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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Trauma from Parents' Youth Linked to Poorer Health, Asthma in Their Own Children

From Drexel University
via ScienceDaily

June 4, 2018

Trauma experienced by a parent during childhood has long-reaching consequences -- even to the point of negatively impacting their children's health, a new Drexel study found.

"It is well known that adverse childhood experiences can lead to serious and wide-ranging effects on the health of the people who go through them," said Félice Lê-Scherban, Ph.D., the study's lead researcher and an assistant professor in Drexel's Dornsife School of Public Health.

"A lot of these health problems -- such as substance abuse, depression or chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease -- can affect how parents care for their kids and the environments where they grow up."

"Adverse childhood experiences" are described as serious traumas or stress a person experiences during their formative years. This might include something like abuse or exposure to violence and/or drugs. The study, published in Pediatrics, looked into surveys taken by 350 Philadelphia parents who answered questions about their own "ACEs."

It found that for every type of "ACE" a parent went through, their children had 19 percent higher odds of poorer health and 17 percent higher odds of having asthma.

"If we only look at the within-individual effects of ACEs, we may be underestimating their lasting impact on health across multiple generations," Lê-Scherban said of the study team's motivations.

"Looking intergenerationally gives us a more comprehensive picture of the long-term processes that might affect children's health."

"By the same token, acting to prevent ACEs and helping those who have experienced them can potentially have benefits extending to future generations," Lê-Scherban added.

Among the parents who were surveyed:
  • Nearly 42 percent said they'd witnessed violence (seeing someone shot, stabbed or beaten) as a child;
  • 38 percent said they lived with a problem drinker or someone who used illicit drugs during their youth;
  • Roughly 37 percent said that they had been physically abused as children.

While those were the most common ACEs, there were many others that received strong responses, including experiencing racial discrimination and sexual abuse.

Overall, 85 percent of parents experienced at least one ACE. The more ACEs a parent had suffered as a child, the more likely their own children were to have poorer health status.

One of the other areas that Lê-Scherban and her fellow researchers focused on was behavior in the survey respondents' children that could have an impact on health.

They found that each ACE a parent had experienced was tied to an additional 16 percent higher odds that their children would have excessive TV-watching habits. While not a direct health outcome, it sets up a child for potentially poorer health habits down the line.

And though ACEs are more prevalent in populations low on the socioeconomic scale, that doesn't explain everything, Lê-Scherban said.

"It's important to remember that ACEs, and their effects, occur across the socioeconomic spectrum," Lê-Scherban commented.

While the links can't be definitively established as causal yet, they suggest that it's important to keep studying the multigenerational effects that trauma has on health, according to Lê-Scherban.

"We need to know more about the specific pathways through which parental ACEs might harm child health so we can minimize these harms," she said. "On the flip side, it's important to learn more about the factors that promote resilience to help parents and their children thrive despite past trauma."

Journal Reference
  • Félice Lê-Scherban, Xi Wang, Kathryn H. Boyle-Steed, Lee M. Pachter. Intergenerational Associations of Parent Adverse Childhood Experiences and Child Health Outcomes. Pediatrics, 2018; 141 (6): e20174274 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2017-4274

'Cutting Edge' Program for Children with Autism and ADHD Rests on Razor-Thin Evidence

From NPR's Health Blog "Shots"

By Chris Benderev
June 18, 2018

Some parents see it coming. Natalie was not that kind of parent.

Even after the director and a teacher at her older son's day care sat her down one afternoon in 2011 to detail the 3-year-old's difficulty socializing and his tendency to chatter endlessly about topics his peers showed no interest in, she still didn't get the message.

Her son, the two educators eventually spelled out, might be on the autism spectrum.

"I was in tears at the end," she says. "When I got home, I was just devastated."

Natalie broke the news to her wife, Stephanie, whose mind fast-forwarded to a distressing future. Would her son — a squat, cheerful boy who, despite his affectionate nature, didn't have any playmates — ever be able to make friends?

When a doctor eventually confirmed he had an autism spectrum disorder, the diagnosis came with a suggestion: Perhaps the boy would benefit from Prozac when he turned 7.

"That was when both of us fell apart in that meeting," Natalie says. For both parents, medication wasn't an option.

"Prozac is a very powerful drug for adults. Why would you give it to a 7-year-old?" Stephanie wondered after the doctor's visit. "I welled up with all of this emotion. And I said I will not let that happen."

(To protect their privacy, we are only using Natalie's and Stephanie's first names. We are not naming their children.)

The fear of psychotropic drugs led the family to pursue alternative treatments for autism.

To start, they dropped gluten.

Then one day, as Natalie roamed the aisles of a gluten-free expo in a Chicago suburb not far from where the family lives, she came across a booth for a Brain Balance Achievement Center.

Natalie says the program claimed to help with disorders ranging from dyslexia to ADHD and autism. Best of all, it didn't involve prescription drugs.

"We were very excited," Stephanie says. "Maybe we found a solution that wasn't going to be about medicine. I was very, very hopeful."

"It will completely, absolutely, 100 percent change your life"

Natalie had stumbled upon one of 113 Brain Balance franchises across the country. Seventeen more are in the works. In the dozen years since its inception, Brain Balance says, it has helped roughly 25,000 children. The company says it is currently taking in over $50 million in annual revenue.

Although Brain Balance isn't the only purveyor of alternative approaches for developmental disorders in the U.S., the scale of the enterprise sets it apart. The company's approach is still relatively new and not widely known, meaning many experts in the field of childhood development have not vetted its effectiveness.

Brain Balance says its nonmedical and drug-free program helps children who struggle with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and learning and processing disorders. The company says it addresses a child's challenges with a combination of physical exercises, nutritional guidance and academic training.

An NPR investigation of Brain Balance reveals a company whose promises have resonated with parents averse to medication. But Brain Balance also appears to have overstated the scientific evidence in its messaging to families, who can easily spend over $10,000 in six months, a common length of enrollment.

Brain Balance's metrics for consumer satisfaction are impressive. Customers rate the program, on average, an 8.5 on a 10-point scale in surveys, according to the company.

The ratings square with comments in online forums and in interviews NPR conducted with 18 parents who enrolled their children. Across the country, about three dozen centers are run by parents who began as happy customers.

Brain Balance's website is where caretakers encounter the company's strongest pitch: dozens upon dozens of parent testimonials.

Brain Balance Achievement Centers YouTube

One of the company's television commercials begins with a montage of formerly frustrated mothers. But, they all agree, Brain Balance put an end to their kids' challenges. One woman insists "it will completely, absolutely, 100 percent change your life."

Autism "can become a thing of the past."

The man who created Brain Balance, Robert Melillo, is often introduced as "Dr. Melillo" in media appearances. He has a doctorate and an active license in chiropractic. He is also acknowledged as an expert in the field of functional neurology, chiropractic's controversial alternative to mainstream neurology.

Melillo's biography states he has master's degrees in neuroscience and clinical rehabilitation neuropsychology, though it does not say from where.

