IEP Advocate Grant Proposal
I propose a child advocate/IEP coach be provided to all families with children on an IEP or 504, by the state. More times than not, parents go into an Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting blind. They don’t know how much input they have on the changes made to the education plan. An IEP meeting usually leaves a parent to take on four or five (sometimes more, sometimes less) faculty members. The faculty is required to advocate for the district. Their job is to base decisions from evaluation and assessment scores to determine the criteria a child meets in order to qualify for services. And if a child does not meet the criteria, a recommendation to stop services is given. Parents typically think the recommendation is their only option and services are either faded out or terminated immediately.
I propose that the southwest local school district, located in Ohio, provide an individual education plan (IEP) advocate to every family, whether it is requested or not. The advocate would be present and advocate for the child and family only. While the state would provide the advocate, they would not answer to them. They would not be given criteria, boxes to check, results to calculate, or the need to triage school services. ‘A Department of Education report titled the Condition of Education 2018, states the number of students aged 3 to 21 receiving special education services increased from 6.6 million to 6.7 million from the 2014-2015 school year to the 2015-2016 school year. Among those, 34 percent had specific learning disabilities, of which 20 percent had speech or language impairments and 14 percent had other health impairments’ (U.S. Dept. of Edu., 2017).
My grant proposal would be geared primarily towards the educational environment, with some community outreach overlap. Parents have the right to participate in all of their child’s IEP meetings. In fact, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law governing special education, lists parents first on the list of required members of a student’s IEP team (Stanberry, 2019). Parents know their children best. They strive to build positive relationships with their child’s teachers and school administrators. But then, they are placed across the table from them to advocate for their child’s needs. Parents truly know their child’s strengths, struggles, and development better than anyone else. They’ve traveled the journey alongside their child, they’ve endured struggles and celebrated successes. They see how far their child has come, but now they’re forced to focus on their deficits.
Sec. 300.101 (c) (1) of the IDEA clearly states: “…FAPE is available to any individual child with a disability who needs special education and related services, even though the child has not failed or been retained in a course or grade, and is advancing from grade to grade” (Landau, 2018). Wrights’ law suggests that schools often provide inadequate evaluations. It is unlawful for a teacher to conduct a ‘screening’ and deem a full evaluation unnecessary. If a full evaluation is completed, it may be biased in favor of the school’s position. In which case a parent may need to seek a private evaluation to help their case for the needed support.
Individual education plans (IEP) are vital to a student’s academic success. Parents are a child’s number one advocate, with only their child’s best interest in mind. Teachers and school administrators want to do good by their students, but they must also advocate for the school, district, and budget. Most parents are not educated or knowledgeable about the IEP process, they need an advocate for themselves. The American Community Survey (ACS) estimates the overall rate of people with disabilities in the U.S. population in 2015 was 12.6 percent (Kraus, 2017). And up to one-third of parents of kids with learning disabilities do not feel prepared to take on the challenge (Morin, 2019).
Parents do not believe assessment scores and checklists are accurate determinants of a child’s need for assistance. Children are so much more than a set of numbers or boxes to be checked off to determine what educational services they deserve. Some children naturally excel in rigid and routine environments, such as a school setting. It is in natural environments (such as lunch, recess, art, gym, music, waiting for the bus, etc.) that their deficits are truly noticeable. Some children appear developmentally similar to their peers, but if adequate accommodations are taken from them, they will spiral.
Early in a child’s academic career is very difficult to determine if they are no longer in need of an IEP. There are still far too many grey areas that cannot be ignored at this time in their development. Often times children only see the end product, they do not understand the process. Because of these factors, academics may plateau or regress as children move on to the next grade level. Creative writing, common core math, expressive art, public speaking, etc. all require novel thinking and understanding, these are very difficult concepts for children with disabilities.
Stimming, sensory, and repetitive behaviors may not be evident to others because they have been gradually turned into more socially acceptable behaviors during outside resource sessions. These behaviors cannot be eliminated altogether, they need to be replaced with a more socially acceptable alternative. If one stim is removed, it will be replaced by another. The next stim may be less preferable, or socially acceptable, than the current one (Wang, 2019). And those behaviors may very well affect their learning environment, as well as their classmate’s learning environment.
