An effective IEP requires sharp elbows

The law requires children with special needs receive special attention. Parents must demand it.
By: | June 7, 2021
iStock / Getty Images Plus
Jen Mendelsohn is co-founder of Braintrust Tutors.

Jen Mendelsohn is co-founder of Braintrust Tutors.

Education is a right. Yet, when it comes to those of us with children who have special needs, there’s a disparity of wealthier students getting the support they require and the less-resourced children not getting the support they are entitled to by law. So, I had to learn how to fight for my child’s rights in an educational system that prefers to remediate than support. And it boils down to making your IEP (Individualized Education Program) work for your child.

An IEP is a legally binding document that spells out exactly what special education services your child will receive and why. It will include your child’s classification, placement, services and therapies, academic goals, and percentage of time allocated in mainstream education, and progress reports from teachers/specialists.

At my IEP, a Department of Education (DOE) administrator said that my daughter could receive 30 minutes of reading intervention a day. She conspiratorially whispered to me that such accommodation was quite rare. Also, this is most telling, the DOE refused to apply the medical term “dyslexia” in my IEP despite private expert reports by neuropsychologists confirming her condition independently.

According to the administration–not experts in the field–, my daughter simply had a language processing issue. Why would the delineation matter? Remember, if the IEP labels an issue, they’re responsible for remediating it, and most schools lack the resources and the will. Even the uninitiated know that early intervention (kindergarten through second grade) is much more effective than late remediation (third grade and beyond).

Not surprisingly, parents are fired up. Tens of thousands have joined class-action lawsuits across the nation to hold public schools accountable as kids, particularly those with learning challenges, fall behind. There are lists of goals and supporting therapies, assessments, and learning implementations that must be adhered to. But, by design, IEPs are fluid documents in large part because a child’s progress is always shifting. So, that often means well-intentioned educators and support providers will come to an IEP meeting with a pre-formulated agenda.

Plus, many parents aren’t aware of the IEP process and the remedies they are entitled to by law. They assume schools have their best interest at heart for the child’s academic development. So, what we end up seeing in the public school system is that children are often advanced because schools are compensated according to headcount (attendance) and test scores – not abilities.

It now becomes your role as the parent to come prepared to listen and inform, cajole and persuade your district’s advisors to provide those specialty services that you are entitled to by law. So how can you decide if your IEP is directionless and take control of the process?

1. Pay attention to the Present Levels section: If the Present Levels section seems canned, generic, and irrelevant to your child’s issues, it’s a red flag. This critical component is considered by many to be the most important because it drives the binding document. It should outline where your child is in his academic development and what goals he expected to achieve this school year.
2. Progress monitoring reports: Are you receiving detailed progress reports that track growth and improvement? Is there a strict schedule of check-ins? Objective frequent reports, which you can insist upon, keep everyone accountable and are essential.
3. Speak up in an IEP meeting: IEPs are supposed to be collaborative, not directive. If you attend a meeting and an administrator reads the IEP out loud at you, it’s not a conversation; it’s a monologue.
4. Ensure there are benchmarks: What is the long-term plan and the short-term plan? Goals need to be identified, set, achieved, and carried forward to the IEP in the following year.

Ultimately, if they can’t provide those services in a reasonable time frame, it’s your right to sue the district. And, sadly, many districts need their hand forced and operate only when they know there is real legal exposure and expense behind your actions. But what’s important to know is that although students with disabilities may not be capable of having exactly the same educational experiences as other students, federal law requires that they be provided with an appropriate education for them – not the school. And that is your right as a parent.

So much like you direct your children, show up to your IEP, and be prepared. Do the homework, research your district, and don’t compromise away your child’s future. Embrace the teachable moment with sharp elbows.

After struggling with her child’s Dyslexia diagnosis in 2014, Jen partnered with her former tutor, Mara Koffmann, to address and repair material deficiencies in the specialized learning marketplace. Braintrust Tutors seeks to remove traditional barriers between pupil and teacher while offering academic transparency, metric-driven results, and accountability for everyone in a scalable product.

More from DA