This is a difficult time for all of us. Teachers and school administrators are making great efforts to meet the needs of all students, including students with special needs. Now, more than ever, parents and advocates should do their best to work collaboratively with school staff.
The following is guidance for parents, so that they can effectively advocate for their children who have special needs during distance learning.
Parents have the right to request an IEP Meeting during distance learning.
Schools are either sending parents a Distance Learning Plan (DLP) or contacting them to schedule a “quick call” regarding the DLP. For our students, these options may not be enough to inform parents/guardians about specifics regarding distance learning such as delivery of instruction, accommodations, and expectations. Questions to pose to the IEP Team include:
- How will the reading and math interventions continue during this time?
A reminder that we will be looking at compensatory education when this crisis is over and that we will look at progress on IEP goals, progress in the general education curriculum, and the amount of services provided? We will need to have good data on my child’s levels now and data about progress as we move through distance learning. Before closing the meeting, consider the following:
There may be the need for some new accommodations, supplementary aids and behavioral plans that go beyond what the student has needed during traditional education.
When we finally get back to traditional in-school learning, the student may be entitled to compensatory services.
In order to evaluate whether the student has made the type of progress we would expect, when all students return to the school building, it is important for parents to keep good data that includes the starting levels of their child, samples of the work that the child has created during the distance learning time, and the final levels the child has achieve at the end of distance learning. Data can include:
Weinfeld Education Group hopes you and your family are healthy and staying safe while we go through this unprecedented time. We wanted to be sure you were aware of two new services WEG is offering.
1. Virtual Advocacy
WEG will review and analyze the distance learning program and compare it to your student's current IEP or 504 Plan to ensure they are able to access the curriculum and assignments in all subjects.
As each student’s individualized plan is adapted for distance learning, their existing IEP or 504 Plan will require changes, either by a parentally signed amendment without a meeting, or through some type of virtual meeting. We anticipate that the newly amended IEPs and 504 Plans will reflect changes in direct service hours, interventions, related services, accommodations, supplementary aids, and assistive technology tools and services. WEG is offering a special price on this virtual consultation during this current crisis.
2. Parent/Guardian Coaching
WEG analyzes distance learning lessons and materials that students are expected to complete. WEG will assist you to make appropriate accommodations in the lessons so your student can access the curriculum. This ongoing service allows you to access your WEG advocate and gain help in effectively teaching your student. WEG will work with you to ensure the assignments are accessible, you are also coached on gathering important and relevant data on your student’s present levels. This data will help you communicate effectively with school staff to ensure the school is making any needed and necessary changes in supports to your student.
WEG will also help you advocate for compensatory services that may be necessary due to services that are not provided during distance learning.
If you are interested, please begin by calling the WEG office at 301.681.6233 or you can fill out a contact form on our website.
It’s a new year, and time for fresh starts. Rich Weinfeld offers three ways parents can re-engage with their child’s IEP team and better track educational progress in 2020.
Number One: Remember, your child’s IEP is a fluid document and can be updated at any time.
If your child has had an IEP for some time, you’ve heard this, but it’s a great time of year to be reminded. IEP goals can be revised at any time in the school year. And, as you approach your child’s annual review, you are going to want to know if your child is achieving their goals or not.
If you suspect that your child is not meeting a goal, that’s a good reason to call an IEP meeting. The IEP team is responsible for helping students reach those goals and tracking their progress.
Parents, if your child is doing well, this could be a time to inquire about a new, more challenging goal.
Yes, you can set a new goal in the middle of the new year, and this could be based upon good or bad news. It could be time for a new goal because the student has achieved a goal, which is great news. Or it could be that revisions are in order because maybe a standard was set too high or there’s a new area of challenge. If a parent sees a new area of challenge, they will want to present to the IEP team any data they have that supports that need.
I strongly encourage all parents to collect and present their own data at IEP meetings. Parents can bring forth important evidence through the monitoring of homework or other school-related tasks. Parents can note how much time and effort was made on a certain assignment, and what the level of frustration was as well. Parents can also present up-to-date documentation from outside providers, such as tutors, therapists and related service providers.
Your child is not “stuck” with an IEP that you know needs improvement for the remainder of their school year. This is a good time to make mid-course corrections.
Number Two: Focus on the data being collected about your child.
