Effective questions to ask when looking for a school for your child with special needs
In DC’s unique landscape of “choice” in public schools, the difficult challenge for parents of children in special education is that there are many references on a school’s location, testing scores, aftercare programs, etc., but it is very hard to find out how a school functions in special education. For example, in DC because most charters are their own LEA (local education agency) and DCPS has such individual school “format” there are dozens of variables in the public schools surrounding special education, including:
- What is the staffing structure – are there special ed coordinators or inclusion specialists or student services managers? Are they assigned by grade?
- Does the school leadership embrace inclusion and the special education population?
- How are related service providers organized/staffed – are they only in the school for 1-2 days a week or full-time?
- Are there reading specialists in the school and are they incorporating evidence-based reading interventions?
Unfortunately, it is really up to parents in DC to do their own research on a school; and still the best way to learn about the school is a face-to-face visit at the school and meeting with the staff/administration.
I suggest starting with the principal and requesting a meeting. It is the best way to “see” how the leadership embraces (or not) principles of inclusion, different learning needs, accommodations and staffing.
First, ask as many specific questions as possible. Some school staff may not answer fully (mostly because they may not fully grasp the school’s data/numbers) but the special education staff will often be very up front.
- If your child has a specific disability, for example Autism, ask if the school has had a student with autism before, how many do they have enrolled currently and in what grades.
- How does the school structure their classrooms or learning models to deal with these student’s needs – did they provide differentiated instruction, how did they deal with transition (from classroom to gym or art) do they practice responsive classroom or other positive behavior systems?
- Does the school have positive behavior support and are staff trained in these techniques? (and how often!)?
- How do they deal with behavior issues, which teachers have had training in ABA, teaching children with autism, etc.
- Do they have assistive technology?
- Who is their OT, SLP, PT, and how often are these related service providers physically in the school? (In DCPS for example, it is not uncommon for a SLP to have 2-4 assigned schools, meaning that they may not be physically be at your child’s school more than one day a week. This can limit the amount of integration, and collaboration between a classroom teacher and the SLP in creating a functional environment for a child who needs speech therapy.)
- How many students in the school have IEPs – how many in specific grades?
- What range of disability codes are in the school population?
- How often does the MDT (Multiple Disability Team) meet? (And does the principal sit in on the MDT meetings?)
- How many full time special education teachers are in the building and how they divide their duties (by grade or by class or by high need)?
- Who serves as the special education coordinator?
Absolutely ask if you can talk to other parents with children with IEPs at the school. A school staff might not give you a contact right away, but as a parent I was often contacted by the Spec Ed teacher at my daughter’s DCPS school to talk to prospective parents. From a fellow parent, ask:
How that parent “feels” at the school, i.e., Do they feel a part of the special ed team/MDT? Do they feel welcome? How do they describe the special education and administrative staff, positive? professional? knowledgeable? trustworthy?
By no means is this an exhaustive list – but it gives parents a start at what is appropriate and an opportunity to insert traits about your child. For example, when asking about transitioning within the building, you can share that your child gets over-stimulated in noisy areas and going to the Gym for large events can create a meltdown.
At the very least – as a prospective parent, if you ask pertinent and reasonable questions – the school staff will become aware that you are a parent who understand’s that your child will need more than the average student and that you are within your rights at a DC public school (be it DCPS or public charter) to insure that your child receives all the accommodations and support he/she needs to access the learning curriculum.
I really like the book by Michelle Davis and Rich Weinfeld (DC-area special education advocates), Special Needs Advocacy Resource Book. Pages 220 & 235 provides additional questions.
Welcome to DC Special Ed Insider
And so we begin….
I attended a meeting today which was a stakeholder focus group entitled: “Community of Practice: Supporting Families of People with Disabilities Across the Lifespan in DC”. A lofty title, and a lofty goal. Imagine… families of children with disabilities being guided and supported throughout their child’s life, having questions answered, being supported when the challenges get overwhelming, having multiple options and explanations for the “next steps”, having a government and social services and education system that are one-step ahead of our family in this journey of special needs. Nirvana! Among the 6+ hours of discussion, one comment really hit home,
“For over 30 years, we have all been having these conversations and discussions about improvement and how to fix this broken system of special education, services and family support… when will it really change?”
Now, I have not been at the table for 30 years, but it is going on more than a decade since I entered the DC special education/special needs community, and I agree – in DC – this is such a common conversation by parents, teachers, and stakeholders. It was not surprising that so many of us in the room of 30+ community members today knew each other pretty well.
I have been pondering the idea of this blog for awhile – and I’ve decided to jump into the deep end and give it a try!
First the disclaimers: I am in no way an expert on DC special education, I’m not a certified teacher, I don’t have a masters in special education, this is not my planned career those many years ago when I started working.
- I am an active parent – I’m the case manager for two children with Autism, and have attended so many IEP and MDT meetings, I often find myself leading them (much to the consternation of the various Special Ed Coordinators at the table!)
- I get invited to, and attend, community forums, radio talk shows, DC Council hearings, proclamations, committees, work groups, conference calls, workshops, conferences – with topics such as Inclusion, Family Navigation, Special Education Improvement, Disability Awareness, Teaching Autism, and on and on. I find myself just as often at conference tables throughout the city, as I’m at my own family’s dinner table.
- I have served on state advisory panels, committees, task forces, development groups all on special education and disabilities.
- Special education has become my world and everything I work on or volunteer for revolves around it.
- I have often times been so desperate to help my children that I bang on any door, call any resource and do my diplomatic best to smile through it all; so I really know the NEED that is behind being able to understand and navigate DC special education.
Above all, I’m committed to being part of the positive solution and not just a “complaining” parent in the room. Over the last decade of my advocacy I’ve somehow created enough of a presence that I regularly was asked to talk to other parents, be a resource, connect with special ed teachers and over and over I found that everyone from parents to teachers to community members needed more help to navigate the special education landscape in DC.
People were looking to really understand:
- the difference between DCPS and OSSE,
- how special education worked in public charter schools,
- how to find an appropriate program/school in this city for a child with special needs,
- what “inclusion” meant in DC,
- what a parent could ask for under federal law,
- what does “quality” mean in DC special education,
- and on and on.
My hope for this DC Special Ed Insider blog is:
- to provide a forum to answer some of those unique (and not unique!) DC special education questions,
- to point parents (and teachers and anyone who is interested!) in the right direction for answers and solutions,
- to connect anyone who reads this with useful resources,
- to promote quality local events and activities,
- to highlight groups and organizations that work,
- to spotlight some of the real “solution” and “go-to” people in the DC special education community (if they will let me!)
- to keep readers abreast of the latest developments in DC special education
- to better understand the political and educational issues surrounding the morass of DC special education.
I imagine that I will make mistakes along the way – but I promise to correct them! I hope you will share with me your thoughts, questions, suggestions and resources to make this spot a place to support special education stakeholders and find that special education nirvana here in DC!