These are formative early childhood years, where these behaviors and deficits can be more easily molded and taught. Parents are a child’s number one advocate because they are looking out for no one else but their child. Teachers are amazing advocates for their students, but not when they are forced into advocating for a child and district policy or criteria. A teacher’s right to teach the whole child and the teaching style in which each individual child learns best has been exchanged for common core standards.
With my proposal, all children with a disability would be assigned an advocate/coach for IEP meetings. They would coach the families by reviewing past and current IEPs, explaining laws, and discussing all the options for the child. They would also attend meetings, but not in a facilitator or mediator capacity. They would act as a barrier between the parents and district, allowing the parents to continue a positive relationship with the professionals that work with their child on a daily basis.
When IEP team members disagree, then they must begin the dispute resolution process. This may take a long time to reach a solution once it reaches this stage. The parent must submit a complaint to the district’s administration and then they will conduct an administrative review, which may include an administrative hearing. The superintendent will hear both sides of the disagreement before making a decision and they have twenty days to make that decision. If the parent still does not agree with the results, they can reach out to a local support group, parent mentor, or a coalition that specializes in the matter.
During the due process, the child will remain in a stay-put status. Which means their most recent IEP will be implemented until a decision can be agreed upon by all team members. Parents may hire a lawyer to represent them in the due process and they are responsible for all legal costs. If the district prevails the judge may also order the parents to pay the school districts legal costs. Reasons a district may prevail include: actions deemed frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, or if the action was brought for an improper purpose (Siegel, 2017).
Assessment of Resources
There are two options for families of students with disabilities to receive assistance in the IEP process. Families can request facilitation or mediation. Both processes can add additional hours to the IEP preparation time. Ohio provides mediation and facilitation services to parents and school districts who wish to resolve disputes through discussion and negotiation. In both processes, a trained, impartial third party, mediates communication between parties about their concerns in an effort to reach a solution (MAR, 2019).
‘Mediation is a dispute resolution process that uses a trained person to assist other people in coming to their own agreements about how to resolve their conflict or dispute. Unlike a judge or arbitrator, the mediator does not decide the outcome of the dispute’ (Wright & Wright, 2019). A mediator does not take sides and does not work for or act on behalf of the parent or the district. Mediation is typically sought if there is a disagreement involving a child’s special education. Mediation can be requested at any time, but both parties must agree to participate. Parents often choose mediation in order to avoid the legal fees associated with due process.
A facilitator is requested for an IEP meeting when there are conflicts or disagreements among team members. The facilitator serves as a neutral party and keeps the focus of the meeting on the child. In Ohio a mediator can facilitate IEP meetings, they attempt to calmly lead difficult discussions and bring the parties to an agreement. There are different facilitation styles, but generally, the goal is to assist team members in a thoughtful and productive creation of a quality IEP. The facilitator does not make decisions regarding what is placed in the IEP itself and is not considered a member of the IEP team. A facilitator is trained on special education laws and requirements. Essentially, the facilitator does not make decisions, however, they keep the IEP meeting on track and keeps the team focused on the child’s needs.
Impact of Problem
Parents are placed across the table from individuals that care for their child all day long. This can be awkward and uncomfortable. This also makes them hesitant to disagree with their decisions. Not to mention, the position this places the child’s teacher in as well. Their job is to base a decision solely on scores and criteria to be met, not from what they know to be true about the individual child. Parents often leave IEP meetings confused, dissatisfied, and feeling defeated. My proposal will help eliminate this issue, for the sake of our children and their future educational success.
The school staff often meets beforehand to discuss a preliminary decision, giving them the upper-hand and far more experience dealing with IEP meetings. For these reasons, caregivers need someone who knows the IEP process and can remain less emotional about results and proposed decisions. Caregivers are handed an intimidating booklet of laws and regulations in regards to the IEP process. “Education professionals and parents need to be able to understand federal requirements for individualized education program meetings, both to ensure compliance and also so that they are able to recognize potential violations.”
Studies have indicated that parents feel high levels of dissatisfaction during IEP meetings. They have difficulty processing the information and feel intimidated by school professionals. Caregivers often feel their child’s academics and behavioral difficulties are their fault. Their participation seems limited and their only task is to listen to others discuss their child’s education, answer questions, and sign pre-set forms of their child’s goals (Cheatham, Hart, Joan, & McDonald, 2011).
