Education options, for the benefit of all students
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We all accept that education is one of the key predictors of future success. As such, we want our children and other children to have the opportunity to get the best possible education, and we believe nothing should stand in the way of that opportunity.
For that reason, the community applauds the many options presented to parents, believing the more options they have, the more likely they are to find the right educational fit for their child.
However, all too often children with severe disabilities are not afforded these same options. Idealists would lead us to believe that full inclusion is the only right answer for these children, and some are willing to sacrifice the educational experiences of thousands of children to uphold these ideal beliefs.
While we certainly advocate for full inclusion whenever possible, we are realists. Every single day, we hear the stories of special education students being placed on home-bound instruction, being arrested at school, being isolated in classrooms and even being tased or otherwise harmed in reaction to problematic behaviors. These are certainly not ideal educational experiences for these children or the children around them.
While we believe that inclusion is best practice, we know that it is simply not appropriate for all special needs children. And to thousands of parents, their special needs child’s experiences are the only experiences that matter.
Take the case of Tyrez. Diagnosed at the age of three with developmental delays and autism, by age five, he was a child whose behavior was unpredictable and out of control. His mother considered placing him in a facility, but she couldn’t bear the idea. So, she quit her job to care for Tyrez and respond to his developmental needs.
A couple of years later, when Tyrez started in a public school kindergarten class, his mother looked forward to returning to the workforce. That changed when she began getting daily calls from school. Even with an extensive Individualized Education Program (IEP) and crisis plan, the school did not have the resources to manage – and certainly not educate – Tyrez. The school suggested his mother find a better place for Tyrez.
Unfortunately, Tyrez’ mom could not find any schools equipped to support Tyrez and keep him safe. So, for the next two years, Tyrez did not attend school. Instead, with an IEP changed to “Homebound Services,” he was visited at home for one hour each day by a teacher. The school had fulfilled its requirement, but Tyrez’ mother was back in the same position. Her challenges mounted. Because she could not work, the family went on public assistance, and still could not afford the monthly rent. She became socially isolated, which affected the family’s home life.
The family was in crisis, through no fault of their own. It was all simply because Tyrez had been born with developmental disabilities and autism.
When Tyrez entered second grade, it appeared the family might get a reprieve. The school agreed to “try Tyrez attending school for an hour a day.” That lasted three days. The school told Tyrez’ mom to pick him up and not bring him back. That same day, Tyrez (by then, 8 years old) was injured in a fall after being tased by a school security officer when he engaged in dangerous and aggressive behaviors with a teacher. Tyrez’ mom did not know what to do.
Finally, after eight months on a waiting list, Tyrez was admitted to Damar Charter Academy, where he attended school all day and received specialized behavioral and educational supports. Things began to turn around. His mom no longer received daily phone calls. She became actively involved in his educational experiences. His IEP was adjusted regularly.
Today, Tyrez has been attending school continuously for two years. He’s learning, not just being managed. Mom got a job. The family got off government assistance and moved to a safer community. Tyrez is healthy, happy and has several friends at school.
My point is not that schools like Damar Charter Academy are the answer for every child with special needs. My point, instead, is that full education choice is important for children with developmental disabilities as well as for their families and their communities. Without a choice, Tyrez would not be learning, and his family would still be struggling.
In some cases, it is better – at least for a time – for children with developmental disabilities to be educated in a public school that prioritizes the specific needs of students with disabilities and that designs experiences and curriculum targeting these needs.
Working with children like Tyrez, I have seen that education creates better options, and options facilitate better education. It is that kind of experience that compels me to believe that choice is important for all children, including those with developmental disabilities.
Dr. Jim Dalton, president and chief executive officer at Damar Services, Inc., has long made his impact on the developmental disabilities industry. A licensed child psychologist with more than 20 years of experience in child and adolescent behavioral health, he has served as a clinical consultant, evaluator, researcher, and administrator.