It is nearly impossible for parents to have a picture about what goes on day in and day out at school, but data can provide a meaningful window. If your child’ IEP is well-constructed, his or her goals will be tracked by measures that parents can and should see. For example, under a goal it may say something like, “Student will be on task 80% of the time.” And the way a parent would know if their child is indeed on task 80% of the time or not, would be the next line down on the IEP which states the evaluation method. The evaluation method may say, “observation record” or “check list,” or it might say “teacher-made rubric.” Parents can ask to see this data and the data should be sent home for your review.
It’s important to know that parents don’t need to wait for another formal IEP meeting to ask for data. Asking for data is a very legitimate request. This is a way that parents can really be involved in the IEP process and see in real-time how their child is progressing. Parents can then ask why a goal is being met or not. And Is it time to think about setting a new goal if the child is not meeting this goal?
It’s difficult and overwhelming for parents to look at the whole IEP and say, “Hmmm. How’s it going?” But, by focusing on the collection of data, parents can feel like they are indeed active partners with the school, and stay on top of things. A note of caution: if a goal’s evaluation criteria simply says something like “informal data” that’s a red flag. When writing a new IEP or revising an existing one, make sure that progress on goals is evaluated by data that you can see and track.
Number Three. Improve the lines of regular communications with your child’s case manager.
One of the most important ways to head off problem situations, as well as to keep positive relationships between home and school is to have regular communication. It’s helpful to have a certain day of the week where a parent initiates contact. Your point of contact will most often be the case manager, but it could be a counselor or teacher. For example, it could be agreed upon that the parent reaches out every Thursday afternoon. I recommend three short questions in that communication:
A middle or high school case manager may respond by sending your email out to all of the teachers whose classes your child is in, gathering those responses, and sending them back to you. In some cases, schools may want you to write to all the teachers individually. At the elementary level, the response time should be faster because you are dealing with fewer teachers.
By the way, this parent-case manager communication strategy can be written into the IEP as a supplementary aid. And that way it can become more of a contract between parents and the school.
Parents can say, “In order to better support our child, we would like to have regularly scheduled communication with you. We know you are a busy professional, so please let us know what works best for your schedule.” With this approach, parents demonstrate a respect for the case manager’s time, while still getting their child’s needs met.
Having communication in writing is best for everyone. It provides a record for all the busy people involved, makes follow up easier and keeps the whole IEP team on top of what is factually happening.
Written communications that summarize a child’s current functioning, can also serve as a support if your child has a resource class. It can help guide your child’s resource time, if one of the purposes of that class is to build executive functioning skills or provide specific academic support.
Frequent communication allows for proactive, timely interventions. No one wants to wait until three-quarters into a grading period to find out a student is falling behind. Regular, scheduled communication is a safety net for your student, by eliminating surprises and reducing stress - for everyone involved.
Here’s wishing you, your child and your child’s IEP team - a successful and positive New Year.
Rich Weinfeld and entire WEG team
Event Focuses on Helping Neurodiverse Students Succeed at Every Age and Stage
The 9th annual annual Diamonds in the Rough Conference is happening this Friday and Saturday at the John Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus. This unique special education-focused training and networking event hosted by Weinfeld Education Group is in its 9th year. Major conference sponsors include: Commonwealth Academy, McLean School, The Dorm, Fusion Academy, The Auburn School, FLOREO, PrepMatters and TLC’s The Katherine Thomas School.
The conference kicks off Friday with a CE workshop for professionals on the topic of neurodiversity, presented by Dr. David Black, pediatric neuropsychologist and director of the Center of Assessment and Treatment (CAAT). Licensed social workers, therapists and other professionals will gain 3 CE credits, offered through a partnership with the Maryland Psychological Association. On Saturday, the full-day conference launches with an inspirational keynote address provided by Debbie Reber, bestselling author, parenting activist and founder of the online community and top podcast series TiLT Parenting. Local test prep and tutoring service PrepMatters is sponsoring the keynote speaker this year.
The theme for 2019 is “Parenting Children with Special Needs: Preparing to Launch at Every Age.” Speakers have been especially selected to represent all the major ages and stages of a child’s educational journey. “We’re covering a lot of ground here,” WEG’s Executive Director Rich Weinfeld notes, “We know every school year of a child’s life is important, and yet those times of major change are monumental. Getting big transitions right can really set a student up for success.”
