Parents of students with disabilities can feel buried under paperwork and bombarded by a foreign language of jargon and acronyms, but Blount County Schools is working to clear the way to help their children succeed.
In the past few weeks, meetings at all 14 BCS elementary schools have aimed to help families better navigate the special education system under a “Parents in Partnership” program, funded by a $20,000 state grant.
The meetings began with parents each receiving a binder in which to collect the paperwork related to their students.
Karen Moffatt, BCS speech/language services coordinator, led the sessions and encouraged parents to keep notes about their concerns before meetings and to collect examples of their students’ work to show educators the children’s strengths and struggles.
Particularly during transition points, such as when students are moving to a new school, that’s valuable information for the new teachers and other staff to have.
The school district also wants parents to understand their rights under special education law. “It is your right to have those explained to you,” Moffatt told parents at Lanier Elementary School last week.
She also noted that the special education system is based on “informed consent. We don’t do anything without your written permission.”
While school officials will bring a draft individualized education program (IEP) to meetings, Moffatt said, “That is a starting point. It’s not a done deal until we all sign off.”
Parents also have a legal right to have a copy of everything the school district has in their special education student’s folder, although Moffatt noted they may need time to make copies.
Moffatt encouraged parents to offer specific examples when bringing concerns to the schools. “The more specific you can be, the more helpful we can be,” she told the parents.
“We can’t diagnose anybody with anything,” Moffatt told the parents. “We determine education eligibility.”
The educators follow detailed state guidelines to determine whether students are eligible for special education services. Just because a student has a condition doesn’t mean that child qualifies for services. A student already may have learned skills to compensate for a disorder, she explained.
The ‘stranger test’
A student’s IEP should pass the “stranger test,” Moffatt said, meaning that someone unfamiliar with the student should be able to read it and understand exactly what it means.
“If you see terms in there you don’t understand, please tell us,” she encouraged the parents. “We want to make sure you understand everything.”
A student’s strengths are one of the most important parts of that IEP document, she said, and the goals are based on a reasonable amount of progress for a student to make over the next year. “We set that bar high,” Moffatt said.
Parents with students in special education programs also should see progress reports related to the IEP goals with the student’s report cards. “We are constantly looking at our data … and making sure we’re seeing growth,” Moffatt said.
If parents are concerned, she said, “You have a right to call a meeting at any time.”
Moffatt also explained the sections of the IEP related to students’ accommodations on tests, such as extra time or having someone read instructions, and plans being made to ensure a successful transition after high school.
As BCS works toward having one computer for every student under its 1:World initiative, educators also are writing “individual app plans” detailing what computer applications will help students with disabilities.
For families who weren’t able to attend the Parents in Partnership events at the elementary schools, Blount County Schools is holding an evening session at the Central Office on Oct. 24, during which child care will be provided. Families who have students in special education programs will receive invitations to register, so the district can plan for that evening.
Blount County Schools is planning additional sessions for families during the second half of the school year.