This Year’s Mayoral Race is a One Issue Race -- Education

Endorsing David Catania

For me, this year’s mayoral race is a one issue race -- education is my primary focus. That considerably simplifies my decision-making process. With education as my issue, and having followed his various actions as a city council member and candidate, David Catania is the obvious choice for my vote.

I don’t agree with every idea, but I don’t agree with every idea my husband has and I still married him. Reality tells me that not every plan will be able to go through, politics being as they are. However, I am willing to cast my vote for Catania with the hopes that he will be able to do the most to save our city schools.

Why do I use the word “save?” There are many school in DCPS that are doing a wonderful job of educating our children. But there is a particular group of kids in our city I’m deeply worried about. A group of kids who are often being left behind, damaged, ignored, put in inappropriate educational settings. Some are simply not able to reach their full potential due to this inadequate education. Others are actually left with emotional scars that could last a lifetime.

Surely I mean the sizable population of our city’s children who live in poverty. Well, yes, those children are also being left behind and it’s horrendous. It’s not fair, our schools are poorly balanced with the most at risk, neediest children remaining in the worst schools. The teachers often are working to substitute for what should be done by parents, social workers, therapists -- really the list goes on and on.

However these students have been written about far more eloquently than I could ever do, so that is not my topic of today. I am writing about the crisis our city has in serving our students in special education (many of whom are also living in poverty).

Almost 20% of DCPS students qualify for special education services. That’s one fifth of the students. That’s one kid out of every five. That means four-five students in most classrooms in the city.

Services for special education students have improved significantly since the days when programs were wildly inadequate or nonexistent and the default solution for anyone with the means to petition the city was funding at a private school that served the diagnoses in question. I recognize those improvements, but there is still so much to be done.

We struggle so hard to do what we as parents can do to help our children. We parents accept our children’s weaknesses and do what we can do to support their progress. What we cannot accept is the fact that we are basically in battle against the city to get the services our students need. It’s damaging to the child, to the siblings, to the families. Even if you are not concerned about other people’s kids, you should care about this issue. Inadequately served students in any classroom can have a detrimental impact on YOUR child’s learning. Of course this is not always the case, but it only takes one kid in a classroom to disrupt the learning of the rest.

Under the federal laws mandating the way education is to be provided by public schools for special education students, our students are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). That means the school system tries really hard to put our kids in with your kids. The idea is that our kids will benefit from being “normed” as much as possible through exposure to typically-developing kids. It also just happens to be a cheaper way to educate our kids, but I’m sure that’s not the reasoning behind the mandate and the way it is carried out (note the sarcasm).

A substantial number of students truly benefit from this policy. They are in a regular classroom, pulled out for some extra assistance and/or provided with extra adult attention in the classroom. They thrive, it’s a win-win for everyone. Unless it doesn’t work.

That’s where you get to kids like my son. He has gone through years of what can only be called abuse at school resulting in a lack of desire to attend regular school anymore. He was screamed at, made fun of, and assaulted, all by adults employed by the schools. The worst was third grade when my son was diagnosed with PTSD by at least five different qualified professionals. That’s a story for another day. He has never returned to a full day of school in a normal classroom again and in seventh grade.

Fighting the system to get the education for our son to which he is entitled has been exhausting. It has strained our marriage, our family life, my daughter’s life, our finances, plus of course our son. We support our son’s needs through outside therapies to the best of our financial ability. We work with him on our own, making sure he is as ready to teach as possible. He is quite bright and was reading on his own well before Kindergarten and doing long division by first grade. This is a kid who can be educated. Why can’t DCPS do it?

There are so many great teachers and other professionals in DCPS that I feel I must mention that. I am sure there are some wonderful DC government employees too. So why do I, and so many of my special needs parent friends, feel like we have to be at war?

We have to be ever vigilant -- plans are not followed, teachers are not prepared and supported, specialist positions are left unfilled, background checks are not adequately performed leaving questionable people alone with our children, other students are not supported in understanding our children’s needs, the list goes on and on.