A curriculum vitae for Melillo that NPR found on a website for chiropractic licensing boards says the master's in neuroscience came from the Carrick Institute for Graduate Studies, a chiropractic academy in Florida that isn't accredited by any of the agencies recognized by the Department of Education. His second master's degree is from a now-defunct program at Touro College, a private educational organization based in New York.

"This isn't smoke and mirrors. This is real stuff."
-- Robert Melillo, co-founder of Brain Balance Achievement Centers (2010)

Melillo says it was during an intense period of research in the 1990s, while his own son struggled with attention issues, that he conceived of a single disorder to explain everything from autism to ADHD to dyslexia. He called it functional disconnection syndrome.

As he writes in his book, Disconnected Kids, the syndrome occurs when "areas in the brain, especially the two hemispheres of the brain, are not electrically balanced, or synchronized."

The particulars of this imbalance are not clearly defined in the book, but numerous metaphors — some involving concert orchestras with bad timing or tuning — paint a picture of a child's brain unable to communicate with itself.

According to Melillo, a weak right hemisphere (the emotional half) can lead to autism and ADHD; a weak left hemisphere (the logical half) often causes learning disorders like dyslexia.

And he argues in the book that for people who follow his program, "ADHD, dyslexia, and even autism, among others, can become a thing of the past."

He even appears to see his program as the answer to societal problems.

In February, one day after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Melillo used his public Facebook page to envision a world where Brain Balance had reached the shooter.

Robert Melillo wrote on his Facebook page about Brain Balance and the
mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland,
Florida., one day after the incident. Facebook/Screenshot by NPR

"I can't help but wonder if Brain Balance and Brain Integration could have prevented this tragedy," Melillo wrote in the post alongside a news report in which the shooter's relatives said the teenager had been diagnosed with autism and took medication.

"We have to make the whole world more aware of Brain Imbalances and how they can be helped especially in kids," he added. "This is my mission now."

What Happens at Brain Balance

Stephanie and Natalie say they watched their older son from the other side of a two-way mirror as a Brain Balance staff member ran him through a series of tests during his baseline assessment. Later, they received his results: eight pages of ratings in unfamiliar categories.

"I have two master's [degrees] and a Ph.D., and I needed them explained to me," Natalie says. Their son had a weak right hemisphere. Additionally, his "frontal lobe acquisition" was lacking. His primitive reflexes were also in bad shape, according to the assessment, portions of which were shared with NPR.

The center recommended six months of one-hour sessions three times a week, a common course of intervention.

Brain Balance's approach breaks down into three broad categories: academic, nutrition and sensory-motor.

The academic exercises focus on the same areas targeted by many after-school tutoring programs. The nutritional component recommends decreasing a child's intake of gluten, dairy and refined sugar.

The third, and most complex, prong of Brain Balance's intervention is its sensory-motor training, a diverse set of physical exercises. Parents and former employees describe activities like walking across balance beams, syncing actions with a computerized metronome and being spun in swivel chairs.

A child demonstrates Brain Balance techniques on a TV program in Idaho. YouTube

Consistent with Melillo's theory, Brain Balance focuses much of its sensory-motor training on one-half of the child's body to send strengthening signals up and across to the supposedly weak, opposite hemisphere of the brain. (Much of the human brain indeed maps to the opposite half of the human body.)

For instance, with a "right brain weak" child like Stephanie and Natalie's son, Brain Balance may have him wear a vibrating armband on his left biceps or eyeglasses that allow light only onto the left visual field. Or they may simply have him stand on his left leg.

It has not been uncommon for parents to enroll their children for at least six months, costing roughly $12,000. The company recently said its average enrollment is now about four months. Assessments and optional nutritional supplements and blood tests can add hundreds of dollars.

The program isn't covered by insurance. Brain Balance offers payment plans to parents who can't cover the cost immediately. As of publication, close to 200 families have solicited money from relatives and friends with campaigns.

Brain Balance opened a center in Glen Allen, Va., in 2017. Chris Benderev/NPR

Natalie and Stephanie were quoted $5,000 for their first three months, with the option to re-up for more after.

"When you're talking about your child's self-esteem and knowing it's the most important thing, what are you going to do?" Stephanie says. "Maybe work a few more years and take a little bit out of your retirement so that maybe — if you nip this thing in the bud — he's able to have a better life going forward?"

They dipped into their retirement savings and enrolled both their sons at a total cost of more than $15,000.

"Cutting Edge" Science

In numerous media appearances, Melillo hasn't been shy about publicizing the strength of his program's scientific evidence.

"This isn't smoke and mirrors. This is real stuff. ... [Parents] are going to get real answers," Melillo told a radio host in 2010. "We've shown in our centers that we can correct these problems completely. We've proved that in research," he said on TV in 2014. "We use really cutting-edge brain science to address the issue," he said in 2016.

Yet a dozen experts in autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia and childhood psychiatry interviewed by NPR all identified flaws in Brain Balance's approach.

They said the company's idea of imbalanced hemispheres was too simplistic and built upon the popular, discredited myth of the logical left brain and the intuitive right brain.

"It doesn't make sense," says Mark Mahone, a pediatric neuropsychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. "In virtually every activity that one does ... both hemispheres of the brain are very, very active. ... It's not as simple as just being a left- or a right-hemisphere problem. Nothing is that simple."

Posters in the hallway of a Brain Balance Center in Glen Allen, Virginia
describe how the program works.Chris Benderev/NPR

As for the three-pronged Brain Balance regimen, experts NPR spoke with said there is no solid evidence suggesting gluten, dairy or sugar consumption affects ADHD, autism or dyslexia. And although physical exercise may have modest impacts on inattention and tutoring can help in school, these interventions can be found elsewhere for much less money. No expert suggested either as a front-line remedy for ADHD or autism.

Doctors and researchers NPR interviewed also questioned the diagnostic metrics Brain Balance uses.

For example, the company tests children for the primitive reflexes that drive infants to instinctively suckle or grab a finger. Natalie and Stephanie were told their son's lingering primitive reflexes were connected to his behavioral issues.

But multiple pediatricians said it is exceptionally rare for children older than 4 to retain any primitive reflexes.

"Typically by 1 year of age these primitive reflexes have disappeared," says Dr. Andrew Adesman, a developmental pediatrician at Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York. "The major exception is children who have cerebral palsy."

Melillo disagreed with the experts' opinions. "I think they're completely wrong," he says.

"Pediatricians rarely look at primitive reflexes after infancy, but if they did, they will find that, in many cases, they are still there," he wrote in an email.

Melillo also pushed back against the medical consensus that autism, ADHD and dyslexia aren't caused by hemispheric differences and that gluten doesn't affect such disorders.

"I can show you a lot of papers that actually say that there is a relationship between food sensitivities, gluten sensitivity and different types of issues and conditions," he says. "So again, it depends on the expert."

"Evidence Based"?

There are two published studies of Brain Balance, which the company has said show that 81 percent of children with ADHD no longer displayed symptoms after three months in the program.

