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For Genie Dawkins, ongoing bus delays and scheduling changes for Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE)’s Division of Transportation represent a small portion of her fight to guarantee her special-needs child a quality education.
Years ago, Dawkins, a Northwest resident and special-education and lifestyle consultant, secured a placement at a private school in Montgomery County with the hope that her son — who has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder — would have access to teachers and resources needed to excel academically.
Instead, what Dawkins recalled encountering were administrators more adamant about controlling her son’s behavior than helping him build his skill set and preparing him for the next stages of his academic career.
She said that teachers often confused her son’s penchant for asking questions with insubordination, and kept him on a behavior track that would relegate him to a course selection similar to what she tried to avoid in District’s public and public charter schools.
Even after a functional behavior assessment deemed her son cognitively prepared for the academic track that he would eventually dominate, Dawkins said that instructors at the Rockville, Maryland-based private school continue to designate him as “below grade level” on his report cards.
She told The Informer her situation is indicative of a larger problem special-needs families have in their efforts to secure suitable academic and extracurricular accommodations for their children.
“They’re forcing high-functioning autistic children into institutions that prioritize behaviors, not academics. When I talk to schools that used to accept our vouchers and I ask them why they don’t [anymore], they say the goals conflict,” Dawkins said.
“Once a child makes academic progress [at the placement school], D.C. Public Schools says they no longer want them placed there. Some schools don’t allow a child to graduate with a diploma. They funnel D.C. students to the workforce because they’re not academically strong.”
Exploring Conditions that Special-Needs Students Face
Children and young people between the ages of 3 and 21 receive special education and related services under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), federal legislation that mandates eligible students with disabilities receive a “free appropriate public education.”
OSSE coordinates the placement oversight process to ensure that special-needs students can be educated alongside their peers in the general population of District public and public charter schools. Additionally, the agency works to boost academic outcomes for special-needs students through special training for educators, access to support and resources for special education data systems, and the allocation of funds for the newly formed Special Education Hub, a partnership OSSE entered with the D.C. Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education.
Since before the pandemic, special-needs families have embraced other means of educating their children, due to what some have described as environments that traumatize their children and ill-prepare them for future academic pursuits.
During the latter part of 2020, five parents filed a civil suit against DCPS alleging the physical abuse of special-needs children at River Terrace Education Campus, Walker-Jones Education Campus Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School. Some of the parents in the suit had since enrolled their children in other schools, including St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a public charter school in Capitol Hill for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
Families experiencing similar situations may petition for placement in what are called nonpublic schools and programs. OSSE works with the child’s school and family to facilitate admission into those programs.
As of February, nearly 40 D.C.-area schools have been approved as sites providing the “least restrictive environment” for children in need of an education outside of the District public and public charter schools. During FY-2022, OSSE reviewed and made recommendations on student placements for 132 students.
Out of that group, 82 of those students received placements at nonpublic schools.
An OSSE spokesperson told The Informer that the aforementioned schools and programs specialize in meeting a variety of needs for students, and are required to accommodate special-needs students as they embark on the journey to attaining their diploma, GED or alternative certificate of completion.
However, parents who spoke with The Informer on background mentioned challenges navigating OSSE’s school placement process, including a requirement that the school that OSSE approves for them needs to accept their child within seven days of that approval.
Other parents have even alleged collusion between the placement schools, DCPS and the charter schools to send the special-needs children back to a public or public charter schools so that those schools receive the funds attached to that student.
During the earlier part of March, the D.C. Policy Center released its State of D.C. Schools 2021-2022 report which showed the incremental decline in public and public charter school enrollment among special-needs students in District since the start of the pandemic.
The report said that students with disabilities experienced high levels of absenteeism. They also had the lowest learning outcomes during the 2021-2022 school year, as seen in their scores on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, also known as PARCC. Researchers attributed that, in part, to staffing vacancies that prevented students from receiving speech and language services and, in some cases, relegated them to a general education classroom without support.
The State of D.C. Schools 2021-2022 report also showed that parents within that time frame increasingly expressed concerns about the quality, and level of access, of support services; at least one in five parents made calls to the Office of the Student Advocate and the Office of the Ombudsman of Public Education. Those calls, according to the report, centered on children not receiving the number of service hours outlined in their individualized education plan, also known as an IEP.
Chelsea Coffin, director of the Education Policy Initiative at the D.C. Policy Center, suggested that city leaders focus on improving transportation and quality of in-school services for special-needs children.
“Once in school, parents and caregivers of students with disabilities had concerns at times about students who didn’t receive the required service hours in their IEP,” Coffin said. “Parents and caregivers were also concerned about attaining a new IEP. It is really important to center students with disabilities in schools’ recovery from the pandemic with metrics that track service delivery and success, including timely evaluation and meeting IEP goals, for example.”
Providing Special-Needs Students Access to After-School Programming
Another concern centers on whether special-needs students can access out-of-school programming.
Dr. Shontia Lowe, executive director of the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education’s Office of Out-of-School Time Grants and Youth Outcomes, recently told The Informer that her office continues to take stock of where extracurricular programs are placed throughout the District and how best to include special-needs populations.
A Bowser administration official speaking on background said her FY-2024 budget proposal includes investments that expand access to and quality of school-based afterschool programming. Funding will also go toward increasing special-needs students’ accessibility to after-school programming.
These developments come weeks after D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) introduced the Out of School Time Special Education Inclusion and Standards Act, which would mandate OSSE to develop standards out-of-school time providers would adhere to when serving students with IEPs.
Renee Davis, a Ward 1 parent who sits on the citywide board of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE), has been on a similar crusade. She said OSSE’s inability to rectify the bus scheduling delays has revealed the exclusion of special-needs students from a holistic and fruitful academic and social experience.
Since January, Davis has counted among numerous community members demanding more of a robust bus system for her son who attends a local charter school. This advocacy builds upon an ongoing effort to ensure that he is able to participate in after-school programming that she said helps to stabilize his socioemotional behaviors.
Davis said that might happen with the recent infusion of an OSSE grant that will support on-campus after-school activities. Years ago, in the absence of an on-campus sailing program, the Brendan Sailing Program sponsored her son’s transportation to and from St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where he learned how to sail. Because of budgetary concerns, her son hadn’t been able to make that trek outside of town since last fall.
Davis explained that her daughter, a student in a Maryland-based private placement who’s on track to receive a high school diploma equivalent to what OSSE certifies for District public and public charter school students, also has a transportation quandary.
This young lady has applied to the University of the District of Columbia’s (UDC) College Access and Readiness for Everyone Program, through which District students can earn college credits at no cost while in high school. Though it’s likely she will be accepted, there remains the issue of how she will make the commute from school to UDC.
That’s why Davis said the D.C. government must make strides in expanding special-needs students’ access to enrichment activities, regardless of whether they attend District public and public charter schools or receive a private placement.
“I would rather be discussing transition to college and asking how to get our children transported from a high private placement to a high-quality after-school placement,” Davis said.
“When you go to any D.C. public high school with special education students, there’s a long line of orange buses at 3 p.m. and students are exiting, not to do sports or cheerleading, but to be transported from the building. That’s why we have to advocate so strongly for out-of-school time. It can be the critical difference in determining whether or not a child maintains inclusion.”