To encompass all the various ages and stages, from pre-K to young adulthood, WEG lined up 44 expert speakers to participate in panel discussions and presentations throughout the day. Special topics on launching for twice exceptional students, students with mental health challenges, and students on the autism spectrum will take place during an extended lunchtime break. The diverse pool of presenters includes: representatives from Montgomery County Public Schools and Montgomery College; administrators, admissions directors and educators from private schools; special education advocates; several mental health professionals; and a state-level representative from the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration.
Consultants and organizations with specialized skills in transition support for college, employment and independent living will be featured. A panel of experts in special education law and finance will present on financial considerations and planning for families with special needs dependents. Finally, Rich Weinfeld will close out the day with a panel of “already launched’ young adults, sharing what has worked in their lives, and what helps them to be successful. “I’m proud of the range of expertise we have this year in terms of our speakers. And ending the day with a panel of young people really drives home WEG’s mission, which is to have all children realize their unique potential,” Weinfeld said.
Adding to the excitement of the day will be a bustling exhibit hall. “I’m excited for the exhibit hall this year,” WEG’s associate director Jennifer Engel Fisher remarked. “There’s a plethora of resources for attendees. Everyone - parents, educators and providers - will make a new contact or take away something useful.” The hall is at capacity with 33 exhibitors, representing state and local service organizations, private schools, advocacy groups, child development and mental health, student assessment and test preparation services, and even a virtual reality company. Book sales and signings will take place. Debbie Reber will sign her book, Differently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional World. Another book, The Self-Driven Child, will also be featured in the exhibit hall, with its co-author Ned Johnson on hand to sign copies and meet parents. As part of Saturday’s festivities, WEG will also host a silent auction, benefiting its featured charity, International Partners’ Palo Grande Education Center in El Salvador.
In 2010, Rich Weinfeld and his team saw a need to bring parents, educators and providers together across Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia to learn, connect and build relationships. That remains the goal of the Diamonds in the Rough Conference to this day. While there are many conferences, some past attendees report that attending the Diamonds in the Rough was a particular turning point for them. As one attendee shared last year, “the information presented at this conference was a game changer in terms of building a positive, empowered perspective so that I can effectively advocate for my son.”
Interested in attending and not yet registered? Online ticket sales for the conference have closed, but WEG will welcome walk up registrations on both Friday and Saturday at full price. Exhibit hall only passes can also be purchased at the door on Saturday. To learn more, visit www.diamondsintheroughconference.com
Deborah Reber is a parenting activist, New York Times bestselling author and founder of TiLT Parenting, a podcast series and online community. The TiLT Parenting Podcast is in the iTunes top 20 in Kids & Family New and Noteworthy, and regularly features high-profile parenting experts and educators, as well as insightful conversations between Debbie and her 14-year-old son Asher. Debbie’s book DIFFERENTLY WIRED: Raising an Extraordinary Child in a Conventional World, was published with Workman in June 2018.
WEG is proud to present a conversation with this inspiring thought-leader – on topics ranging from effective advocacy and educational approaches, to self-care and embracing your own neurodiversity.
The 9th Annual Diamonds in the Rough Conference is focusing attention on successfully launching differently wired kids at every major stage. We’re all excited to hear your keynote address this year. What does that term “launching” mean to you?
I think a lot about launching in terms of zooming out with our kids, because when you are in the thick of it, we can get hung up on timelines and where they are with their peers.
And what we’re really trying to do is raise a human being. So, really looking at what it takes to create kids that are self-directed and understand their strengths and weaknesses, when they are ready to pursue their own goals. As parents we can be asking ourselves at each age and stage, “What does my child need? How can I help my child build those critical executive functioning skills?”
Launching is also about letting them fail to some extent. You know, going to school without their coat or homework done and paying the price, letting them figure some stuff out on their own. Giving kids room to be uncomfortable, not doing everything for them, so they can build resilience.
As a parent, I’ve highlighted and dog-eared your book like mad. Something I wish I learned faster was to find my people, and ditch the rest. How can parents get to a place of acceptance faster?
I was talking with a group of parents and they were saying, “We need to get t-shirts made that say, ‘My son has an IEP’ so we can find each other on the playground.” You just know that people in the pick-up line are struggling with the very same things as you are, but many people keep it private.
