Well, school has started just about everywhere, and I have spent the last few weeks in a mad-dash scramble of IEP meetings, Mediation and other events trying to finalize programs for several of my clients. It’s always a stressful time for me, and even more so for parents of children with special needs. And just like the end of the school year, the beginning of the school year tends to bring out the best, and worst, in people. I’ve had a few powerful reminders of that this back-to-school season.
There is no way to over-state the difference a fair and reasonable administrator can make in a child’s special education program.
This goes for regular education administrators, like principals, and special education directors alike. When you have someone who is caring, concerned, and open to criticism at the head of the team, while consensus may not always be reached, at least the parents will feel like their perspective is being heard. And when that happens, they are more likely to participate in a truly meaningful way in the development of the IEP, in addition to being more willing to compromise on some issues in order to achieve others. Almost nothing makes me happier than when a previously contentious relationship between parents and their school district transforms into a cooperative and productive one.
But when an administrator cares more about being in charge than they do about the children they are charged to educate, it is a recipe for disaster.
There is an old saying: “fish rots from the head down.” Now, I don’t actually know if fish does, in fact, rot from the head down, but I can tell you from a great deal of experience that special education programs do. If you have a head of special education in your district who walks into IEPs asking “what MORE do you want from me?” as opposed to “what does this child need?” it will show in the attitudes of the teachers, the speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and even paraprofessionals under her.
Perhaps the only thing worse than a special education administrator who doesn’t care is a regular education administrator who won’t follow the law.
Actually, I’m not sure which is worse, they both stink. But very often I will see principals who make it clear to parents that they are less than thrilled that children with disabilities are placed in “their” school. I have even heard regular educators reminded by special educators at IEP Team Meetings that they do, in fact, have to comply with the IDEA. Like the principal who once said “I don’t care what the IEP says, I’m not putting another adult in that classroom!” even though my client’s IEP called for a 1:1 aide. Of course, he was later forced to do it by the district’s lawyer, but what a miserable place for the parents to be in, where a necessary service for their child is forced upon the head of the building!
If you are ever put in a position of being able to choose between districts or schools, find out who is running the show.
Then, ask around and find out what kind of a reputation they have among parents of children with special education needs. If that reputation is a poor one, while I wouldn’t dismiss an appropriate program entirely based on this one factor, I would count it twice in the “con” column. Maybe even three times.