The Dirty Little Secret about Special Education

kid holding up drawing

When Paul's daughter Julie was born deaf five years ago, he knew it might mean an eventual move to another school district that could provide better services for his daughter. The problem was that this father of two - who asked to remain anonymous for fear of upsetting school officials - wasn't sure where to move.

"The same parents who form the basis of a wonderful support network can become a little tight lipped when it comes to talking about schools," he complained. "More kids mean each gets a smaller slice of the (funding) pie."

Speaking with special education directors didn't help either.

"Services are on such a case-by-case basis, they really can't tell you anything," Paul said. "Most schools don't promote their special education services for fear of becoming a magnet for special need kids and overwhelming their system."

It's a problem many parents of special needs students face, especially in these budget-crunched days. You want the best school for your child, but when support networks and schools aren't talking, how do you go about finding them?

"School districts are obligated to provide the services a child needs," says Nancy Reder, Deputy Executive Director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. "But the reality is that some school systems do a better job than others."

Reder suggests talking to as many people as you can, starting with your child's doctors and specialists. "Often times, they'll know if a particular school has a reputation for doing really well for kids with a certain disability," she says.

That's how Stefanie Glusky wound up in Armonk, NY, a wealthy suburb of New York City.

"When my daughter Ali was born with Down's Syndrome in 2005 we started looking at all our options," says Glusky, who lived at the time in a nearby suburb with a less than stellar school reputation. "We knew another boy with Downs who was significantly older and had heard that the Armonk school district had been wonderful for him."

After getting the green light from Ali's therapists, the family moved.

Of course, not all families have the option of moving - and you shouldn't have to, says Cherie Takemoto, Executive director of the Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center (PEATC) and co-author of Negotiating the Special Education Maze.

"The simplest thing for a parent to do is work with their district," says Takemoto. "Start by putting in writing exactly what you are asking for before your Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting." (Check out PEATC's new IEP checklist app for the iPhone, or get it online at www.peatc.org.) "If the school does not agree, parents should ask for their explanations in writing, never verbally," she adds.

Ultimately, if you disagree with the school's assessment, you can lodge a complaint with the state, which can force the district to pay for private school.

Feeling confused about your options? Reder suggests contacting the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (PACER). To find the center nearest you, go to www.parentcenternetwork.org.

Ultimately, Paul and his wife decided to stay put, and Julie starts kindergarten in the fall.

"I would worry about what it is like to show up in a district with a list of must-have special ed needs," he explains. "We let our school officials know that Julie was coming up the pike by meeting with them early and often in the years before kindergarten, making it clear that she was one of the village's own."

It's a strategy that seems to have paid off," says Paul, "So far we've gotten everything that we asked for."

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