report also recommends that a district “integrate the [restorative justice] approach into its formal policy and procedures” and involve the entire school community in developing the discipline policy.

As part of the Metro Nashville Public Schools, Pearl-Cohn is also part of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s PASSAGE initiative, which stands for Positive and Safe Schools Advancing Greater Equity. As part of PASSAGE, the district had to create a new student-parent handbook that clearly communicates students’ rights, responsibilities and the consequences for certain behaviors.

An article on the development of the handbook describes how code of conduct language can often contribute to the disparities in suspensions. The policy committee removed the vague phrase “conduct prejudicial to good order” to make offenses less ambiguous for educators, parents and students. The other large districts involved in PASSAGE are New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.

‘Before Things Escalate’

Advocacy for eliminating out-of-school suspension is also coming from students who may have encountered such policies in the past. Students for Education Reform (SFER) is a New York City-based group that involves college students interested in K-12 education issues in campaigns related to issues such as school climate, school choice and teacher quality.

“I think the model policy would prioritize prevention over reaction,” says Jeremy Knight, SFER’s communications director. “A lot of folks are saying what do we do with students once these incidents arrive. We also need to ask, what are we doing even before things escalate?”

SFER would like to see more classroom management training for teachers as well as partnerships between schools and other agencies such as public safety and mental health. Such models at the early-childhood level have already proven to be successful at reducing expulsion.

“Preschool teachers who report access to a professional who can provide classroom-based supports regarding challenging behaviors report significantly fewer preschool expulsions as compared to teachers who report having no such support,” Walter Gilliam, an associate professor of child development at Yale University, wrote in a 2014 evaluation of such a program in Connecticut.

Similar examples also exist at the K-12 level in some districts, says Russell Skiba, a school psychology professor at Indiana University whose work focuses on reducing racial disparities in discipline. His local Monroe County Community School Corporation has a district behavioral specialist available to teachers, he says, and many examples exist in which schools or districts form partnerships with mental health providers.

The Importance of Involving Parents

While the Texas law banning suspensions of young children for lower-level infractions passed this year, the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) began exploring last year why some of its elementary schools were not suspending any children in the early grades. Gail-David Dupree, the executive director of student discipline for DISD, heard a common theme — communication with families.

“I think the biggest thing that came out was parent involvement,” Dupree says. “We had some principals who would go to a student’s house” and talk with parents about how to prevent behavior problems.

Meanwhile, the district was beginning to implement a new social-emotional learning curriculum and is now training teachers to teach students stress-relieving strategies and how to verbalize when something — or someone — sets them off.

“We’re teaching students to identify within themselves what is causing them to react to situations,” says Juany Valdespino-Gayt├ín, the director of special projects in the district’s Teaching and Learning department. Teachers, she says, are also modeling how to calmly respond to an offense, by making statements such as “I’m not happy you did that. I need to take a minute and cool down.”

Skiba agrees that blanket mandates against suspensions may initially leave teachers feeling unsupported by administrators if they don’t have strategies for handling infractions at the classroom level. In fact, passing laws against suspensions could be a “recipe for chaos,” he says, if educators don’t have “sufficient resources.”

At Pearl-Cohn, the shift in culture has been a five-year journey. But now, Stewart says, students are the ones speaking up if they see behavior that goes against school rules.

“Now we’ve gotten to a place where you can literally tell who the transfer students are,” she says. “The kids will say, ‘We don’t do that here.’”

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Autism Speaks Reports Double-Digit Revenue Slide

From DisabilityScoop

By Michelle Diament
September 14, 2017

The nation’s largest autism advocacy group is reporting a sharp drop in revenue and is cutting expenses and distributing fewer grants as a result, newly-released financial data shows.

A newly-released tax filing indicates that revenue was down significantly
at Autism Speaks in 2016. (Autism Speaks/Flickr)

Autism Speaks took in $47.5 million in 2016, roughly $10.5 million — or 18 percent — less than the previous year.

At the same time, the group scaled back its spending on grants by some $1.8 million, shaved a similar amount from its payroll and chopped $10 million in other expenses.

The figures come from Autism Speaks’ tax filing for 2016, which was publicly disclosed this month in accordance with federal tax rules.

Aurelia Grayson, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit, attributed the slump to changes in funding for the group’s MSSNG research program — an effort to sequence the DNA of over 10,000 families affected by autism — and declines in fundraising from Autism Speaks Walks.

