When the phones ring at Parent to Parent of Miami, what happens next is nothing short of miraculous to the parents struggling to educate children with special needs, disabilities and learning differences.
At the other end of the line are parents who not only have been in their shoes, but are not intimidated by terms like accommodations or Individualized Education Plans (IEP), the legal document that details the responsibilities of the school district and school staff.
With 36,000 children identified as having special needs or disabilities in Miami Dade Public Schools, thousands of parents are seeking or maintaining formal accommodations (changes in how a child is educated and tested) or modifications (changes in what a child learns) by working with school administrators and teachers. The list of accommodations is lengthy and includes preferential seating, extended time on tests and the use of assistive technologies, such as specialized apps and SmartPens that record lectures.
This figure — about 10 percent of children in public schools — does not include students in private schools, whose statistics are not public record. In addition, Miami Dade Schools says about 2,400 children in the county’s 114 charter schools, which are under the district’s regulation, have disabilities.
Some parents seek help from the non-profit Parent to Parent or from psychologists, who test children and prepare a report on the learning issues they uncover. Others go it alone or ignore the process altogether.
Parent to Parent is the only organization that trains and employs parents of children with disabilities to work with other parents.
“Everyone’s telling you everything your child isn’t, and it’s hard for you as a parent to hear,’’ says Lauren Bustos-Alban, advocacy training manager at Parent to Parent and the mother of a child with a learning disability. “That affects you. That is something we have lived personally… One thing a parent has to realize is that you don’t have to do it alone, and you can’t do it alone.”
The Florida Department of Education’s Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services lists 13 categories or “exceptionalities” under exceptional student education (ESE). These include learning disability, emotional/behavioral disability, autism, gifted and intellectually disability. Locally and nationally, the majority of children with disabilities, about 50 percent, have a learning disability.
Advocates say that because each child’s needs are different, there is no set sequence of actions every parent follows to secure accommodations through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a Section 504 plan, both legal documents that outline the duties of the school district and school staff. The process can take months.
In general, parents of public school students must put the request in writing, asking for a team meeting and an evaluation if the child does not have a private evaluation. Disability is determined through a psycho-educational evaluation, making the child eligible for special education and related services. In some cases, such as ADHD, a medical diagnosis may also be required.
“If a parent requests an evaluation, we’re bound by a 60-day time line,” says Edna Waxman, who oversees compliance at the Miami Dade Schools’ Office of Special Education and Educational Services. “Once they sign a consent form, the clock starts ticking.”