I think a big responsibility, and something easy that we can do, is just be more open. The more we talk about neurodiversity and normalize it instead of thinking it is a bad thing, the better. Bring it out in the open. That’s a powerful action that each one of us can take. I say this in my book, you don’t have to get a megaphone and announce to everyone, but there is something to be said for being very open.
Also, we all need those people who are further down the road. I’ve been thinking about how great it would be to have a mentor program of sorts for parents of differently wired children. It could be very powerful.
I love your idea of “practicing relentless self-care.” Why is this so critically important when parenting a differently wired kid?
I hear from many people on this one - some dads, but mostly moms. I call it being selfish, and I don’t apologize. I take my time, because I cannot show up for my son if I am stressed out. My husband can tell the difference if I haven’t had been running for a few days, and sends me out the door. The more you practice self-care and you create what you need, it just becomes something you cannot do without.
For so many reasons, self-care helps to remind you of your own importance when you are doing so many things for other people. It is also modeling for our kids. You show your child that your personal needs and feelings matter. In a sense, taking some “me time” is demonstrating to your child that your life and your body are yours to take care of. It is a great way for kids to grow up, knowing they have value. If we don’t take that time, there’s really no good that can come from it. They don’t get the best of us if we are not taking that time.
For many parents who are very intentionally raising a differently wired child, I’d suggest that one of the worst aspects of the traditional education model is fear of the unknown. There are those 8 hours of the day when we’re not sure what is really going on. You ultimately chose homeschooling for your son, but for those of us with kids in the “system” – what would you suggest we do to feel more informed and connected?
I’m interested in this idea of compassionately educating people. With the school system, I think you’ve got to go in the spirit of trying to design an alliance and not have an adversarial relationship. Keep pushing for partnership and being respectful.
If you can go into a school meeting with a firm but softer voice and not be defensive, it changes the tone of the whole meeting. I know that isn’t always easy stuff to do, especially when things are not going well at school, and believe me, I have been there. But I think you’ve got try to go in with the position that your teacher has the best interests of your child a heart - start there, and then try to design a plan for your child in collaboration.
You strongly advocate for parents to find their voice and “make a ruckus when you need to.” What can parents do when they need to speak truth to power?
Just in the last year since publishing my book, I’ve realized that some people can have a knee-jerk reaction. People can feel uncomfortable when we bring attention to the challenges our kids are having, and maybe that’s because they are feeling that these systemic problems are on them to solve. And in other instances, people can shut down and just not listen because they think we’re just complaining or that what we’re talking about isn’t relevant to their own lives and families.
The more we can give people the benefit of the doubt, recognize where other people are, and have that respectful tone as opposed of going in with our fists up, the better. That can still allow us to make a ruckus but from a place of truth, knowing and compassion.
They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Most parents of neurodiverse kids have their own struggles, diagnosed or not. Some days, who we are can get in the way of being a great parent. How can we address our own brain wiring so we can be better parents?
I’m having a podcast just to discuss this very thing! Many parents are discovering their own neurodivergence in the process of discovering more about their child. For some people, it is really traumatic because they are connecting all these dots from their childhood that caused them pain or recalling people who mistreated them.
That same thing has happened in our own family. I think its actually great because these are the conversations, we should be happening around the dinner table. I say, make it part of everyday conversation. This is our family, this is who we are, and we’re all working on things. Try asking your child for advice, “What have you found that works?” Or share something tricky that happened to you at work, and talk about how you dealt with it.
So many people have gone through life thinking they just didn’t fit in, or they were the “weirdos.” They were misunderstood because of their neurodivergence. I think now there can be some fun ownership that can be really empowering to say, “Yes that tie has to perfectly straight or I’m just not going to wear it!” As an adult, knowing who you are and owning it can be a great lesson for your child. Being able to say, “There’s a reason I am this way, there is nothing wrong with it, and I’m just going to go all in.”
You state in your book that the traditional educational model in the U.S. is a broken system that was “initially designed to teach compliant, neurotypical students who learn in a very specific way.” It seems that the number of children who are outside that mold is rapidly increasing, and yet our education systems change at a glacial pace. Are you seeing any trends in education that give you some hope?