The number of students receiving special education is increasing, with 13 percent of all students receiving such services. The number of students, ranging from three to twenty-one years of age, receiving special education services increased from 6.6 million to 6.7 million in the 2014-2015 school year to the 2015-2016 school year. Among those, 34 percent had specific learning disabilities, 20 percent had speech or language impairments and 14 percent had other health impairments (Salem, 2018).
Older children are often encouraged to attend their own IEP meetings, to give first-hand feedback on what is working and what needs improvement. Collaboration and working in the student’s best interest may help facilitate success for students with disabilities by encouraging support at school and in the home. Types of interactions, the level of student engagement, and the quality of ideas shared at IEP meetings may affect these collaborative relationships and student success. A healthy number of positive interactions can affect the course of a meeting and participants’ feelings of satisfaction. Meetings focused on informational and observational remarks ensure that discussions remain evidence-based (Kozik, 2008).
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that makes free and appropriate public education available to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation. It ensures special education and related services for children with disabilities. School districts still have large class sizes, lack necessary resources, and lack of training for teachers. Great strides have been made in special education, but there are still many barriers that exist in order to fully implement IDEA (Carlson, Brauen, Klein, Shroll, & Willig, 2002).
Schools have a natural inclination to seek outside explanations for a child’s issues. They often indulge in believing the nature of issues is a simple matter within the parent’s control. School staff often delay evaluations because they have little control over the time and materials at their disposal in order to adequately complete evaluations. Identifying disabilities in young children present special challenges that the schools are often unable to manage. Schools would never admit that they are advised to limit the number of eligible students. But if decisions were made in the best interest of a child, it would be best to give services, rather than not. There are many missed valuable educational opportunities that cannot be regained (Heitin, 2004).
Caregivers do not understand a majority of the terms used in IEP meetings, putting them at a disadvantage to effectively advocate for their child. Most caregivers are not trained in the language used to report data, understand their rights, or the school district’s obligations. An advocate would explain the meaning, application, and services the student may or may not be entitled to receive. Because caregivers know the child best, they are best equipped to contribute to more meaningful, individualized goals (Dalien, 2015).
Several studies have focused on the principle and design of an IEP. They have identified inconsistencies with IEP development, IEPs encompassing several functions, the lack of an IEP being implemented for particular students with a disability, the challenges stakeholders encounter in the IEP, and more training being needed for teachers to effectively implement IEPs. Unless all participants in an IEP meeting are knowledgeable, students with disabilities will continue to be deprived of quality education and classroom teachers would have the ability to achieve goals for individual students (Dempsey, 2012).
Research indicates that successful implementation of inclusive practice requires the support of all IEP team members. All members should be genuinely committed to the success of all students must be prepared to advocate for the educational rights of students with disabilities. They should effectively collaborate with all team members within the school community to achieve this goal. Previous research indicated that IEPs were often vague, unfocused and difficult to use in guiding instructional planning. Research also suggests that in order for schools to achieve effective IEP practices, emphasis should move towards teaching, learning, and collaboration.
What most people do not understand is that the supports needed are not temporary measures. If services are providing a profoundly positive impact on a child’s success, they should continue. Some feel that when success has been achieved, it’s time to discontinue the accommodations. If parents and professionals are truly interested in the well-being of the student and determine what supports are no longer needed; then a plan should be developed to taper supports and transition to new expectations. Parents should not be bullied or flattered into accepting less than what their child needs (Timothy & Agbenyega, 2018).
Due to the number of students with disabilities not receiving services, not receiving adequate services, and complaints filed in the state of Ohio, I propose the state provide individual education plan (IEP) advocates and/or coaches. The Ohio Department of Education reported that fourteen percent of Ohio preschool and school-aged students had a disability in the 2015-2016 school year. In 2015, 255,798 students were identified as children with disabilities. These students were eligible for special education, or related, services. However, only 253,896 of those students received services. Meaning that 1,902 students were reported as ‘eligible, not served’ (ODE, 2017). In the 2016-2017 school year, Ohio had a reported 194 written state complaints filed over special education services. Mediation was requested from 188 families and 146 due process complaints were filed (CADRE, 2017).
