My nephew has a speech impediment. In his early years it was an adorable addition to his cute and quirky personality, but by the first grade I could see how it was affecting his communication skills and the development of his spelling and reading abilities.
He spent kindergarten and first grade in a charter school, where I also worked, that offered limited services for students with specialized needs. These services included a specialist that pulled random and diverse groups of students out of their classrooms to address their various issues and needs.
In my classroom, I saw some children who could benefit from special education services. I also saw many children who, at a traditional public school, would be labeled as emotionally disturbed and a “problem child,” based on their race and the number of referrals received. American education statistics show that Black students are more likely to be labeled with disabilities, linked to their behavior, than their academic capacity.
Although my nephew’s charter school strived to create a positive classroom environment, its constrained resources limited it from sometimes providing students with the proper services.
Knowing Your Rights
After I left the classroom to pursue a master’s degree, the concerns about my nephew’s speech impediment resurfaced at the traditional public school he enrolled in. I informed my brother that he was guaranteed additional services by federal law and encouraged him to obtain the necessary services for his son.
When my brother requested a speech pathologist from the school, he was told that these services weren’t offered to students until they reached the third grade, and because he was so young there was nothing to worry about. In this high-stakes testing era, where schools are focused on making significant improvements in their test scores with limited resources, it is no coincidence that some schools limit or withhold expensive speech pathology services until third grade.
But third grade was too late for my nephew to catch up with his peers.
The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) requires states to provide free and appropriate education to all children in need. I advised my brother to return and let the school administrators know that he was aware of his rights and would pursue further action if his son was denied the services required for him to be a successful student.
Who’s Advocating for the Children?
As a recent New York Times op-ed points out, a new study suggests this experience is common for children of color. Ultimately, my nephew was allowed to see a speech pathologist, but I was left wondering what happens to children who do not have advocates aware of federal laws and the rights guaranteed to them. And I also wondered what happens to the students who are in schools that lack the financial and staff resources needed to meet their students’ educational needs.
Schools and school districts might be tempted to limit or restrict special education services due to the costs. But an education system that asks for better results without backing up those demands with sufficient funding and resources is encouraging schools to delay and deny services to children in need.
This goes against everything that our nation’s schools should stand for. When cash-strapped school systems focus on students of testing age, the trajectory of a young child’s life can be impeded and the opportunities available to them later in life may be limited because of these early obstacles to learning.
During my time in the classroom, I also saw children who were overidentified and labeled and whose parents accepted wrong and harmful diagnoses. One parent had the time and expertise to advocate for her child so he received the help he needed, without being permanently labeled as having a learning disability. Today, her son is thriving in a highly selective college with no symptoms of the learning disability he was told he had.
Such an experience taught me the power of parents equipped with information.
‘A Chance to Succeed’
Parents must be told of their rights and be welcomed into the process of determining what services are needed, how to obtain them and assessing their effectiveness. Teachers must be culturally competent and work with school specialists and parents to arrive at the right diagnosis. In order to ensure that all students receive the education they need, policymakers, educators and parents must work together to create and support environments conducive to learning.
Special education services are a right, not a privilege. Yet many of our leaders treat special education services as such to deal with the unintended consequences of fiscal cuts or accountability requirements of No Child Left Behind. Collectively, parents and teachers are in the best position to work together to ensure that each child is receiving the appropriate special education service. In order to accomplish this, there are steps that policymakers, parents and teachers can take to provide our children with the educational system they deserve.
Congressional, state and district leaders must fully fund IDEA and special education services. Schools and districts should not be forced to limit or cut services to students based on insufficient funds. Schools must have the resources they need to give every child a chance to succeed.