Generally speaking, there seems to be more understanding and a desire to meet the needs of unique learners. The nonviolent communication model and whole child approach really serve differently wired students well because they respect every individual for who they are.
We are starting to see more schools where kids can have a more individualized approach, where they are not being held up to some identical standard, but rather they can access the learning through their strengths. That is certainly the direction where differently wired kids thrive, so it would be great if all schools could do more of that.
As parents, we need to de-tangle ourselves from feeling that our job is to fit our differently wired child into a traditional education model, to not make noise and just somehow push them through.
And even if you are in a traditional school system, parents can think about how to build in more learning through supplemental activities that really play on their child’s strengths. We can help keep that love of learning alive and they can discover who they are, even if we are in a system that doesn’t naturally do that.
Through your popular podcast series, you’ve interviewed so many experts. Can you share any people who remain on your ‘bucket list’ for interviews?
When I launched TiLT Parenting in 2016, I had a dream list of guests, and I’ve been really fortunate to have interviewed most of them, but there are always a few I’m working on. Andrew Solomon (author of Far From the Tree) and I have been trading emails for a year now, and he was once actually scheduled and then couldn’t make it, so he’s high on my list. I’d love to have Carol Dwek on to talk about mindsets, and I would love to have Susan Kane on to talk about introverts. And I’d love to talk with Brene Brown at some point!
Silver Spring, Maryland, October 4, 2018- The Siena School held its annual Siena Celebration on October 3rd, 2018 at the Silver Spring Civic Center in Maryland. Each year, the Siena community comes together to celebrate school achievements and to recognize important contributions to both Siena and the wider field of dyslexia education.
Annually, one individual or organization is awarded The Siena Cypress Leadership Award for significant and lasting contributions to the education of children and young adults with learning differences. Siena awarded this year’s Cypress Leadership Award to the Weinfeld Education Group, who have assisted thousands of families in the Special Education process and school locating services. They have authored numerous articles and 10 books including Take Control of Dyslexia & Other Reading Difficulties, and Smart Kids with Learning Difficulties, Second Edition (both which featured The Siena School). They are also hosting the 9th Annual Diamonds in the Rough Conference in April of 2019, which educates Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. parents and professionals about the needs of students with special needs and introduces them to the myriad of outstanding special needs providers in this area.
Erik Heyer, founder of The Siena School, presented the Weinfeld Education Group with the Cypress Leadership Award. Heyer said that, “Rich Weinfeld is one of the top experts locally and nationally on students who learn differently. He is a tireless and tenacious advocate for quality educational programs for all students.” Heyer shared that Weinfeld was one of the first persons he met with to determine what type of school was needed in the area. “Rich was supremely optimistic. He was an absolute cheerleader.”
Rich Weinfeld accepted the Cypress Leadership Award on behalf of the Weinfeld Educational Group. Addressing the crowd, Weinfeld stressed he shares the award with associate director Jennifer Engel Fisher and WEG's extended team of advocates, and recalled with fondness those early meetings to conceptualize “a school for smart kids that learn differently.” In closing, Weinfeld said, “WEG’s mission is to have each child reach their unique potential, and we cannot achieve that mission without outstanding schools. Siena does things the right way. "It’s never about filling seats or getting enough kids in, but getting the right kids in who they can really help.”
Key supporters Ellen O’Neill, Dan Griffin, and Henry Allen were also honored for their contributions to The Siena School. O’Neill, a former Siena parent and Executive Director of the Atlantic Seaboard Dyslexia Education Center, provides professional development opportunities tailor-made to Siena’s faculty and mission; she also serves on the board of The Siena School Scholarship Fund. Griffin, a former Siena parent and DMV area psychologist, has been a great supporter and consultant for Siena for many years. Allen, Pulitzer Prize winner for Criticism of Photography in the year 2000 and writer at The Washington Post, visits Siena each year to talk with students about writing and poetry.
About The Siena School
The Siena School in Silver Spring, Maryland serves bright, college-bound students with language-based learning differences, such as dyslexia. Siena’s staff and board of advisors include distinguished national, state and local education leaders and professionals. The school was established in 2006 and serves students in grades 4–12. Siena’s program is designed for students with mild to moderate learning needs who are experiencing a discrepancy between their academic achievement and intellectual abilities in one or more areas such as reading, writing, oral expression or math. Siena delivers an individualized educational program featuring small class sizes, research-based instructional methodologies, a highly trained staff and an educational environment specifically designed to meet the unique needs of our students, with a specific emphasis on the arts. For further information, The Siena School can be contacted on the web at www.thesienaschool.org.