The revenue slide came as the nonprofit saw significant leadership changes with the departure of the its president and chief science officer as well as the death of co-founder Suzanne Wright.

Autism Speaks said it has made changes designed to encourage renewed growth going forward, with the introduction of a new 10-year vision, a revamped mission statement and a three-year strategic plan.

“The key drivers of this business plan were setting the organization on the path to increased revenue, mission activity and building the financial health of the organization,” Grayson said.

Though she did not address specifics about revenue year to date, Grayson said “we look forward to continued growth in 2017.”

Does Race Matter in Education? New Survey of Millennials Reveals Conflicting Opinions on Equity, Surprising Support for Vouchers

From The 74 Million

By Kevin Mahnken
September 15, 2017

The prevalence of race in American schools has been reexamined in recent years, as new reports indicate growing segregation more than six decades after Brown v. Board of Education. But a new study of millennials reveals surprisingly mixed views when it comes to equity and the need for racial integration.

Respondents also voiced strong — if occasionally contradictory — opinions on charter schools, standardized testing, and school quality in the survey of 1,750 Americans ages 18–34. The study was conducted as part of the University of Chicago’s GenForward project to measure the political attitudes of America’s youngest voters.

The issue of race divides young people of different ethnicities. About three-quarters of millennials across various ethnic backgrounds agree that low-income students get a worse education than those from wealthy families. But there is less agreement about how race affects quality of education.

Black (59 percent) and Asian (56 percent) millennials generally agree that students of color receive worse schooling than white students. But majorities of Latinos (55 percent) and whites (51 percent) believe race plays “very little role” in educational quality.

(Image: GenForward)

A slim majority of black (54 percent) and Asian (52 percent) respondents also believe that students should attend racially diverse schools even if none exist nearby. In contrast, the bulk of Latino (61 percent) and white (73 percent) respondents think students should enroll in their neighborhood schools, even if the result is less student diversity.

(Image: GenForward)

On school choice, education reformers will be relieved to learn of millennial enthusiasm for charter schools, especially given the weak reception they received in this year’s Education Next poll. In that study, public backing for the schools fell by 12 points over the preceding 12 months — the largest such decline for any issue that was surveyed.

Taken together with Massachusetts voters’ resounding defeat of a 2016 charter expansion initiative, as well as President Trump’s unfettered support for taxpayer-funded vouchers, it suggested a further fracturing of the consensus around school choice.

(Image: GenForward)

GenForward participants, many only recently removed from their high school or college years, mostly favored charters. Nearly two-thirds of black and Asian-American respondents voiced their approval, while Latino and white respondents did so by margins of 17 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

Among the survey’s other findings:

  • Healthy majorities from all ethnic groups supported private school vouchers for low-income students; when the researchers polled universal vouchers, approval remained above 50 percent for all groups except whites (49 percent).
  • Millennials more closely resemble their elders when it comes to a famous education paradox: Though they rate their own schools highly (54 percent assigned them either an A or a B), they take a dimmer view of America’s education system as a whole (76 percent grade the nation’s schools as a C or worse). The belief that one’s own school represents the oasis amid a nationwide desert of mediocrity, known to psychologists as the “mere-exposure effect,” has been observed in parents in other surveys.
  • In each group, 69 percent or more of respondents say that there is too much testing in schools. Yet consistent majorities also disapproved of parents opting their children out of taking those tests.

Public opinion on key education issues may be disparate across ethnic groups, but when asked to choose among ways to improve American schools, every demographic chose the same three steps: increasing teacher pay, increasing teacher training, and increasing school funding.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Parents, Know Your Special Education Rights

From Salon

By Jennifer Laviano AND Julie Swanson
August 27, 2017

Here's what your school district might not be telling you about your child's IEP, and what you can do about it.

It all seems very simple. A special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), was enacted by Congress in 1975 (originally called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) to ensure that children with disabilities have the opportunity to receive a free appropriate public education, just like other children.

But nothing is ever simple.

At least once a day, a parent we represent asks us, “Why would they do that? It doesn’t make any sense.” Sometimes, the decisions that school districts make don’t make sense. In those cases, we remind our clients that you can’t use logic to talk someone out of a position they didn’t use logic to get into.

However, more often than not, there are reasons for what may seem like totally arbitrary decision-making. It’s just that those reasons are unknown to most parents, who don’t have the benefit of dealing with numerous school districts every single day. When you have that perspective, as we do, you start to realize that there are multiple agendas and competing interests operating within a school district that motivate the decisions made at Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings.

