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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.”

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Creating a Safe Space for Students After Disaster Strikes

From Education Week "Teacher"

By Brian Young
September 13, 2017

"Working together—with a little grit—can help guide teachers and students from recovery to renewal."

A ruined classroom shows the damage caused by the flood water from
Hurricane Katrina at Louis Armstrong Elementary School in
New Orleans on Oct. 6, 2005. —Bill Haber/AP-File

Words will never begin to describe the devastation of a storm and the repercussions it has on a community for years to come. It has been 12 years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged my city of New Orleans—and changed the face of education in our region forever.

Because I took refuge in Houston during Katrina and had colleagues and students who did the same, Hurricane Harvey is hitting close to home. I empathize with the educators, students, and their families who are bracing for what will be a difficult year of recovery after Harvey and now Irma. But it will also be a year of strength.

"Having taught in one of the first schools to reopen after Katrina, I know the feeling of the weight of the world in your hands and the magnitude of the responsibility educators hold to create a safe, nurturing environment for students to grow and thrive, no matter the circumstances."

At the Martin Behrman Charter School Academy of Creative Arts and Sciences—a preK-8 school where I now serve as principal—we knew that we needed to put the best interests of our students before all else. We called this approach "the Behrman way."

When we opened in December 2005, three months after Katrina, more than half the student population was homeless. How were we going to help students focus on schooling when they didn’t even have a permanent home?

The Road to Recovery

Fortunately, our charter network—the Algiers Charter School Association—adopted the TAP System for Teacher and Student Advancement, an instructional model developed by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in Santa Monica, California. TAP gave us a structure for helping teacher leaders in our school building, along with the principal, continue to drive school-wide educational improvement.

We carved out time for collaborative professional development each week and used the TAP teaching standards to drive instructional best practices. After the first full year of the program, 98 percent of 4th graders scored proficient or above in English and 96 percent scored the same in math.

These guidelines gave us a common language of what effective teaching looked like and helped us communicate a clear understanding of where we were and where we needed to be. During a time of chaos and unpredictability, TAP was our anchor. Having a structure of cohesion and support helped us to focus on what mattered most: the students.

There are five principles that helped get my team through the recovery of the storm and may be helpful to other educators, no matter how their schools are structured:

1.) Return determined to rebuild your school, whatever it takes. I contemplated working in Houston after the storm, but wanted to return home to teach the students of New Orleans. A group of us banded together to get to work: We mopped floors, painted, and went from school to school around the city to gather materials that had been put in boxes next to dumpsters.

Educators should be prepared to do the heavy lifting, knowing that their schools and cities will be functioning differently.

2.) Create an environment of positivity and normalcy for your students. In readying Behrman for students, we established a cheery place for them to learn. Outside the school walls, we were bombarded by media. We decided that the weight of the tragedy would be put on the shoulders of the adults. That didn’t mean that we barred the media from speaking with students, but we were mindful of making sure students focused on the tasks at hand.

Having them relive the harrowing events perpetually would have distracted them from their schooling. We wanted Behrman to be a place of help and healing to move students forward academically.

3.) Rely on leadership and data to establish best practices and build curriculum. At Behrman, we faced a new school environment, staff and student population. We couldn’t expect to pick up where we left off. Because we had no background information on many of our students, we didn’t know what grades they were in or what their learning needs were. Opinions were flying. But with a formalized TAP structure, we had teachers ready to take on leadership positions, a mechanism for analyzing student data, and a rubric of research-based best practices that pulled us together as one unit.

If there are 50 people on staff and 50 are captains, nothing will get done. If you don’t have a similar structure in place, identify leaders who will guide the ship, determine agreed-upon best practices backed by data, and narrow your focus.

4.) Integrate the storms into your curriculum. There’s no doubt your students will have questions about the storms, and they will turn to you as their educational leaders. For us, students wanted to know everything from why there was a problem with the levies to what the city was going to do to prevent another Katrina from happening. There is a time and place to infuse these topics into the educational sphere.

At Behrman, we turned these questions into opportunities to enhance higher-level thinking skills in our students. When students have questions or concerns, ask yourself: “How can I create lessons tied to a larger objective?”

In science, you may develop a unit around weather and atmosphere. In social studies, you may discuss how government works. We made sure to hit the benchmarks articulated in our rubric. All questioning was intentional, and because of that, we were able to create high-level lessons that refined critical attributes and engaged students in the process.

5.) Instill lifelong learning in your students to weather any storm. As teachers, we’re natural planners. Long-range plans may be deferred to favor the here and now. But that doesn’t mean you can’t plan the greater vision of your school.

As a principal, I believe in what I call "true education." This is fostering the development of lifelong skills that will help our students through any situation, big or small. Tests are valuable, but here, we are not a test-taking mill; we are a place of inquiry.