Prior to launching TiLT, Debbie spent fifteen years writing inspiring books for women and teens. In doing so, she built a successful brand as a teen authority, was frequently interviewed and spoke about issues like media literacy, self-esteem, and confidence, and consulted for clients including the Girl Scouts, the Disney Channel, McGraw Hill, and Kaplan.
Debbie is no stranger to writing and publishing books. Since 1999, she’s authored many books, including Doable: The Girls’ Guide to Accomplishing Just About Anything, Language of Love, Chill: Stress-Reducing Techniques for a More Balanced, Peaceful You, In Their Shoes: Extraordinary Women Describe Their Amazing Careers, the teen self-help series Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul: The Real Deal, Run for Your Life: A Book for Beginning Women Runners, and more than a dozen preschool books based on the series Blue’s Clues. In 2008, she had the privilege of creating and editing the first-ever series of teen-authored memoirs with HCI Books, Louder Than Words.
Before becoming a writer and coach, Debbie worked in TV and video production, producing documentaries and PSAs for CARE and UNICEF, working on Blue’s Clues for Nickelodeon in New York, and developing original series for Cartoon Network in Los Angeles. She has an MA in Media Studies from the New School for Social Research and a BA in Communications from Pennsylvania State University.
In the summer of 2013, Debbie moved from Seattle to Amsterdam, where she currently lives with her husband Derin, homeschools her 13-year-old son Asher, and serves as lap-of-choice for her mischievous cat, Alex. She is an avid runner, traveler, and hiker, and claims reality shows and Twizzlers as her guiltiest of pleasures.
Their challenges are many. But for the parents who love them, their challenges are just as hard. They’re the parents frequently fielding emails from frustrated teachers and dealing with glares when their children behave inappropriately in public. They’re the exhausted moms and dads pushed into nonstop advocacy mode, the ones whose kids people think twice about inviting to their child’s birthday party. They’re overwhelmed, misunderstood, and isolated, which is ironic considering their kids are in every classroom across the country. Debbie knows this because she is one of these parents.
Differently Wired lays out a new vision for not only redefining the way neurodiversity is perceived in the world, but shifting the parenting paradigm so parents raising extraordinary kids can do so from a place of peace, joy, and most importantly, choice.
Each chapter in the book centers on one big tangible idea—or as Debbie calls them, “Tilts”—that will shift parents’ thinking and actions in a way that will change not only the family dynamic, but will allow for these unique children to fully realize their best selves. By making these shifts, parents everywhere will be rejecting what’s broken in the status quo. And that leads to moving the world closer to a place where difference is genuinely seen and valued.
“Differently Wired will help parents of children who think differently to accept their child for who they are and facilitate their successful development.” — Dr. Temple Grandin
Rich Weinfeld was warned about the quirky student coming into his fourth-grade class.
Her handwriting was sloppy, the third-grade teacher told him. Her sentences ran on and on. She used no punctuation. No capitalization. In short, the teacher concluded, she couldn't write.
Some educators might have been disappointed, anticipating the remedial work that lay ahead. But Weinfeld was intrigued and did something Mary White's third-grade teacher apparently never attempted: He actually tried to read the 8-year-old's prose—not concentrating on her mechanics or her handwriting, which Weinfeld admits was “a mess,” but on her ideas. And he was astonished.
“I knew she was gifted, and that's what I focused on,” says Weinfeld, then a teacher in Bethesda, MD.
Under Weinfeld's tutelage, Mary bloomed.
That was 35 years ago, before anyone had heard the words “twice exceptional.”
“If she had proceeded to have teachers like her third-grade teacher, she would have stopped writing,” Weinfeld says.
Mary White, now in her early 40s, has vivid memories of that difficult time. Her parents, both researchers at the National Institutes of Health, were going through a divorce, and she felt lost at school. She says Weinfeld “was the first teacher who really talked to me, who really communicated with me.” Regarding her depression and a learning disability that made organization (and tidy handwriting) difficult for her, she said Weinfeld “didn't care. He looked right past it.”
White now lives in Belleview, Wash.