"We have two studies now," Melillo said on local TV in 2013. "So that means that we qualify as what we call 'evidence based' at this point."

Brain Balance touted one of the studies on its blog with the headline, "Control Study Shows Brain Balance Eliminates ADHD Symptoms."

The studies, however, have serious scientific shortcomings.

Melillo, someone with a clear financial interest in the outcome, co-authored the first one.

He also had parents rate their own children's improvement in ADHD symptoms but didn't compare them with other kids who weren't in Brain Balance.

Without a control group, a study cannot definitively determine whether an intervention — a pill or procedure or program — is the reason for improvement or whether any change is simply the placebo effect.

The second study did feature a control group of children with ADHD who didn't do Brain Balance. But it compared them with the same children from the first study published years earlier instead of randomly assigning children into simultaneous treatment and control groups.

"My issue with these data is that there's no legitimate comparison for the treatment group, so we really don't know if [Brain Balance] helps," says Dr. Paul Wang, deputy director for clinical research at the Simons Foundation.

The experts NPR consulted took issue with other aspects of the studies as well.

"It means absolutely nothing. ... What we have here, in my view, is a marketing piece."
-- Dr. James McGough, of UCLA, on the published research about Brain Balance

The kids in the treatment and control groups differed in important ways, the experts said, rendering comparisons between them less meaningful. The two groups weren't drawn from the same centers; all of the treatment group was medicated while only 60 percent of the controls were; and at baseline the controls scored more severe on an ADHD rating scale.

Curiously, even though the second study reused the treatment group data from the first study published years earlier, it reported different improvements on those same kids' test scores.

The lead author on both studies, Gerry Leisman, a professor of neuro and rehabilitation sciences at the University of Haifa in Israel, explained one of the test score differences as a "reviewer correction" but did not provide explanations for any of the six remaining discrepancies.

Dr. James McGough, a professor of clinical psychiatry at UCLA's David Geffen Medical School, wasn't convinced by Brain Balance's published research. "It means absolutely nothing. ... What we have here, in my view, is a marketing piece."

At least one state remains similarly unconvinced.

In 2015, Wisconsin's Department of Health Services determined Brain Balance had "insufficient evidence" to show it was a "proven and effective treatment for individuals with autism spectrum disorder and/or other developmental disabilities," as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported. The state assigned Brain Balance to the second-lowest ranking on its five-tier system. The only lower ranking is for "potentially harmful" treatments.

The conclusion in 2015 by Wisconsin's Department of Health Services
Autism and other Developmental Disabilities Treatment Intervention
Advisory Committee about Brain Balance's effectiveness.

Brain Balance Defends Its Approach

Asked by NPR why Brain Balance hadn't been tested more thoroughly before its nationwide expansion began a decade ago, Melillo says the company was "faced with a dilemma." While he did feel an obligation to validate his approach, he says he knew Brain Balance worked and didn't want to deprive his clients of its benefits while waiting for clinical trials. "All these 25,000 families that we've helped, are they left suffering for years on end?"

"What was done to date was commensurate to the resources that we had," says Aleem Choudhry, the chairman of Brain Balance and a managing member at Crane Street Capital, which invested in the franchise in 2013.

The company says ADHD was the only disorder to be studied thus far because — contrary to the opinion of all the experts contacted by NPR — it is neurologically equivalent to others like autism, dyslexia and OCD. If Brain Balance improves ADHD symptoms, Melillo says, "then we believe that we're going to get the same results in the other types of issues, because they're really the same problem."

Melillo also says the company's proprietary records from about 80,000 before-and-after client assessments qualify as corroboration. Melillo disputed the idea that his company's own data may require third-party review. "Data is data," he says. "There's no bias in the way we collect this."

A new study of a computerized version of Brain Balance is underway at a Harvard-affiliated hospital and features a concurrent control group of children.

But Melillo says that questions about the research behind Brain Balance ultimately miss a larger, more important point.

"Families are out there struggling and suffering, and they don't really give a crap about the data or the research, to be quite honest," he says. "When they go through it and they see the difference in their child ... that's what matters to them."

Choudhry, the company's chairman, later clarified that "we very much do care about the data."

No Easy Answer

With both their boys enrolled in Brain Balance, the routine for Stephanie and Natalie's family was frantic.

Three times a week, Stephanie would ferry their sons against traffic to and from their sessions. Family dinners became more rushed. Soccer and swimming were abandoned.

Lost time is often a hidden cost of any form of treatment.

The mothers began observing changes in their older son. They say his previously weak sense of smell suddenly blossomed, first for brownies and then other foods. And he became less obsessed with characters he had repetitively sketched in his notebooks and imbued with rich inner lives. 
(His parents are torn as to whether this was a positive development.)

He also advanced in certain Brain Balance measures, including his primitive reflexes.

After a few months of sessions with Brain Balance, Stephanie and
Natalie's older son could smell brownies, they say.Hokyoung Kim for NPR

"It's not that the needle didn't move on some of those dimensions," says Natalie. "But if you step back at the 10,000- or 100,000-foot view and say, 'Is this kid different in a way that his life is going to be better or altered?' the answer is 'No.' OK, so now he can smell brownies that he couldn't smell before but is his life different?"

She says she and her wife began to feel discouraged, thinking about the "aura around this program that says your child's going to be different and better-adjusted."

Eric Rossen of the National Association of School Psychologists isn't surprised by Brain Balance's popularity as an option beyond what schools and insurance will cover.

He says many parents are frustrated by mainstream medicine's limits when it comes to complex disorders like autism. And schools are sometimes too strapped for resources to provide students with learning disorders all the help their parents may want.

"Most parents will say they would die for their children," Rossen says. "So to say, 'I want to provide some therapy and pay a few thousand dollars' is quite short of dying for them and it's totally reasonable."

But he says "the problem is they are easy prey for certain providers that can make promises that cannot necessarily be kept or are not necessarily backed by scientific data."

For parents looking to find evidence-based third-party interventions, experts suggest the What Works Clearinghouse, which is backed by the Department of Education, or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's own resource.

Brain Balance's protocol doesn't appear to pose any physical or developmental harms to children. Instead, the program's costs may come in other ways: siphoning away time and money, and prolonging the hope in some parents that their child may one day shed his or her disorder.

Dr. Susan Hyman, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester who has studied autism treatments for decades, says many alternative providers do this by offering an unrealistically simple solution.

"If you were to come to a traditional provider who said, 'You know I'm going to have you work really, really, really hard. ... I might have some drugs. Drugs have side effects. And 90 percent of the time, as an adult, he is still going to have autism,' that's a far less attractive message than 'I can help you.' "

Beyond Brain Balance

By the end of their older son's second three-month session at Brain Balance, Stephanie and Natalie had completely soured on it. They stopped believing that vibrating armbands and spinning in swivel chairs would translate to social success.

They decided to not continue.

Later, in second grade, their older son began to work with a social worker at school who taught him how to have socially acceptable conversation with his peers.

And Stephanie and Natalie did something else — the unthinkable.