Theory Survey and Comparison
Parents will complete questionnaires and surveys at the mid-year and end of the school year. They will also be assessed on the program’s overall success. Quarterly reviews of the advocate coach’s effectiveness would be calculated after the mid-year and end of the year data results. I believe that overall the children, families, schools, districts, and states will see positive outcomes in their special education programs. Families will have more reassurance in the education their children with disabilities receive and more confident in the IEP team and the established goals.
I propose one IEP advocate coach is hired for every twenty students requiring an IEP. These employees would go over the child’s IEP with the family, explaining services and resources that their child may be entitled to receive. They will offer educated and unbiased suggestions to be changed, added, or omitted from the plan. They will also attend the IEP meetings on behalf of the child and family, not the district. Each new employee would be trained in laws and procedures for special education students. They would also receive training in disorders and disabilities, with continued training throughout the year.
Southwest local school district, in Ohio, has six schools total: four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. They have roughly 700 students receiving special education services. Each school in the district has anywhere from four percent to forty-nine percent of students with disabilities. Per every one thousand students, there are two counselors, one psychologist, less than one physical/occupational therapist, less than one social worker, two special education teachers, and one speech-language pathologist (SWLS, 2019).
Understanding the IEP and special education process is very difficult even for trained professionals. With laws and regulations that change on a regular basis, it can be challenging. Most parents do not have a full understanding of the IEP and/or special education process, making it an even larger challenge. An effective advocate will build productive dialogue and strong collaborative relationships with the child’s educational team and school district. They provide expert advice and tools to help a child succeed. All while becoming a more effective advocate for the child and their needs.
An advocate would also provide school/classroom observations and review assessment reports. They would propose goals, review supportive evidence, and materials. And they would also draft letters, written requests to school, and draft complaints to the state department of education when needed.
Community standards, laws, prevailing philosophies, and individual freedoms determine ethical procedures when working with children (Bailey and Burch, 2011). Professionals must abide not only by a universal code of ethics but also by individual family ethics since they usually work very closely with children and their families. Professionals should maintain confidentiality to protect the dignity of all involved and be mindful to conflicts of interest. Professionals must be vigilant against developing relationships with families that extend past professional boundaries (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2013).
Ethics help determine what is the morally correct course of action. Because cultures and rules change over time, they must be self-regulating to stay relevant to changing norms. Certifications should remain relevant not only through formal training, supervision, and mentored professional practice, but also through continuing education and staying current on new research. Informed consent prior to providing services must be obtained. Professionals and their environment should support adequate delivery of services.
However, there are a number of checks and balances in place to ensure the code of ethics is being followed. Schools often have a system in place to assess teachers and other professionals. They might observe class time, talk to students, co-workers, or families, or monitor overall results in order to ensure that ethical practices are in place. Employee training often occurs regularly in schools. Certain aspects of ethics will never change, but there are items that shift from time to time. The ongoing training helps keep professionals current. Professionals can also take reasonable steps in order to ensure they are performing in a responsible, competent, ethical manner.
The primary setting would be in the schools with community outreach overlap. Parents often leave IEP meetings confused, dissatisfied, and feeling defeated. My proposal will help eliminate this issue, for the sake of our children. I propose that the additional staff hired to fill these positions would be the Ohio department of education employees. They would begin working with families immediately after they receive thorough training. Establishing relationships and collecting data as early as possible will be most beneficial to children and families. The earlier and longer the child is tracked, the easier data can be compared to determine progress and/or regression. Take military children for instance, they move about every three years. This means that military children on an IEP must establish a new IEP team from a new school, district, and state every three years. But if adequate data is collected that can follow these children from one place to another, the better off they will be during their educational career.
Providing knowledge and expertise concerning special education and applicable federal or state laws lie the groundwork for a healthy client-advocate relationship. Educating parents about their rights, assist in negotiations, and resolving disputes in a collaborative manner is their priority. Building the bridge between all relevant parties in a peaceful way to achieve the most appropriate educational goals and services needed for the client’s child with special needs.
It is difficult to provide or require training of advocates and still provide free resources to parents and caregivers. There is a continual struggle on how to address the certification issue without limiting access to the available sources of effective and comprehensive advocacy training due to financial reasons. The issue of availability and cost of advocacy services greatly impacts underserved communities. In addition, extreme caution must be taken with a national approach towards advocate certification, given the many variations of advocacy in different regions of the U.S. Not to mention the need to ensure that parents are not denied assistance from an individual with knowledge or special expertise regarding their individual child.