Not coincidentally, she is a special education teacher for middle school students. Along the way, she graduated magna cum laude, with a major in literature and philosophy, from Beloit College in Wisconsin. She became a lawyer, worked in civil rights, criminal defense, and legal services for the mentally ill, and then returned to college for a master's degree in education. Now she's come full circle, in a sense, by returning to the classroom.
Along the way, the girl who couldn't write received the Hart Crane Memorial Award for poetry. She e-mailed Weinfeld recently to thank him, telling him about her multiple careers and asking for advice on how to teach students, some of whom are not so different from herself.
“How do we help them deliver their gifts to the world?” she asks. “Personally, to me, that's the question.”
American School Board Journal - www.asbj.com - March 2010
Michael, let’s start with you. As a special education attorney, how big a deal is the Endrew F. decision?
Michael: Endrew F. is potentially the most important special education decision that a court in the United States has come down with since the law passed in 1975. It is a real game changer, it you really get into what the Court is saying. Endrew F. is coming up on its first anniversary on March 22, and it all depends on people understanding it and implementing it.
In 1982, the Supreme Court interpreted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for the first time. In Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley the Court found that in order to be appropriate, education under the IDEA must be "sufficient to confer some educational benefit" or provide a "basic floor of opportunity.” In Endrew F. the Court redefines the Rowley standards; I don’t agree with what some say that it doesn’t change much.
The Supreme Court states right in the decision that this is a markedly more demanding standard. And the Court doesn’t just do that if it isn’t important. We have to remember that Endrew F. was a unanimous decision from the Supreme Court, with the decision written by the Chief Justice. That in and of itself is important, because when something is that clear, and written as well as it was by Chief Justice Roberts, we should take it very seriously.
What about this expectation of “meaningful progress”? Did the Court define that?
Michael: Yes and no. Most lawyers answer questions that way, I’m afraid. “Meaningful” means different things to different people. “Progress” is the important word here. In the early 1980’s, some courts used terms like “meaningful benefit” and it is hard to measure. Obviously, it’s a very subjective standard. By rephrasing it as “progress” we can really translate it into something that is measured. Because the Court said, they wouldn’t pass the law if they weren’t going to shoot for progress. When IEP teams sit down to measure goals, progress can be measured by a reading level, or by a student doing something 4 out of 6 times. You can measure “progress” much more than you can measure “benefit.” We just need more people to understand that.
Now on to the application of Endrew F., how does this decision impact IEP meetings?
Rich: We have clear guidance from the Supreme Court that we are to look at each unique individual, and we have the ability to develop an understanding of both their challenges and their strengths and write measurable goals that are in line with what they are capable of achieving according to their potential. And a hallmark of this case, from an advocate’s view, is that we must expect measurable progress for each child. It’s important to call upon school officials to carefully deliberate about what goes into an IEP, to have cogent reasons for their decisions, and to treat parents as full partners in the process.
You mentioned potential, how important is that word in the Endrew F. decision?
Rich: Advocates and educators have been talking about helping kids realize their potential since I started teaching 43 years ago, and probably before. But it always sounded a little “pie in the sky” or an unattainable goal. And schools had guidance from previous Supreme Court decisions that they really weren’t expected to give these students the best education, they were just tasked with giving an “appropriate education.” But, now the Supreme Court has used the word “potential.” And that was very important to me as an advocate. The Supreme Court said, in order to understand if a child is making meaningful progress, you have to understand the child’s potential. So, the progress that is expected of each child is individualized and it is related to their unique potential.
Let’s talk about these IEP goals. The Court says they need to be “reasonably ambitious.” How should schools and parents approach this standard?
Rich: The first step in setting goals is to have very carefully crafted present levels. We need to know where the child is functioning right now, both in terms of their strengths and their challenges. We establish present levels by, first, having very good and detailed formal assessments. We gather data from teachers in terms of what is happening in the classroom and how the child is doing on school-based assessments, and we gather data from parents about what the child can create when the teacher is not there and they are working on their own. If we do that right, and we pull all that data together, we get a good idea of where the child is presently functioning. And then secondly, we know what the child’s potential is, and then we can set a reasonably ambitious goal. And then when we are creating an annual goal, we can project where should we reasonably expect the child to be in a year’s time.
Rich, you’ve said if IEP goals are just copied over year after year, they show a lack of progress.