They put their son on a medication called Strattera. Calibrating the proper dosage with tolerable side effects was a drawn-out process, but eventually they reached an equilibrium. Their older son ended up with a new diagnosis that has some overlap with autism but is more consistent with ADHD, which the medication treats.

Hokyoung Kim for NPR

Today, he seems to be navigating the world more successfully than before.

On a Saturday last August, their older son — who once plaintively asked his parents, "Why aren't I invited to birthday parties?" — had just wrapped up a party to celebrate turning 10 years old.

Natalie and Stephanie had pizzas delivered and rented a truck lined with pleather sofas on one side and video game systems along the other. The children sat in pairs and used their greasy fingers to dispatch their avatars against each other in virtual battle.

"They were yelling my son's name and saying 'Come play with me! Come play with me!' " recalls Natalie.

The birthday boy says he invited almost all of his friends, from school and camp, and all but one showed up, which was more than he could have ever imagined before.

"Because," he says before pausing. "I haven't had friends for a bit. Until I got my medicine. I got some treatment. I got help. Now, I have tons of friends."

Friday, June 22, 2018

Children with Disabilities and Absenteeism

From Jim Gerl's Special Education Law Blog

By Jim Gerl, Esq.
June 17, 2018

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) has released a report on Students with Disabilities and Absenteeism. The brief provides information on chronic absenteeism and its possible implications for students with disabilities, when a state selects it as a measure of school quality or student success under ESEA.

Here is an excerpt from the report:

"The 2013-14 national data showed that elementary school students with disabilities served by IDEA were 1.5 times as likely to be chronically absent as elementary school students without disabilities. High school students with disabilities served by IDEA were 1.4 times as likely to be chronically absent as high school students without disabilities.

Across subgroups, only Native students (American Indian or Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander) exceeded the rates of chronic absenteeism for students with disabilities. This disparity is echoed in more recent data collected by states.

For example, Connecticut’s (2017) data for the 2015-2016 school year showed that students with disabilities served by IDEA continued to exhibit substantially higher chronic absenteeism rates than their general education peers despite statewide prevention and intervention efforts. Eighteen percent of Connecticut’s students with disabilities were chronically absent compared to 9.6 percent overall."

The report analyzes the legal implications of the problem and makes a number of recommendations concerning the topic- including recommending an IEP Team Meeting when absences are connected to the student's disability.

You can read the eight page report here.

Vacation Tips for Parents of Children with ASD


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
June 20, 2018

Summer is here, the kids are out of school, and it’s time for that family road trip!

But let’s not kid each other – road trips make for great memories, but can also come with stressors. Often times your family is packed into a vehicle for hours, if not days, at a time. Hotel rooms can be confining, and theme parks can be overstimulating, hot, and tiresome.

While most families have experienced the stressors of vacation, they can be particularly challenging for parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

So before you pile the kids in the car for that two-day drive to Disney World, we have a few suggestions to help ensure your vacation runs smoothly:

Create a visual schedule.

A visual schedule is simply a visual representation of activities that take place consecutively across one or more days, and can be a great way to minimize surprises and ensure your child knows what to expect during the trip. Moreover, creating the visual schedule can be a fun activity to do with your child that can help get him/her excited about the vacation.

One simple way to create a visual schedule is to print out cards with names or pictures of activities or places. Attach the cards to a timeline, and review the timeline with your child at the start of the trip and at the beginning of each day. As you progress through the schedule, have your child remove cards from the timeline.

As an extra tip, consider decorating the schedule with things your child likes (e.g., favorite animals, sports, etc…).

Create a token system.

A token is simply an object that can be exchanged for a variety of preferred items later. Tokens have an advantage in that they are easy to quickly administer whenever your child does something positive. Be sure to make the tokens out of something that is fun for the child. For example, if your child likes video games, you could print out images of gold Mario coins and give your child a coin immediately following something good.

You can also create a simple reinforcer menu that lists an array of preferred items or activities in which your child can receive by exchanging different amounts of tokens. For example, five tokens might earn a treat, ten tokens might earn an extra ride at an amusement park, and 15 tokens might earn a new favorite video game.

Structure the environment.

Structure can take a variety of forms depending on your child’s needs. The basic idea is to arrange the environment in a way that is most likely to prevent maladaptive behavior, and encourage adaptive skills. For example, if your child is sound sensitive, you may take extra care to reduce the radio volume in the car, or avoid noisy places with large crowds.

Structure also includes consistency on the part of parents in using reinforcement, the visual schedule, praising adaptive skills, and so on.

Let your child know what to expect.

Though visual schedules go a long way toward establishing expectations, you may not always have the schedule in front of you. Not to worry! Establishing expectations can take a variety of forms, all geared towards reducing surprises during transitions.

For example, you could say “in 5 minutes we will leave the restaurant” or “it looks like there may be alot of people at the next ride”. Sometimes combining these strategies with choice options will go a long way to preventing maladaptive behaviors as well.

For example, you could say “the ride we wanted to go on might be closed by the time we get there. If it is, would you like to do X or Y?”

Try to avoid lines.

Waiting in line can be a stressor in and of itself – typically there are few activities to occupy the child in line, and the presence of many other people could overstimulate your child. Thus, you might consider purchasing special passes that allow you to skip the line.

Check for special accommodations.

These days, more and more places have accommodations for kids with special needs. Accommodations could take the form of wheelchair ramps, sensory activities, an autism friendly movie theater, and many more. Larger tourist destinations will be particularly likely to have such accommodations. Before your trip, look online or give them a call to see what’s available. You might be surprised!

Be safe.

Safety is every parent’s top concern for their child. In the event your child gets lost, simple things such as having identification, contact numbers, or a cell phone, can do a lot. You might also consider practicing adaptive safety skills that your child can use if need be. The latter might include “stranger danger” skills, how to identify police officers, and where to meet if your family gets separated.

Todd A. Ward, Ph.D., BCBA-D received his Ph.D. in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar. He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues. Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

BPA Seems to Alter Communication for Generations

From the University of Misouri
via Futurity

By Jeff Sossamon
June 19, 2018

Mouse pups whose grandparents experienced BPA exposure show different vocalization patterns, which can affect the amount of parental care they receive, a new study shows.

Past studies showed negative effects on offspring when when BPA-exposed mothers and fathers provide care. Scientists believe the new findings with grandparents could have important relevance to humans.

“Rodent pups use vocalizations to communicate with one or both parents, as in the case of biparental species, such as California mice,” says Cheryl Rosenfeld, professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, an investigator in the Bond Life Sciences Center, and research faculty member for the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurobehavioral Disorders.

“There are potential concerns that developmental exposure to BPA might increase an infant’s risk for autism spectrum disorder. Crying is the infant’s earliest communication form and changes in crying vocalization patterns might provide the earliest diagnostic tool for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Thus, it is important to determine whether multigenerational exposure to BPA can alter pup vocalization patterns.”