Twenty-five to 30 years from now, I want students to know how to be lifelong learners. For educators facing the return to school, root your larger vision in the life lessons you are teaching students every day.

Teaching in the aftermath of a disaster is daunting. But I’ve learned that teachers exhibit tremendous determination and resolve. At Behrman, we were committed to creating a place where students felt safe. Today, we are stronger for making our school a place where students and teachers feel at home. Know that every day is a new day and one day farther from the tragedy. You, too, will survive these disasters.

Working together—with a little grit—can help guide teachers and students from recovery to renewal.

Brian Young is the principal of Martin Behrman Charter School of Creative Arts and Sciences in New Orleans. Young received a national Milken Educator Award in 2007 as a master teacher at Behrman.


On Special Education: How to Use a Paper Trail

From Parents Have the Power
to Make Special Education Work

By Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves
September 1, 2017

As we wrote in our previous article, How to Create a Paper Trail, special education generates an enormous amount of paperwork. There are many different types of documents such as letters, meeting notices, IEPs, consent forms, and evaluations, that your school district creates as well as documents from outside sources, such as your pediatrician and independent evaluators.

The longer your child is on an IEP, the more the paperwork accumulates. All this paperwork shows the chronology of your child’s educational experience, and you must file it and organize it so that you can find important documents as needed.

Lawyers call this the paper trail, although there are actually two paper trails: yours and your school’s. While these two paper trails may contain many of the same documents, they serve different purposes and often get used in different ways. Parents should understand why they need a paper trail and how they can use it. They should also understand how schools use their paper trails.

How Parents Use a Paper Trail

A clear, well organized paper trail has many benefits for parents. The most immediate benefit is to help you understand your child’s educational history and progress. It can also improve communication with your school district. Ultimately, if you should have a dispute with your district, your paper trail will be important evidence to support your position.

Here are some ways to use your paper trail:

  • Periodically study your child’s special education documents in chronological order. You will see certain trends emerge as you analyze the data over time, giving you the “big picture” of your child’s educational history. You should do this because your IEP Team members are transient and they aren’t aware of the overall history that you can see. This will improve your ability to communicate with your Team members and advocate for your child.
  • Pay special attention to your child’s IEP goals over time. If you notice that one goal stays the same for many years, that means your child hasn’t achieved it and the goal needs to be updated or changed to reflect the lack of progress. An unattained goal might mean that there is a need for different services or that it wasn’t realistic and needs to be rewritten.
  • Use the follow-up letters that you write after every Team meeting (see How to Create a Paper Trail) to document your understanding of what was discussed and agreed to at the meeting. If there is a misunderstanding, you can get it straightened out while memories are still fresh and it is easier to correct. If an agreed on item recorded in your letter doesn’t take place, then a copy of your letter serves as a diplomatic reminder to the person who had agreed to the action item.
  • At least once a year compare your child’s IEP goals and IEP progress reports. Make sure the progress reports reflect your own observations as recorded in your parent journal. If these progress reports do not contain accurate information, be sure to question them in writing to your special education liaison. This will become part of your paper trail, and will prevent the school from using inaccurate progress reports to prove that they were providing an appropriate education in a due process hearing (see “How Schools Use a Paper Trail” below)

How Schools Use a Paper Trail

In our book, we describe how we would get consistently positive progress reports, even after it became apparent that the comments in the reports didn’t match what our son was experiencing. The reason for this, we realized, was not just to try to make us feel better, but for the school to create a paper trail to indicate that it was providing an appropriate education.

If you should be compelled to take your district to a mediation or a due process hearing, the school can produce all their positive progress reports to prove they were providing the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) required by law. When the progress reports you get don’t match your observations and you don’t dispute them in writing, the school can use them to demonstrate to a mediator or hearing officer that your child was achieving his or her IEP goals.

This is not just speculation; schools are always prepared with written documentation to supply as evidence in a hearing. A few years ago, our school district used progress reports as part of its defense in a hearing with another family, claiming that the student’s progress reports showed he was meeting the goals and objectives in his IEP. Throughout the thirty-page hearing decision, there are seven references to the school district quoting from progress reports about how well this student was doing in the public school.

This was in sharp contrast to the parents’ and the experts’ testimony as to how much the student was struggling and not making progress. Happily for the student and his family, there was enough other evidence for the hearing officer to rule in the family’s favor.

A Parent’s Right to Inspect School Records

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives parents the right to inspect and make copies of their child’s school records. It is important to periodically examine these records because they may contain information that you have not received or may have misplaced. Make copies of everything you don’t have and include these copies in your files.

In our case, we discovered handwritten notes in the margins that we hadn’t seen on the copies of documents that the school had sent us. These notes, even if they don’t seem important, should be part of your files, too.

You can inspect your child’s records by writing a letter to your school district requesting a convenient date and time for you to view them. Be sure to request the complete file, as documents may be in different locations; for example, medical records in the nurse’s office and academic records in the special education department office.