There are no federal or state legislative or regulatory guidelines addressing the educational or credential requirements for an individual to serve as an advocate. The council of parent attorneys and advocates (COPAA) created a special education advocate training program (SEATTM), in hopes of providing families with better-educated individuals to help them with their needs. The SEATTM program is the only of its kind in the country. It is now a nationally recognized program, but still not required by law to obtain.
In 2008, COPAA published the Core Competencies of a Special Education Advocate Opens a New Window to establish common standards to define the field and recognize the many avenues to obtain information, knowledge, and experience. Advocates are encouraged to fully explore training opportunities and receive credentials from a program of interest. Special education advocacy occurs under a variety of conditions, settings, oversight, state, and local regulations, etc. Other aspects of an advocate’s responsibilities or expected knowledge can be relevant in one state, setting, or subject, but irrelevant in others. Each individual advocate makes their own decision in regard to the type of, nature, and extent of training they receive.
California introduced a bill in 2011, proposing a voluntary certification process for non-attorney special education advocates who wanted to participate in IEP and mediation sessions. The bill would have required alternative dispute resolution training and testing to any person seeking certification in special education advocacy. Unfortunately, the bill was defeated.
Parents must be informed consumers as they review and determine the qualifications of an advocate to assist at IEP meetings, in mediation sessions, due process proceedings, etc. Parental rights to receive assistance and support from individuals with special knowledge or training on the needs of an individual child must be protected.
Advocates need to be knowledgeable about different types of tests and what they measure. They should know all laws involving special needs, education, and rights of a child and school, to include transportation. Knowledge of regulations and jurisdictions of the locations of their clients is also essential. They must provide relevant information to clients to help them make informed decisions about appropriate educational services.
Advocates are also responsible for articulating concerns and desires for the student’s educational needs. They will educate clients about special education laws and regulations. While treating all involved with dignity and respect. Adhering to federal and/or state confidentiality requirements and laws are essential. Advocates must keep client information confidential, making arrangements for client’s records be returned or destroyed once a final decision has been made.
They must stay relevant and keep clients informed of local, state, regional, and national resources for parents and students. Information regarding modern trends or new methodologies in the area of special education. Advocates must also provide educationally and culturally appropriate services. Also disclosing all potential conflicts of interest, place the interest of the clients ahead of any personal goals or interests, and disclose any information that may cause a potential conflict of interest during the decision-making and planning process.
Professional special education advocates can be invaluable resources for families. They can empower parents and students with disabilities, repair the relationship between the school team and family, while effectively enforcing IDEA rights.
There is so much more to education than just academics. Intervention needs to remain consistent. Without supports in place, deficits in social communication cause noticeable impairments (APA, 2013). Comparing children to one another have many adverse effects on a child’s development to include low self-esteem, low self-worth, stress, and a decrease in social interactions. Often times children acquire an extensive rote repertoire of ‘correct’ responses (Ogundele, 2018). They appear to understand and give ‘correct’ responses, but they are not. They may excel most in rigid, routine environments with concrete tasks. They simply flip through their ‘rolodex of learned responses,’ appearing to develop answers on their own. And this deficit will not show in any evaluation or assessment.
Parents want to avoid an increased adverse impact on educational performance in the long run. Should this grant proposal be accepted it would greatly impact the number of children that have been denied services or eligibility. Parents will be better equipped to know services their children require to meet their full potential and make the most progress. Parents will no longer leave IEP meetings feeling defeated, confused, or strong-armed. Parents believe there is more that can be done for their child, but they don’t know how to ask and receive them. This solution would resolve that issue. And allow parents to leave IEP meetings feeling hopeful and optimistic about their child’s educational future.
There is an African proverb that states, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ We, as a society, have slowly strayed from this concept. But it does take a village and that village includes the home, caregivers, school, teachers, and staff. We are all on one team with the same goal in mind. Parents should never be told what services and accommodations cannot be provided for their child. But they should work together, home and school, to figure out ways for the child’s needs to be met. Other resources can be adapted, increases can be made here, decreases made there, every child and their needs matter. We must remember, we are in the same village.