The California mouse is used as a model for examining parental behaviors because they are monogamous and, much like humans, both male and female partners contribute to neonatal-rearing. Impaired care could lead to adverse consequences for the young and, since brain regions and hormones regulating biparental behaviors appear to be similar across species.

Bisphenol A is a chemical that is used in a variety of consumer products, such as water bottles, dental composites, and resins used to line metal food and beverage containers. These endocrine disruptors affect the global regulatory pathways of the brain often mimicking the function of natural hormones in animals and humans during crucial stages of development.

As reported in PLOS ONE, researchers exposed female and male California mice to one of three diets. One contained BPA; the second contained concentrations of ethinyl estradiol, another endocrine disruptor; and the third was free of endocrine disruptors.

The offspring went on an endocrine disruptor-free diet when they were weaned and throughout their lifespan. Finally, the vocalization patterns of the third generation of mice, which also were not directly exposed to BPA or EE, were examined.

The researchers tests the grandoffspring in “recording boxes” in isolation and away from their home-cages. There, they recorded pups at intervals on given days that represented different times in their development. They measured vocalizations for duration, as well as patterns or “syllables,” which represent phrases that pups emit when calling their parents for care.

These vocalizations were then measured against pups that were not exposed to BPA or ethinyl estradiol (EE).

New clues to language issues in kids with autism

“We found that during specific postnatal periods, BPA and EE exposed, second-generation pups demonstrated augmented vocalization responses, which could indicate that they are in distress,” Rosenfeld says.

“This could be problematic as their heightened vocalization patterns at certain postnatal days might also suggest they are perceiving and responding to the compromised parental care, as we have already shown, but yet, the parents are not adjusting the amount of parental care provided in response to their increased vocalizations."

Such effects might also be attributed to multigenerational exposure to BPA and EE, and suggest that even from early postnatal life, grandoffspring whose grandparents were exposed to these endocrine disruptors are showing mental distress.

Catalyst clears 99 percent of BPA from water

“While more work needs to be done, the multigenerational effects observed in California mice pups could thus also have ties to human communication deficits as seen in people with autism or other neurobehavioral disorders.”

A National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Grant funded the work.

Original Study DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0199107

Nearly 750 Charter Schools are Whiter than the Nearby District Schools

From The Hechinger Report

By Emmanuel Felton
June 17, 2018

Loose laws let scores of charters create policies that favor white students.

GREENSBORO, GEORGIAThis was clearly no ordinary public school.

Parents of prospective students converged on Lake Oconee Academy for an open house on a bright but unseasonably cold March afternoon for northern Georgia. A driveway circling a landscaped pond led them to the school’s main hall. The tan building had the same luxury-lodge feel as the nearby Ritz-Carlton resort.

Parents oohed and aahed as Jody Worth, the upper school director, ushered them through the campus. Nestled among gated communities, golf courses and country clubs, the school felt like an oasis of opportunity in a county of haves and have-nots, where nearly half of all children live in poverty while others live in multimillion-dollar lakeside houses.

Lake Oconee Academy was the brainchild of the Reynolds Lake Oconee
real estate company. Photo: Terrell Clark/The Hechinger Report

The school’s halls and classrooms are bright and airy, with high ceilings and oversize windows looking out across the lush landscape. There is even a terrace on which students can work on warm days.

After a guide pointed out several science labs, the tour paused at the “piano lab.” The room holds 25 pianos, 10 of them donated by residents of the nearby exclusive communities. The guide also noted that starting in elementary school, all students take Spanish, art and music classes. The high school, which enrolls less than 200 students, has been able to offer as many as 17 Advanced Placement courses.

Stunned, one mother, who was considering moving her family from suburban Atlanta to the area, asked how the school could afford it all. Lake Oconee’s amenities are virtually unheard of in rural Georgia; and because it is a public school, they are all available at the unbeatable price of free.

“It’s where districts and schools decide to spend their money,” Worth, a veteran educator who has also taught in Greene County’s traditional public schools, explained. “Some schools spend their money on overhead. We spend it on students.”

Conspicuously absent from the open house were African-American parents. Of the dozen or so prospective families in attendance, all were white except for one South Asian couple.

At Lake Oconee Academy, 73 percent of students are white. Down the road at Greene County’s other public schools, 12 percent of students are white and 68 percent are black; there isn’t a piano lab and there are far fewer AP courses.

“It’s like a black and white thing, who has money and who doesn’t have money.”
-- Kim Smith, a mother of three in Greene County

Lake Oconee Academy is a charter school. Charters are public schools, ostensibly open to all. The idea behind charters was to loosen rules and regulations hindering innovation. Many charters hire teachers who don’t belong to a teachers union or haven’t gone through a traditional teacher preparation program, for example.

But some charters have also used their greater flexibility to limit which kids make it through the schoolhouse doors — creating exclusive, disproportionately white schools.

Lake Oconee Academy is one of 115 charters at which the percentage of white students is at least 20 points higher than at any of the traditional public schools in the districts where they are located, according to an investigation by The Hechinger Report and the Investigative Fund, produced in collaboration with NBC News. The analysis used federal enrollment data for the 2015-16 school year, the most recent year for which that data is available from the U.S. Department of Education.

The 20-percentage-point difference has often been used in federal desegregation lawsuits as a measure for which schools are considered “racially identifiable.” These 115 charters, which together enroll nearly 48,000 children, were concentrated in just a handful of states.

In 2016, California had 33 racially identifiable white charters, Texas was home to 19 and Michigan, 14. At nearly 63 points, the gap between the percentages of white students at Lake Oconee Academy and at the whitest traditional public school in the area was the fourth-widest in the country.

In all, there are at least 747 public charter schools around the country that enroll a higher percentage of white students than any of the traditional public schools in the school districts where they are located. The differences between the charters and the whitest nearby public schools ranged from less than 1 percent to 78 percent. These schools represented one in 10 charters operating during the 2015-16 school year.

Not all of these schools are necessarily contributing to school segregation. In cities where many of the public schools almost exclusively serve African-American children, these disproportionally white charters are the only racially diverse schools. But many of the 747 charters have implemented policies that critics say make it difficult for lower-income families to access them.


Otho Tucker, who has served as Lake Oconee Academy’s CEO since it opened in 2007, said in an emailed statement that the school is,

“... committed to serving a diverse student population. … We have taken meaningful steps to focus our outreach and enrollment efforts on families that are traditionally considered educationally disadvantaged. We are also committed to increasing the diversity of our faculty, staff, and board members, and see that as a priority and a core component of the quality educational experience that we provide our students.”

But some residents say that policies at the school make it hard for black families to enroll their kids: Land’s End uniforms they can’t afford, and the fact that the charter doesn’t provide bus transportation to and from school, while the other public schools do. To many in this starkly divided county, this public charter school doesn’t seem all that public.

Greene County has become a frequent campaign pit stop for both state
and national politicians. Photo: Terrell Clark/The Hechinger Report

In its early years, Lake Oconee Academy created a priority attendance zone for the gated communities that surround it. This is legal in several states, allowing charters to pick the neighborhoods they want to serve. While these schools usually hold randomized admissions lotteries open to everyone in their school districts, families in preferred attendance zones get first dibs.

