Listening Tour 2018

From one parent to another: Learning how to advocate for a child with a disability

PHOTO: Elaine Chen / Chalkbeat
Parent members of Community Organizing and Family Issues in Chicago discuss on July 31, 2018, how to advocate for their special-needs children.

The dozen or so mothers, grandmothers and aunts came from different neighborhoods of the city. But they shared something in common: a child they cared about had a disability and required a tailored schooling plan, and they wanted to learn how to be an advocate. This was the topic of a Chalkbeat Chicago listening tour event Monday at Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) on the Near West Side.

This was our fifth stop in a series of summer events in which we’re traveling to communities across the city and partnering with local groups to hear about their experiences in schools. Read about our first event here.

At COFI, we listened as parents counseled each other on how to help their children navigate a maze of specialists, doctors, acronyms, and public school choice. This maze has been especially difficult to navigate in recent years, as CPS cut special education funding and systematically delayed and denied special education services. One of the parents, Michelle Morton, said that her daughter had a speech impediment and was tested for speech services in pre-kindergarten. However, her daughter didn’t receive a specialized schooling plan, known as an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, until Morton persisted with asking the principal. “Because I had already been working with COFI, I knew how to advocate,” she said. “But, not every parent knows how.”

Morton and other parents shared these pieces of advice with each other:

  • Speak up and be persistent, even when the answer is “no.” Morton’s advocacy for her daughter didn’t stop after getting the IEP. After her daughter got older and began landing on the honor roll at Brunson Math & Science Specialty School in Austin, teachers told Morton she wouldn’t need an IEP anymore. Morton resisted, ultimately fighting to keep the IEP for her daughter.
  • Document, document, document. Keep a big file of everything — from doctors’ reports to hard copies of evaluations — so that when you speak up, there’s evidence to back it up. Morton said that when she talked to her principal about keeping her daughter’s IEP, she provided copies of all her daughter’s speech tests and reports from doctors. “I came, papers in hand, ready for whatever the principal had to throw at me.”
  • Ask for translation if you need it. That might be Spanish into English, or it might be figuring out how technical jargon translates into everyday language. Valerie Carroll spoke about advocating for her son, a high school freshman with special needs at Johnson College Prep in Englewood, and the power of a class she took through CPS’ Office of Diverse Learners to learn about terminology regarding special education.
  • Don’t go to meetings alone. In meetings with administrators, take someone with you to help take notes and ask questions. The other person could help with translation, or can just help provide emotional support.
  • Compare notes with other parents. Are they having similar experiences? Morton said that after talking with other parents whose children also have speech issues, they pieced together that their children weren’t receiving enough time in speech pathology as required by their IEPs. Another parent, Susana Salgado, said that talking to others has helped her “find the words” to help a family member who has been diagnosed with autism.
  • Overcome the stigma of the label that comes with “diverse learning,” aka special education. Rosazlia Grillier, a parent peer trainer at COFI, said she has met parents who won’t acknowledge in a group setting that their children have special needs. Grillier said that acknowledging your child’s state of learning is the first step in getting the necessary resources for them.
  • Volunteer — you learn much more about how your school works when you are regularly in it. Children really respond, too, when they see their family involved in education. Tara Williams, whose son attends Genevieve Melody STEM Elementary in East Garfield Park, said that with more family members and community advocates in schools, children can see that they have multiple people constantly support them. “They know if nobody else is going to fight for them,” she said, “then Mom, Daddy, auntie and uncle will.”

Chalkbeat will be holding two more listening tour events this summer. On August 14, we’re partnering with OneGoal and inviting teachers to join us to discuss experiences working in public education. Then on August 23, we’re joining City Bureau to host a public newsroom around the topic of education journalism and the power of the student voice — details coming soon.


Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.