(IEPs are legally required documents, generated by a team of educators and the parents of the child, which serve almost like a contract between the school and the parents. They outline what the school intends to provide the child.)

This perspective includes understanding that each of the educators has her own perspective, job, role and, sometimes, fears.
  • As a parent, you would understand why someone responded a certain way at your child’s meeting if you knew that one of the people there is another person’s direct supervisor.
  • Or that regular education teachers often don’t feel the same pressure to follow the orders of the special education administrator as someone who reports directly to that administrator.
  • Or that the behind-the-scenes politics of the building are influencing how the educators around that table are interacting with one another.
  • Or that the way your state sets up certain funding mechanisms is, in fact, a huge barrier to getting what you want at the meeting.

But nobody around the table is likely to tell you all of this.

Let’s use an example from our state to illustrate what we mean. In Connecticut, as in most states, our Department of Education has a process of approving private special education schools, which thereby authorizes it to provide special education services to students who have IEPs. The state maintains a list of approved programs, and school districts can place students at these programs through their IEPs.

Connecticut also has a funding structure for school districts whereby the state will contribute significant monies to a child’s program if the district goes over their “excess cost threshold” for that student. Basically, the state will defray costs for a student whose program becomes extremely expensive. But here’s the kicker: the state will only defray those costs if the program the child is attending is on the state approved list. It will not contribute to a private special education program that is not approved by the state.

Connecticut, like many states, has a number of private special education schools that elect to remain independent. Those schools aren’t on the approved list. Therefore, the districts can’t get the excess costs for them covered.

This funding structure can have really strange results. We’ve seen cases where a child is placed at a non-approved, private special education school, and is thriving. The district team members observe the child and agree the program is the perfect fit for him. The parents agree that program is the appropriate program for him. Everyone on the IEP team says, “Yes, this is the right school for him.”

But, because the school is not on the approved list, the district denies the request for the placement (and subsequent funding), instead offering an approved program that is even more expensive than the non-approved program! Rightly so, the parents say, “Everyone agrees this is the right school and that he’s doing beautifully there, but the answer is no?”

The IEP team in this case is making a decision that defies logic—until you understand that the state is pulling the strings here, just like Oz behind the curtain.

Once you understand the hidden motivators and obstacles to special education decision making in public schools, the seemingly mysterious answers you have been getting will start to make sense.

Your Special Education Director May Not Know Who You Are

Many parents assume that, simply because their child has a disability, the Director of Special Education in their district is aware of the case. That is just not so, especially in a larger district. It would be impossible for one administrator to be aware of every child with a disability in, say, Los Angeles or Chicago.

Even in much smaller cities than that, usually there is a structure of administration, and the Special Education Director entrusts her team to handle the day-to-day obligations of the district to the children in each building.

In many cases, there are building-level administrators who are responsible for convening special education meetings; sometimes they aren’t even special educators! For this reason, we strongly advocate that parents find out who the Director of Special Education is in their district, and work toward meeting and ultimately building a relationship with her.

Directors manage a very large budget. In many school systems, the director reports directly to the superintendent, and in most systems, the Director of Special Education is a district-wide administrator. This means that your child’s building principal is under the Director of Special Education, not the other way around.

According to, the average special education director in the United States makes $94,184.00 per year. That’s an average. In many states, directors of special education make well over six figures a year. It’s an important job, and it should be.

And yet, we have found that some special education administrators do not have even a basic understanding of their legal obligations. In some situations, this means that they are failing to follow the procedures outlined by federally mandated regulations. In others, it means that if a parent brings in a non-attorney advocate to an IEP meeting, the district brings in its lawyer because the director doesn’t know how to navigate the complex laws involving special education.

Think about that: in these cases, parents are expected to go up against an administrator who has at her disposal an attorney to bring in when things get even a little bit complex. That should tell you something about how imbalanced the power between parents and their school districts can be and often is.

Unless a parent has the means and ability to hire a lawyer or good non-attorney advocate, he will be facing a Herculean task in the event of a legal dispute.

Let us give you just one example of where we see administrators making a basic legal error that will ultimately cost their district far more than if they understood the law. The IDEA states that a parent has the right to ask for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) if they disagree with their school district’s testing. If the parent asks for the IEE, the district has the right to say no. 
However, if it does that, it must, without delay, file for a due process hearing defending its own testing before a hearing officer.

(Read more about IEEs in chapter 14.)