Several of the 747 charters only offer their admissions materials in English, excluding immigrant families who speak other languages. (The ACLU of Arizona found that 26 percent of the charter schools it contacted didn’t provide admissions materials in Spanish, despite the prevalence of Spanish speakers in the state.)

And, some of these charters pressure parents to volunteer a certain number of hours, which can be hard on working families.

“What the charter schools will say is, ‘Hey we’re innocent, it’s the parents who choose. We can’t help what they choose,’” said Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University who has spent almost two decades studying charter schools. “But when you look at marketing materials and other things, the school is obviously sending messages about their school and what type of students they want.”

Politicians often sell charters as a solution for low-income black and brown students stuck in chronically poor-performing public schools. Yet, by 2015, racially identifiable white charter schools (those with white student populations at least 20 percent higher than any traditional public schools in the district) had emerged in 18 states — at a time when charters existed in 42 states.

The federal government has played a role in the growth of these charters by granting charter startup grants to schools without considering whether they will lead to increased segregation. Some have been approved even while their communities were still under active school desegregation court orders, and in one case even after residents implored the federal court to step in and bar the school from opening.

Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says that, in some parts of the country, organizations that oversee charters have started to take a more active role in ensuring that the schools enroll a diverse student body. Still, he thinks there’s more to be done.

“[W]here do schools want to locate, who do they want to serve, what strategies are the schools going to put in place to make sure everyone has knowledge and access?” he said. “The state boards of education and the state education departments should be asking those questions at the front end and then monitoring schools and letting charters know if their percentages are way out of whack.”

The case of Lake Oconee Academy doesn’t just illustrate how charter schools can segregate a community, it also underscores how charters can give well-connected individuals outsize influence on local schools. The charter was the creation of a real estate development company that is also the county’s largest employer, Reynolds Lake Oconee. Company officials and their allies sit on many of the county’s most important boards.

Enrollment at Lake Oconee Academy has grown from 11 in 2007 to nearly 1,000 students today. Meanwhile, enrollment at the area’s other public schools is down to approximately 1,600 total students, from 2,107 in 2007. The drop in enrollment has contributed to years of staff and budget reductions. This year, in February, the school board voted to close two of the district’s five majority-black public schools.

Tucker says his school’s growth is unrelated to the cuts at the other schools. “You’re going to hear that argument no matter what community you go to,” said Tucker in an interview. “But if you look at the numbers and data, that just doesn’t bear out. And in fact, we’re drawing people to the county, so that helps all the schools here.”

There’s disagreement over whether the charter school is responsible for pulling resources away from the traditional public schools. This year, the charter received $12,500 per student in public funds, while other district schools received $18,500 per pupil, according to Michael Lynch, chairman of the Greene County School Board, which oversees both the charter school and the traditional public schools.

For the first nine years of its existence, the charter school would get a set amount of funding, no matter how much other money the school board received through taxes and support from the state and federal government. School board member Velicia Cobb says that guarantee led to years of cuts at the district schools. (In 2016, Cobb worked to push Lake Oconee to agree to accept a more equitable manner of determining funding for the charter school.)

Over the years, the school board and other county officials have also gotten into legal trouble due to attempts to steer money to Lake Oconee. In 2014, just five years after the county issued $17 million worth of bonds for Lake Oconee, the state supreme court struck down the county’s attempt to issue another $14 million worth of bonds for the school. A judge in the case concluded that the $14 million bond was not sound, feasible, or reasonable.

The other Greene County public schools serve more students with higher needs; those students often require extra resources to help them succeed academically. In the traditional schools, 13 percent of students received special education services in 2016-17; at the charter, that number was 7 percent. Additionally, 7 percent of students at the other district schools are English language learners compared to 4 percent at Lake Oconee.

Sandra Lawson, a mother of two, applied to Lake Oconee Academy in 2016.
Photo: Terrell Clark/The Hechinger Report

The charter school also benefits from having its own private foundation, the Lake Oconee Academy Foundation, which raised more than $200,000 in 2015 and has more than $800,000 in assets. Those resources have helped Lake Oconee post some of the highest test scores in the state. While 64 percent of Lake Oconee eighth-graders passed the state’s eighth-grade math test in 2017, 9 percent of the other district students did.

The gap was similar on the reading tests, on which 75 percent of charter school students passed, compared to 16 percent of the other district students. In 2014, the charter was awarded a coveted National Blue Ribbon from the U.S. Department of Education.

Kim Smith is a black mother of three who makes $13.75 an hour as a cashier at a gas station just up the road from Lake Oconee Academy. For Smith, the gap in resources between the mostly white charter and mostly black traditional schools are proof of what the Supreme Court decided more than 60 years ago, that separate can never be equal.

“It’s like a black and white thing, who has money and who doesn’t have money,” said Smith. “It’s not like the kids over here don’t have dreams or don’t have goals. The school board is not giving all kids a chance.”


In Lake Oconee’s early years, Smith, 32, didn’t give much thought to the charter. At one point, she says she received a letter from Lake Oconee Academy offering spots to her two eldest children, who were both honor roll students. Without school bus transportation, it just wasn’t an option for her family, so Smith threw the letter away. But she started to worry as Lake Oconee seemed to drain resources from the schools she’d attended as a child.

Reynolds Lake Oconee, originally Reynolds Plantation, has been building
luxury property in Greene County since the 1980s.
Photo: Terrell Clark/The Hechinger Report

In addition to the gas station job, she works cleaning houses in the gated communities and sees close-up how much wealth the area has. The more she’s seen, the angrier she’s become. Smith likes her children’s schools, but she wishes they had access to the same amenities offered to Lake Oconee Academy students. “I can’t buy 25 pianos,” she said.

Reynolds Lake Oconee, originally named Reynolds Plantation, was founded by Republican mega-donor Mercer Reynolds III. Reynolds doesn’t live in Georgia, but his grandfather was born in Greene County and made a fortune developing a process for solidifying cottonseed oil. The family amassed more than 10,000 acres of land in the area.

In the 1980s, they set up a development company to build luxury real estate there. In the heart of an economically depressed area of the South known as the Black Belt — both for the color of its soil and for its large, African-American population, most descended from slaves — Greene County seemed a strange place to put a Ritz-Carlton and a golf course.

But after Lake Oconee was created as a reservoir by Georgia Power, the Reynolds found themselves with acres of lakefront property. The pristine lake and an aggressive marketing campaign would soon attract new families to the county.

At first, many of the houses in the area that locals call “The Lake” were purchased as vacation homes, or by retirees. But by the early 2000s, the Reynolds company was looking to expand by building homes targeted at younger families, recalls John Jackson, who served as Greene County superintendent at the time. He says Reynolds executives approached him about starting a school in the lake area. Jackson said he wouldn’t consider opening a new school, but offered to set up a gifted program that would be open to all Greene County students.