Rich: Exactly. That was really the issue with Endrew F., that schools were repeating the same or similar goals, year after year. And that is an indication that nothing or very little was being achieved, because the same goal was needed the next year. So, if you are seeing the same goals on the IEP two years in a row, it is an indication that your child is not achieving or the goal is not right. Someone needs to take a careful look to write a goal that is really centered with the new present levels your child has achieved at the end of the previous year.
Parents should understand where the goal came from, and it comes exactly from the present levels. So, for example, knowing that a child is reading on a second-grade level in terms of their decoding, then we know that next year, we want them to progress to a third-grade level and based on their potential, maybe we set that goal even higher. But those goals should be a meaningful target and it should be understandable to the parents.
The other part of the goal that is very important are the “givens” of the goal. Say for example, “We know that kids can learn to decode words if given evidence-based interventions, provided with fidelity.” It’s very important to write those type of words right in the goal so we know what is to happen. And the parents can then reasonably expect the schools to tell them during the year, what is the methodology, how do they know it’s evidence-based, how it is being delivered with fidelity, in terms of how often and for how much time. Without that kind of specific language in the goal, parents don’t have much to stand on in terms of knowing what exactly is being done in school.
Okay, guys, looking ahead, does Endrew F. give families with special education students what we need, or is there more to be done?
Rich: It gives us a direction and it gives us a lot of optimism for the future in terms of the language in the decision, using words like “potential” and “unique child” and stressing the importance of parent involvement. It is very clear about the direction we are heading. Now we want to see how it is interpreted. We want to see how individual courts will interpret it, how school districts will interpret it, and that’s just starting. Initially we heard some school districts say, ‘Oh there’s nothing really new here.” But we think there’s a lot new in this decision, and it really changes the standard. And we’re starting to see court decisions that support that.
Michael: It moves the ball down the field. It is, to use that word again, progress. More certainly has to done for sure. First off, people need to really understand the Endrew F. decision. People need to get into the mindset of what the Court is doing. The important battle ground in the IDEA now, is not the court, or the due process hearing, it’s back to the IEP table. The IEP meetings are more important than ever. That’s where people are going to have to understand what this decision calls for.
Parents should pick up certain words out of the decision. Besides talking about “progress” – which is a whole new way of looking at it, the other words out of Endrew F. are words like “challenging” and “ambitious.” Those are words that the Supreme Court now uses to define the kinds of goals that people with an educational disability should be given. We never had that before, and it sets a higher standard. The school system side of the IEP table, if they didn’t get it themselves, should be reminded by the parents, “The Supreme Court says we should be ambitious, and that goals should be challenging. How are these IEP goals challenging my child?”
Last question. How do parents know when they need an advocate or a special education attorney?
Michael: When you are coming away from a meeting at the school or certainly an IEP meeting, and you just don’t feel good about the education that your son or your daughter is about to get, based on what you just heard, you should talk to somebody. It becomes pretty clear. You are talking about the most important thing that a parent does, which is raise their children. I’d also say, if you feel like you need someone’s help, don’t wait. You never get those days back.
Rich: There are probably two points that may dissuade a parent from bringing in an advocate. First, parents may be afraid that if they bring someone with them to the meeting, it may cause discord between the parent and school. It doesn’t have to be that way. Our focus is on collaboration. We think we can achieve great things for kids while still being respectful. And secondly, to be frank, parents don’t bring advocates because of the expense. But, we are committed to serving everybody, and we have a sliding scale so that no parent needs to feel that they can’t have a professional with them to help articulate the needs of their child.
We believe special education consultants or advocates are really valuable at any time during the process. They can help communicate the child’s needs, define what should be in the goals and present levels, and outline what should be in the accommodations. And also, an advocate can help remind the schools of these new Supreme Court standards that we’re talking about and making sure the IEP teams are cognizant of setting the bar higher. It’s all about realizing the unique potential of the child.
Attorney Michael j. Eig is the founder and owner of the firm Michael J. Eig and Associates, PC. Special education advocate Rich Weinfeld is the director and founder of the Weinfeld Education Group, LLC.
The two experts are frequent collaborators, including the presentation “To Infinity and Beyond: The Rediscovery of Potential in Endrew F.” at the 2018 Diamonds in the Rough Conference.