‘Do better:’ Parents of students with disabilities call on SBOE for more representation

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Nancy Anderson, attorney and associate director of Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, discusses a meeting between the state and parents/advocates of special needs students that occurred on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017.
Andrew Yawn / Advertiser

The message from parents of special needs students to the Alabama State Board of Education (SBOE) was clear and in large print across specially-designed T-shirts Thursday.

“Do better.”

Parents of and advocates for students with disabilities met with interim State Superintendent Ed Richardson Wednesday to express concern that Alabama’s ESSA plan (Every Student Succeeds Act) does not hold schools to a high enough standard when it comes to the performance of special needs students with one parent describing her child’s special education class as a “daycare.” Parents also said they have no clear line of communication to the SBOE and want a framework developed that would allow special needs interests to have a seat at the table when it comes to policy discussions.

“There’s not as much of a set path to communicate with y’all and we sort of run into roadblocks over and over and over,” said Bama Hager, program director with Autism Society of Alabama.

The ESSA plan was approved Thursday in order to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education by the Oct. 13 deadline, a deadline that was extended past the initial Sept. 18 deadline by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at the request of Gov. Kay Ivey.

A September review of Alabama’s ESSA plan by Alliance for Excellent Education gave Alabama the lowest possible grade for the “Inclusion of Subgroup Performance” category, meaning the subgroups such as special education students have “little to no effect on a school’s rating.”

Language has been added to the state’s ESSA plan to acknowledge the importance of evaluating the performance of special education students and teachers, and the ESSA plan had to be passed Thursday in order to secure the “significant infusion” of federal funding that comes with it, a sum of $508 million for Alabama schools, Richardson said.

But Richardson also said the ESSA plan could be amended after the submission to include more items regarding special education.

“Let’s wait for response from the Department of Education and then the state will respond with changes they see fit,” Richardson said.

SBOE members Jackie Zeigler, Betty Peters and Vice President Stephanie Bell voted against approving the ESSA plan, but members Yvette Richardson and Ella Bell said they approved the plan because of the opportunity to amend in the future.

The declaration was especially important for Ella Bell, who received backlash from the special education community after comments she made asking about separating special education grades from general education test scores, comments made at a June 21 SBOE meeting and publicized in an Aug. 24 column on AL.com.

“That is the wise thing to do,” Bell said of approving the ESSA plan and amending it later. “It is open ended so we can have input from our special populations.”

How the board will receive input from the special needs advocacy community was the subject of Thursday’s meeting between parents and Ed Richardson and the public comments made at the SBOE meeting that took place after. Those parents and advocates had been prevented from addressing the board in the two previous meetings because their topic of discussion was not on the agenda, according to State Department of Education officials and Richardson.

Parents asked for professional staff development to raise expectations for special education students, different pathways to achieving diplomas, and the need for school report cards to reflect the performance of the special education.

“The biggest (change we want to see) is just bringing us in. Letting our voices be heard. The representation of this disability community,” said People First adviser Kim Spangler whose son, Colby, has cerebral palsy. “The accountability measures for the testing scores, the report cards, all of that… We hope they will come up with a better way to do it than has been done in the past.”

Richardson said Nancy Anderson, attorney and associate director of Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, is his point of contact with the special education community and will be in charge of submitting key recommendations to the SBOE and Department of Education.

“The key since I’m a short-termer is to make sure we have a framework that is working and in place so upon me exiting it’ll be easy to keep it in place,” Richardson said. 

Anderson related the need for special education students’ performance to grading on an essay. If spelling is only worth 10 percent of the grade, a student perceives spelling as mattering the least to his or her performance, she said. 

“Now what if that (percentage) was students with disabilities? That they only get to count this much as opposed to counting more. That’s the goal to make sure they count more,” Anderson said. “I think Dr. Richardson was very intent on listening to concerns parents and stakeholders raised regarding high expectations and accountability for students with disabilities. I’m heartened by the plan to move forward where parents and stakeholders can prioritize some main issues of concern and then develop a work plan with the Special Ed. division and the department as a whole about how to address them, and eventually as necessary bring them to the state board for action.”