Without Jackson’s support, Reynolds’ proposed school could go nowhere. But as the area’s population grew, so did its residents’ political power. A slate of new school board candidates ran in the 2004 election. Jackson says a coalition of Reynolds allies took over the school board in 2005.

By June of 2005, Jackson had left the district. In December of 2006, the school board called a special meeting. The sole item on the agenda was the charter school, and the board voted four to one to approve it. Roi Johnson, longtime pastor of New Springfield Baptist Church in the small town of Siloam, says he stood up and declared, “What you’re doing is re-segregating the schools intentionally.”

The school still needed to get approval from the state. So over the next few months, Reynolds executives sold it to state officials. Rabun Neal, now president of Reynolds Lake Oconee and the lead petitioner for the charter school in 2006, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, but in 2007 he told the Associated Press, “We believe if we have a community-based school in this area, the people will move here.”

In a separate interview with the Athens Banner-Herald, he detailed the company’s plans. The newspaper reported that, according to Neal, the school would mainly serve families who bought into a new development of 1,500 starter homes. A 2007 company document laid out the perks of making it “the cornerstone” of the community:

“Although the school will be open, on a limited basis, to those who live outside district boundaries, the most important aspect of Lake Oconee Academy with regard to [the company] is that it will enable younger families, including employees of [the company], to live in the area affordably, in both apartments and homes.”


Lake Oconee Academy is expanding. A new high school facility is under
\construction. Photo: Terrell Clark/The Hechinger Report

According to its 2007 charter application, 80 percent of Lake Oconee Academy’s seats would go to children living in Zone 1, which was mainly comprised of Reynolds’ properties; 12 percent would go to kids living in the mostly white neighborhoods nearby; and the final 8 percent of seats would be for families in the rest of Greene County.

Those attendance zones all but guaranteed that the school would serve a whiter and more affluent student body than Greene County’s traditional public schools.

In the summer of 2007, a group of Greene County residents traveled to Atlanta to protest what they saw as a plot to re-segregate their schools. Despite the pushback, state education officials approved the charter. Although its opening was controversial, Lake Oconee Academy didn’t initially attract much attention from local families.

The school’s first building wasn’t as luxurious as its current campus: It opened in rented space in Lakeside Church, a predominantly white Southern Baptist congregation near the entrance to the gated communities. In the school’s first year, just 11 students enrolled — all were white. But soon, scores of local families would find themselves on the charter’s long waitlist.

By 2015, Georgia was hosting two other racially identifiable white charter campuses. Enrollment at Pataula Charter Academy in Edison, Georgia, was 77 percent white, while the student body in the district’s next-whitest school was less than 2 percent white — the second-largest enrollment divergence nationally at the time.

Baconton Community Charter School, with a 63-point gap between its percentage of white students and that of the other schools in its district, had the fifth-largest gap.

In 2016, Southwest Georgia STEM Charter School launched in Randolph County. The charter opened on the former campus of a private school, which, according to data provided to the federal government in 2012, didn’t enroll a single black student. Today, the new school, with an enrollment of 199, is 75 percent white.

Meanwhile, there are only 20 white students enrolled in the rest of Randolph County’s district schools, in which 95 percent of students are black.

In an emailed statement, Louis Erste, associate superintendent for district flexibility, charter schools, policy and governmental affairs with the Georgia Department of Education, said the state requires that charter schools provide an equal opportunity to all students and expects them to “make every attempt to market and recruit to the entire community that the school serves.”

However, he acknowledged that various factors can influence “the students who choose to enroll in a charter school,” and have an impact on school diversity. The state has set specific diversity benchmarks that schools “with diversity issues” — including Lake Oconee Academy — must meet, according to Erste.

Greene County is a rural county located in the Black Belt.
Photo: Terrell Clark/The Hechinger Report

The proliferation of racially identifiable white charters in some states but not others can be attributed in part to differences in state laws. In addition to allowing charters to draw their own attendance zones, Georgia doesn’t require charter schools to provide school bus transportation. The four states with the most racially identifiable white charters — Michigan, Arizona, Texas and California — also don’t require charters to offer transportation or to address the issue in their charter applications.

And in North Carolina, which had six such charter schools in 2015, lawmakers have discussed allowing charters to give priority to children whose parents work at corporations that have contributed at least $50,000 to the school. In June, lawmakers passed a bill that lets four mostly white and affluent Charlotte suburbs open up charter schools that would give preference to their residents.


In Lake Oconee’s original charter petition, Neal projected rapid growth at the school, but the 2008-9 housing crash and recession stymied the company’s plans to build new homes.

Greene County residents say that’s when they started receiving recruitment letters from the charter targeting high achievers. Kim Smith was just one of several black parents who say they got letters. But most of the families who eventually enrolled were white.

Many had sent their kids to the local public schools, but others came from the nearby, virtually all-white private school, Nathanael Greene Academy. According to data provided by Nathanael Greene to the federal government, enrollment at the school dropped from 274 in 2007 to 139 in 2015.

Even after this outreach, the ranks of black students at Lake Oconee remained low. Some black families, however, did join the school. Tasheka Redd, a black mother of five who works in the concierge department at Reynolds Lake Oconee, enrolled one of her daughters at the charter in 2013. She was lured not just by the school’s test scores but also by the praise her co-workers at Reynolds heaped on it. “When I first got there, there wasn’t even 20 black families at the school,” she said. But she was impressed from the beginning.

“It was wonderful for us,” said Redd. “As time went on, my other children weren’t getting what they needed in school. … So I said, you know what, I’m sending them to LOA [Lake Oconee Academy].” She eventually moved three of her kids to the charter school. (Her oldest son, who played football, a sport not offered by the charter, went on to graduate from Greene County High School in 2017.)

Because she works nearby, and also gets help from her mom and sister, Redd says transporting her kids to school is less of a challenge for her than for many families. She says Lake Oconee was particularly beneficial for her son diagnosed with autism. When he was enrolled at other district public schools, she said, he was bullied and cried every day. Now he’s “a social butterfly,” and she credits the staff at Lake Oconee for that transformation. “It’s because of the staff here. They love them genuinely,” she said.


Kim Smith, a mother of three, has set up a

Facebook page to support Greene County’s
traditional public schools. Photo:
Terrell Clark/The Hechinger Report
Sandra Lawson, a 46-year-old black mother of two, was searching for that kind of experience for her own kids. She heard how much Lake Oconee Academy had to offer. But, Lawson said, other black parents told her that black students weren’t welcome there. “I thought surely that could not be happening in 2016,” she said. Lawson, an ambitious go-getter who was valedictorian of her high school, was undeterred.

“I always heard about the push for academic excellence,” said Lawson of Lake Oconee. “As a parent you want to give your child every advantage that is possible.”

Lawson had moved her family to Greene County in 2008 after taking an administrative support position at the Greensboro Housing Authority. She enrolled her daughter, Nevaeh, in pre-K at Greensboro Elementary School just as Lake Oconee Academy was getting off the ground.

Lawson agrees with the charter school’s advocates that the Greene County Public Schools were struggling even then. But she says that as time went on, the district schools got worse. She fought for years to get her son evaluated for a learning disability, and she was increasingly worried about what opportunities her daughter was missing.