I don’t want to be a helicopter mother. I never was until my son went to DCPS. Then I personally saw him mistreated, heard stories of other students who were lost, ignored, left to languish in an inadequately prepared classrooms with too little support. Kids who are repeatedly removed from the classroom through various means so they don’t even benefit from a small amount of education, however inadequate. Kids who are shuffled around from school to school. I can’t count the number of special education parents who have had the system called Child Protective Services on them (our family included).

We have to constantly watch to make sure our kids are getting their services, that teachers understand the issues and know how we can work together to serve each child. We have to explain our kids to other kids and to other parents who still shun us and our kids on a regular basis. Our kids are left out of photos, are left off classroom lists, star charts, extracurricular activities. Often they can’t handle the “fun” parts of school such as field day and back-to-school nights.

This could be many parents in DCPS writing this. I just happen to have the good fortune to be able to fight for my child so I go ahead and fight for other people’s kids too. Parents who don’t have the time, energy, and/or intellectual ability to wage this war need me and people like me.

What they don’t need is the defensive nature of much of DCPS. When something goes wrong, despite our hypervigilance, there’s rarely an offer of help. When the actions that led to my son’s PTSD occurred, my first step was to ask for help from the system. I was rebuffed, threatened, my son was left out of school for almost two months. The then head of special education threatened to call social services and to press us with truancy charges.

I continued to ask for help as my son slipped away from me. I didn’t know what else to do. What happened was the school district’s fault so shouldn’t they help fix it? We paid for our own therapists to assist as well, but we were limited financially.

Now my son is in seventh grade and does not attend DCPS. There is simply no placement in all of DCPS that is appropriate for his issues. He is unable to receive a FAPE under the current DCPS structure. Despite his hard work overcoming both his autism and his PTSD, he is not included in the system. Instead he goes to a specialized private school with the small class sizes, engaging education, and, most importantly, understanding adults who know that some kids need a different approach to succeed at school. Naturally this school costs money that DCPS will not pay and necessitates daily trips across town to and from school.

DCPS has traditionally paid for placements when they can not serve a student, but now they are actively reducing the number of these placements. Kids are pulled out of private placements where they are flourishing and returned to the public system. Unfortunately, not enough new programs have been put in place to adequately serve these children.

DCPS needs to look to neighboring school districts to develop stand-alone programs (located within existing schools). Again, not all kids need such programs, but there are certainly more kids who would benefit that the select few who are being served now.

Kids are struggling and DCPS is doing too little, too grudgingly to serve their needs. David Catania’s plans are only a start and, believe me, I fully plan on working together with my fellow special needs parents to give him further ideas, but they are an important start. High quality seats available to all students are imperative to a successful school district. Those seats don’t look the same for every child, but that doesn’t mean we should just leave those kids out.

E.V. Downey is the principal educational consultant at Downey School Consulting. She works with families to help navigate the public and charter school lottery system and in applying to private schools. She also works with families to try to make the public schools work for their special needs children. A graduate of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, E.V. is the mother of two children. The older, her son, has autism (Asperger’s), anxiety, panic disorder, tic disorder, sensory issues, and post traumatic tic disorder (PTSD). He is starting 7th grade at a wonderful little private school for quirky kids like him.

You said it!

E.V., thank you for writing and sharing your personal experience. Thank you for being willing to stand up and speak truth for the parents who cannot. So often I feel absolutely exhausted by raising my special needs child that I don't feel I have energy left over to spend on working to improve the system. Whenever I take time out to attend a PA meeting or something else in the evening, it comes at a cost of chaos at home while I am gone. And my kid is high-functioning! Our family was one of the ones caught up in Mayor Gray's imperative to return students with a private placement to the system, but DCPS did not support my child through the transition process, despite repeated emails and phone calls from me. Our solution was to try a charter school, which so far has been a wonderful experience, very unlike our time within DCPS.

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