The following is a letter that I wrote to our school district, upon receiving some fairly disturbing news about the state of the Special Education budget for next school year. I've removed the specific name of the school and school district, just to maintain a bit of privacy, but otherwise the content is exactly what was provided to the school today.
To ------- Public Schools, Special Education Department:
My name is Lisa Marsh. I am a mother to two first graders at -------- Elementary School, and two who will be incoming kindergartners in the fall. One of my first graders has a diagnosis of high functioning autism and currently receives support from the Special Education team at --------.
It has recently been brought to my attention that our wonderful little school might be facing a budget cut that will cause us to lose up to half of the Special Education staff.
As a parent, this news left me confused – how can we possibly be suffering budget cuts to our Special Education services? It left me frustrated and nervous. But mostly it left me frightened about what this could mean for my child’s future.
In his short time at <our school>, with the support of the wonderful team of well-trained Special Education staff – teachers and Instructional Aides – my son Danny is thriving in school. We weren’t sure if this would be possible. We weren't sure if a regular school was the right place for him. When you hear an autism diagnosis you wonder if your child will ever be accepted, if he will ever be able to fit in with his peers. You wonder if his life will ever be normal.
But the staff at ------- has opened up our and his eyes to how wonderful school and learning can be for a child like him. He is in a general education classroom surrounded by 22 other children his age. He is accepted. He is welcomed. He is supported. He is normal.
I wanted to tell you a little bit more about Danny, and what the Special Education support at school has meant to him.
Danny has significant fine motor delays which made it very hard for him to hold a pencil correctly – but with the support at school he has learned to write all his letters and numbers, and he can write sentences and create stories. He can draw pictures to share about his day. He can do math worksheets. He can take spelling tests. This is because there is staff at the school that can take the time to work with him on these things when he needs a little extra time. It is because there is a Special Education Teacher who has spent a great deal of time working to figure out exactly what writing aids and supports would work for him, and strategizing with me on exactly the right approach to make writing work for him. With support at school Danny can participate fully in the normal academic curriculum, like all the other kids. With support at school Danny can be normal.
Danny has sensory issues which sometimes make loud noises challenging, different textures challenging, crowded spaces challenging. But with support at school he is able to overcome those challenges and have an enjoyable day. He participates in art class and brings home beautiful creations that he is so proud of. He is able to navigate through fire drills or assemblies without getting upset. He feels comfortable and at ease in his classroom. He knows that school is a place where he can feel safe and protected from the things in his environment that might be overwhelming for him. This is because the Special Education staff at school has been able to take the time to adapt his surroundings or provide him with additional tools and supports that make the environment work for him. The staff has been able to work with me and his teacher to find strategies for helping him get through his day without getting his sensory system overwhelmed. With support at school Danny can feel happy and ready to learn. With support at school Danny can be normal.
Danny has typical autism challenges in the area of social skills. There was a time when we weren’t sure if we would see him having normal conversations with other kids, or joking and interacting with his peers. But with support at school he is learning and practicing social skills in a real environment with typically developing kids his age. He has learned to read with a partner – exchanging suggestions, helping each other, taking turns. He tells jokes and he laughs at their jokes. He stands in line with everyone else. He participates in music performances. He participates in circle time. This is all because the Special Education staff at school has been able to take the time to ease him into these activities. They have been able to take the time to make accommodations so these activities can be more comfortable for him. They have been able to have in depth conversations with me and his classroom teacher about how we can make his school environment work for him. With support at school Danny can have a normal social life and feel included like everyone else. With support at school Danny can be normal.
Danny has gross motor delays that make everything physical just harder for him than most kids – but with support at PE and recess he has been able to participate in activities that other kids are doing. With a little extra support he was able to participate in bike PE and he has learned to ride a bicycle without training wheels – something we thought we might never see. He participates and is included in PE games with his peers. He climbs the playground equipment like other kids. This is all because the Special Education staff at school has been able to take the time to work with him on these activities. They have been able to take the time to adapt the games for him, or the IA has been able to work 1:1 with him when he needs a bit more practice than everybody else. With support at school Danny can play and participate in PE and recess just like everybody else. With support at school Danny can be normal.
The successes that Danny has had would not have been possible without all of the amazing support he receives from the Special Education Staff every single day.
But what happens if half this support is taken away?
What happens if the staff is cut in half? Does my child receive half the amount of attention he has been getting? Do I get half the amount of responsiveness from the Special Education teacher when I have a concern that we need to discuss? Does the classroom teacher get half the amount of advice, and coaching, and education on how to make her classroom more inclusive for a special needs child?
Will my child no longer be successful in a General Education classroom, because the support is not there to help make it work for him? Or will he just be left on his own in class with less support? Will the classroom teacher have to choose between giving my child the extra help he needs or giving all 22 other kids the full lesson they need and deserve? Will he have to be pulled out for half his day to receive his support in a more limited and excluded environment, because there isn’t the staff available to push in to the classroom to support him there?
These teachers are amazing. They go above and beyond for my child, and every other child they serve. They work more hours than they should, every single day of the workweek, and on the weekends too. They are already stretched too thin. And I have to be honest – the thought of this already stretched staff having to stretch even further (and in this case, it seems, a LOT further), really worries me.
With half the support available for my child, for the classroom teacher, for the PE teacher, for the art teacher, for the lunch room, for the entire staff that interacts with him, and for me – I fear that his amazing progress will grind to a halt. It leaves me greatly concerned for his future and his ability to be successful in school, and in life.
It worries me not just for my child’s education, but also for the education of every other child in the room and in the school.
By making life more normal for a child with a disability, we normalize disability and differences for all children. By seeing how a child with a disability can participate in class and learn and be successful just like everybody else, we are teaching all children that they are all equal, that they are all normal, that they all can and will be accepted. By making school work for my child, you are teaching all of the other children that they all have a right to be supported in whatever their needs are. You are teaching them that they all have a right to the tools they need in order to be successful. You are teaching them that they all matter equally, regardless of their differences.
If you take that away, what happens? If you take away the tools that are needed to allow a child with a disability to be successful in the classroom, what message does that send to the other kids? If my child can no longer spend his full school day in a classroom with all the other kids, because he has to be pulled out to receive his support in a separate setting, what will you be teaching the rest of the children?
I think you will be teaching them that their differences are a limitation. I think you will be teaching them that their differences are the thing that should keep them apart from the group. I think you will be normalizing the idea that a disability should exclude you. I think you will be teaching them that maybe the thing that makes them different might not be worth supporting. You will be teaching them that they are not all equal.
We need a fully staffed Special Education Department. Not just for my child, but for every single child in that school. Please don’t take them away.