After years of principal turnover at her kids’ school, Lawson applied for two spots at Lake Oconee in 2016. Although the charter had officially eliminated its preference for particular zones in 2016, the application form asked her to indicate in which attendance zone she lived. (She wrote “Zone 1.” Lawson, in fact, lived on the other side of the highway, in Zone 3.) Lawson submitted the application in March 2016 and waited.

According to Lawson, she got a call later that month from Robin Weir, who oversees the charter’s admissions and enrollment. Lawson said Weir told her that Jayden, Lawson’s son, would need to be kept back a year. Though disappointed, she kept both of her children in the admissions lottery. About a week later, she said she received a letter from the school. Nevaeh was put on the waitlist at the number 14 spot for her grade; Jayden landed the seventh spot for his grade.

“I’ll be the first to admit that we have a problem with diversity. But if you look at the numbers, we’re trending in the right direction.”
-- Otho Tucker, CEO of Lake Oconee Academy

By 2014, Lake Oconee Academy had grown to 574 students. But as it prospered, tensions rose. In early February of that year, pastor Roi Johnson led a one-man protest against the charter. Over several weeks, the demonstration grew to dozens of people. On February 24, about 80 protesters gathered for the final demonstration at the entrance of the school. They were met by more than 12 Greene County Sheriff’s deputies and six Georgia State Patrol troopers, according to a local news report.

Protesters held up signs imploring Lake Oconee Academy to “end the bigotry.” The protest ended peaceably, but Johnson thinks the events ramped up public pressure on Lake Oconee ahead of the fight over the renewal of its charter in 2016. It was during that fight that the school agreed to dismantle its attendance zones and to change the school’s funding model.

Lake Oconee is one of several racially identifiable white charters that have been forced to change their practices. In 2007, a charter school in Red Bank, New Jersey, promised to recruit more Hispanic students after the local school board sued the school to demand that it increase its diversity. Nearly a decade later, local parents lodged a complaint with the school’s board, arguing that the charter still hadn’t adequately addressed the issue.

In Marin County, California, the state stopped the local school board from sending additional dollars to a local charter school that served a disproportionately large number of white students compared to the district’s traditional public school, which is 70 percent black and Hispanic.


Today, Lake Oconee Academy is 73 percent white, down from 81 percent white in 2014. The added diversity is largely due to more Asian and Hispanic students. The black population has grown from 7 percent of total enrollment in 2014 to 10 percent. Further diversifying the school will be difficult. Each year, there are few open spots after it enrolls the children of teachers and board members, who are mostly white, and siblings of current students.

“I’ll be the first to admit that we have a problem with diversity,” said Tucker in an interview. “But if you look at the numbers, we’re trending in the right direction.”

A statement provided by Tucker to NBC News said that Lake Oconee Academy is seeking to increase the population of educationally disadvantaged students by 4 percent each year by reaching out to churches and community groups, advertising throughout the county and participating in local fairs and events.

At 115 charters nationwide, which enroll nearly 48,000 children, the percentage of white students is at least 20 points higher than at any of the traditional public schools in the districts where they are located nearby district schools.

In its new charter agreement the school promised to increase its ranks of nonwhite students. But this year’s preschool class, the grade at which most children enter the school, was even whiter than the school as a whole, at 78 percent white.

In a February, 2018 letter, school CEO Otho Tucker requested increasing the school’s enrollment again — 58 new seats to accommodate the incoming kindergarten class and 17 extra seats to meet demand for the school’s few open spots. While the current Superintendent of Greene County Schools, Chris Houston, didn’t recommend against granting the new seats, at a school board meeting a few weeks later, he did tell the board they’d likely have to raise taxes to make it happen.

“It’s important for the voters to know where the increase is coming from,” said Houston in an interview. “We’re working to minimize [our costs] to break even if possible.” Despite the additional burden on the county’s taxpayers, the board voted to grant the charter permission to enroll more students.

Houston says Lake Oconee Academy has collaborated more with the other district schools as it’s grown, but it’s also demanded more. “As time went on, more, more and more resources had to be provided.”

Residents and at least one current school board member say that the academy’s success has starved programs at the other district schools, and that it’s going to take a while for those schools to recover from years of funding cuts.

But Tasheka Redd thinks one of the main reasons the district schools are struggling is a lack of parent involvement: “Here at LOA, parents care,” she said. “It’s required.”

“A lot of people say LOA is getting all the money, that’s why the schools in town can’t function,” added Redd. “That’s not true, LOA has so many fundraisers. … They don’t realize the parents are putting these on so the school can have what it needs.”

Redd said that, like many other black parents, she was originally distrustful of Lake Oconee. “I thought that they were building a school for white kids.” But she believes that Dr. Tucker “wants to help everyone.”

“It’s not like the kids over here don’t have dreams or don’t have goals. The school board is not giving all kids a chance.”
-- Kim Smith, a mother of three and activist

District parents like Kim Smith still see a fight ahead for their children’s education. “They are going to take away from us to build this up,” she said. After noticing that Lake Oconee boosters often packed school board meetings, but few district school parents attended, Smith decided to start a Facebook page to get more local parents involved. It now has more than 300 members and has become the grass-roots home of the resistance.

Smith also sent a letter in early 2018 to the Georgia ACLU asking for an investigation into the school’s funding stream and enrollment practices.

In early March, Smith received a form letter back, saying that the ACLU would not be opening an investigation into the charter school or the Greene County Board of Education. She said, “The school board is looking at me laughing: ‘What is she going to do, she’s one person.’ That’s why I’m like, ‘Hey, y’all got to stand with me and actually make a move.’ ” She is considering one day running for the school board herself.

For Sandra Lawson, it’s not worth the fight. Her children never made it off of Lake Oconee’s waitlist, so, rather than apply again the next year, she decided to leave Greene County entirely.

“As a parent, you want the best for your children, and you just don’t stop,” she said. “You do the necessary things to ensure that your children have the best education that you can possibly afford.”

She moved her family to neighboring Putnam County, where there is no charter school. Putnam County district schools have better test scores than Greene County’s traditional public schools and are more integrated, with both white and black students each comprising about 40 percent of enrollment at the county’s four public schools. She says both her kids are thriving there.

After years of waiting for an evaluation from Greene County Schools, Jayden was diagnosed with autism and is getting the supports he needs in Putnam County. Both kids are on soccer teams, and Nevaeh also has cross-country and chorus on her tight schedule. At Lawson’s desk in her tidy three-bedroom apartment she keeps an oversize calendar to keep up with all their activities.

“At this point, I just simply see my life, my children’s lives, as this is where we are now, and how do we move forward?” she said. “But hopefully for the next parent that comes along, they’re truly given a fair opportunity.”

This story about school segregation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, and The Investigative Fund, a newsroom for independent journalists, in partnership with NBC Nightly News/

Emmanuel Felton is a staff writer at The Hechinger Report and an Ida B. Wells Fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.