This is a requirement under federal law. Yet many directors have no idea that they are required to file for a hearing, even when we tell them so. They simply say no to the IEE and then do nothing. Eventually, many of these parents figure out that the district was required to act when it denied the request, and at that point, if the director is getting even decent legal advice, the school district will just go ahead and pay for the outside evaluation.

But by then, the district is incurring legal fees on top of the IEE, as well as eroding the faith and trust of the parents in the competence of the district.

Wouldn’t it be better if the director knew what she should have done the first time around?

As we have acknowledged, we have a very cynical view of many issues because of the nature of the cases we see. However, we do know that the Director of Special Education is typically the person with the most authority in your district to make decisions about your child’s special education program.

Unless you plan on moving out of your school system, you may be working with this person for many, many years. Building a good, respectful, cooperative relationship with him early on in your child’s education may make an enormous difference in the outcomes for your child.

Excerpted with permission from "Your Special Education Rights" by Jennifer Laviano and Julie Swanson. Copyright 2017, Skyhorse Publishing. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

As More Parents of Special Needs Students Seek Out Individualized Options, KIPP Expands ‘Pathways’ Program

From The 74 Million

By Naomi Nix
September 14, 2017

During a recent car ride, Sheila Brailsford realized her son, Zameir Gray, had achieved something of a milestone: The 7-year-old boy, who is nonverbal and autistic, started saying the names of some of his favorite fast-food places.

“We rode past Applebee’s and he was like, ‘Applebee’s,’ ” she said, adding hard pauses between the consonants. “I was like, oh my God. … And he just kept saying it. It just lit me up. … For him to say anything, that’s progress.”

Brailsford attributes her son’s progress to Pathways, a two-year-old program at KIPP Life Academy in Newark.

Pathways offers self-contained classrooms for students with the most severe special needs — such as autism, Down syndrome, and emotional disorders — at the KIPP Life elementary school and KIPP Bold Academy middle school, a few miles away.

In the face of research showing that charter schools educate fewer special needs students than district schools do, the KIPP network of 80,000 students in 200 schools across 20 states is increasingly offering families the option of educating their special needs children outside mainstream classroom settings.

Though some policymakers and researchers advocate mainstreaming special education students rather than separating them from the general student population, “We are finding there is a certain student, this type of self-contained environment is the best to meet their needs,” said KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini. “As KIPP has grown and matured, there has been this need to create these self-contained environments.”

In most KIPP schools in New Jersey, special needs students are pulled out of their general-education classrooms if they require individualized instruction. But Pathways students are placed in smaller classes with several teachers who have an expertise in educating special needs kids.

Each child has an Individualized Education Plan agreed upon by the school and the family. KIPP educators meet monthly to assess students’ progress against a set of clearly defined goals and tweak the IEP if necessary.

Pathways students spend most of their day in that classroom but may join their general-education peers for assemblies, field trips, or elective courses.

Since it began, the program has grown from about 14 students to about 27. One student who was in Pathways last year is moving back into a mainstream setting.

“Our goal is to serve all kids,” said Kerry Boccher, director of special education for KIPP New Jersey. “It is our job to figure out how best to serve that kid.”

Overall, 8 percent of KIPP’s Newark elementary students are classified as special ed, while 15 percent of middle schoolers and 22.6 percent of high school students have special needs. About 15 percent of Newark Public Schools students have special needs.

In recent years, other KIPP regions have expanded their self-contained special education environments as well. In the D.C. KIPP region, educators started The Learning Center, a separate program that educates about 77 special needs students in grades K-8.

San Jose KIPP leaders started the Teaching Program, a self-contained teaching model that is serving a dozen students with moderate to severe needs, including children on the autism spectrum. There are plans to expand the program to high schools. In San Francisco, a program was started for students with severe emotional problems, with mental health counselors on site.

Ilene Schwartz, a professor in the college of education at the University of Washington, said there are instances in which it might make sense to offer self-contained classes to some special education students, but that doing so could have unintended consequences.

“Separate is never equal,” she said. “We just want to make sure that we are not unintentionally having lower standards [for special education students] from children who are [mainstreamed].”

Mancini said KIPP always consults with families before placing students in self-contained environments and that the number of kids who participate is small compared with the overall student body.

Brailsford is one parent who is grateful for the individualized instruction that KIPP’s Pathways program offers her son. He transitioned from a class of about 28 students in a mainstream setting to one with about eight students in the Pathways program. Since then, he has bonded with his teachers and fellow students, she said.

“It’s a good program. I really do like it,” she said. “It’s nothing they won’t do for Zameir.”