Most states have regulations that specify how much advance notice you are required to give and how quickly the school is required to respond. You can check the regulations on your state’s department of education website. For a nominal copying fee, you can make copies of anything you want.

If you have misplaced any of your school documents, you should find them in your child’s file and make a copy for yourself to complete your records at home. You may even find documents that you did not know existed. Going through your child’s school file is a valuable exercise.

Correcting Inaccurate School Records

Although we have not had to do this, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) gives parents the right to ask the school to correct records that they believe are inaccurate or misleading. If the school refuses, parents then have the right to request a hearing to compel the school to make the correction. Some state laws may give you similar rights.

Of course, a hearing is an expensive and time-consuming process that has no certain outcome, so it is best that you only attempt one if an error significantly impacts your child’s education, and then only after you exhaust every other means to reach a mutually agreeable solution to the problem.

The Importance of Being Prepared

Your paper trail is evidence of your child’s progress or lack of progress in special education. Someday you may need these documents to help tell your story to an impartial observer in a mediation or a due process hearing. You may think that a dispute that requires mediation or even a hearing will never happen to you. But if it should happen, you must be prepared.

Your school district can even demand documents from you in a legal process called “discovery.” We have been through this, compelled to supply many of our records, and our paper trail was critical to doing it successfully.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature

From the Child Mind Institute

By Danielle Cohen
September 12, 2017

They may prefer to stick to their screens, but here's why getting outdoors matters.

In the early 1980s, a Harvard University biologist named Edward O. Wilson proposed a theory called biophilia: that humans are instinctively drawn towards their natural surroundings. Many 21st century parents, however, would question this theory, as they watch their kids express a clear preference for sitting on a couch in front of a screen over playing outside.

The national panic about kids spending too much time indoors has become so extreme that the crisis has a name: Nature deficit disorder.

While calling it a disorder might be merely rhetorical, it’s clear kids spend significantly more time inside than outside. This shift is largely due to technology: The average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.

Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, tells the story of interviewing a child who told him that he liked playing indoors more than outdoors “’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

Increasing parental fears about diseases and dangers of playing outside—despite evidence to the contrary—are another big factor.

And as suburbs and exurbs continue to expand, nature is parceled off more, and kids seem less inclined to spend time in a fenced-in yard, let alone jump the fence into a neighbor’s or walk in the woods. Instead, indoor activities can seem easier (no sunscreen necessary!), safer, and even more sociable for kids who are growing up with multiplayer video games and social media accounts.

Why go outside?

Recent studies have exposed the benefit—even necessity—of spending time outdoors, both for kids and adults. Some argue that it can be any outdoor environment. Some claim it has to be a “green” environment—one with trees and leaves. Others still have shown that just a picture of greenery can benefit mental health.

These nuances aside, most of the studies agree that kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors.

While it’s unclear how exactly the cognitive functioning and mood improvements occur, there are a few things we do know about why nature is good for kids’ minds.

  • It builds confidence. The way that kids play in nature has a lot less structure than most types of indoor play. There are infinite ways to interact with outdoor environments, from the backyard to the park to the local hiking trail or lake, and letting your child choose how he treats nature means he has the power to control his own actions.
  • It promotes creativity and imagination. This unstructured style of play also allows kids to interact meaningfully with their surroundings. They can think more freely, design their own activities, and approach the world in inventive ways.
  • It teaches responsibility. Living things die if mistreated or not taken care of properly, and entrusting a child to take care of the living parts of their environment means they’ll learn what happens when they forget to water a plant, or pull a flower out by its roots.
  • It provides different stimulation. Nature may seem less stimulating than your son’s violent video game, but in reality, it activates more senses—you can see, hear, smell, and touch outdoor environments. “As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow,” Louv warns, “and this reduces the richness of human experience.”
  • It gets kids moving. Most ways of interacting with nature involve more exercise than sitting on the couch. Your kid doesn’t have to be joining the local soccer team or riding a bike through the park—even a walk will get her blood pumping. Not only is exercise good for kids’ bodies, but it seems to make them more focused, which is especially beneficial for kids with ADHD.
  • It makes them think. Louv says that nature creates a unique sense of wonder for kids that no other environment can provide. The phenomena that occur naturally in backyards and parks everyday make kids ask questions about the earth and the life that it supports.
  • It reduces stress and fatigue. According to the Attention Restoration Theory, urban environments require what’s called directed attention, which forces us to ignore distractions and exhausts our brains. In natural environments, we practice an effortless type of attention known as soft fascination that creates feelings of pleasure, not fatigue.

So while screen time is the easier, more popular choice, it’s important to set aside time for outdoor play. For fun, stimulating activities you and your kids can do in nature, see Ideas for Getting Your Kids into Nature.