It Takes a Village

NOTE: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month

Courtney Hansen holding her two boys on their front porch.

Courtney with her twin sons on their first day of kindergarten in a new state. The boys play t-ball together, love Super Why, biking to the park, and are in the same kindergarten class.

A guest blog by Courtney Hansen. Courtney is a non-attorney special education advocate. She advocates at the local, state, and national level for disability rights, and blogs about it at www.inclusionevolution.com


My son with Down syndrome and his typically-developing twin brother just started kindergarten. The military also just moved us across country this past summer.

There’s been a lot of change this year, and I was often overwhelmed by the idea of my first-born twins starting “real” school in a new state. I cried like a baby their first day of school, but they just marched off to school like they owned the place. I was amazed, but realized that it was the result of years of preparation and help from so many different people. Having a son with a disability has shown me the value of “the village.”

About two years ago, I really started investigating the idea of a fully inclusive education for my son with Down syndrome. I even blogged about my ultimate goal: my twins graduating together in the year 2031.

For most other sets of twins graduating together wouldn’t be a goal, because it would just happen automatically. With lower graduation rates for students with disabilities compared to non-disabled students, and even lower rates for student with intellectual disabilities, I knew our path would be hard fought. It all starts in kindergarten of course. So, I worked tirelessly over the past two years to get where we are today. Both Hunter and Troy are in the same class, and Troy is 100 percent included with his typical peers with the appropriate supports to be successful.

Too many kindergarteners with intellectual disabilities don’t have the same opportunity as my son, even though federal and state laws require the continuum of placement to start in general education with appropriate supports. You might ask how I successfully got him included 100 percent of the time and if he really is being successful. I will tell you it all starts with the village, as well as learning you and your child’s rights.

1. Find Your Tribe

Social media can be a blessing and a curse, but for parents of children with disabilities it’s often an awakening.

Getting plugged into the Down syndrome community via social media helped me realize what is possible.

Even though we’ve lived in three states since our twins were born, I’ve been able to make friends in each state and around the country who have shaped my perspective on what it means to live and thrive with an intellectual disability.

Can my son go to college? Of course, because I just talked to Beth whose son with Down syndrome is moving across country to attend George Mason University.

Can Troy really find a meaningful career? Yes! Elizabeth’s son just got another promotion at Kroger.

These friends have pushed me to set high expectations for my son.

2. Lean on Experts

No doubt about it, you are the expert of your child.

When he was little you were up in the middle of the night with his croupy cough, and you’ll be there when he ages out of the system.

Still, we can learn so much from doctors, therapists, counselors, and teachers.

I’ve always taken a hands-on approach to my son’s endless therapy sessions and education.

I always set some of the private therapy and individualized education program (IEP) goals. In return, many doctors, therapists, and teacher have taken the time to really educate me on best practices in my son’s areas of need and given me functional tips to help my son at home.

3. Start Advocating

I started advocating early ensuring my son would receive an inclusive education with proper supports. I attended conferences and special education trainings to learn my son’s educational rights.

You can start local with school board meetings and school superintendents. Request training for teachers in best practices like Universal Design for Learning and Multi-Tiered System of Supports.

At the state level, I advocated for a bill that is now law in Ohio to end organ transplant discrimination for people with disabilities. Many disability organizations provide opportunities to advocate nationally either over social media or in person.

I attended the Buddy Walk on Washington, and had the opportunity to ask my U.S. Senators and House of Representatives to preserve important health care protections for people with disabilities and better fund IDEA. Positive change starts with you and me. So get out there; our children’s futures depend on it!

4. Take a Break

Most parents of children with disabilities are the most tenacious, hard-hitters I’ve ever met, but this heightened existence of higher highs and lower lows can take their toll on Type-A personalities like me.

I have to make a conscious effort to lean on friends and family outside of the disability community.

The military affords our family respite hours every month, and I use every last minute. The only way I can be a superhero for my son is if I take care of myself.

Parenting a child with a disability is a marathon, not a sprint.

Even with the strong start my son has, I know we will hit many bumps in the road.

Will I know when his needs aren’t being met? How will I ensure he’s included, but also gets the support he needs for a successful future?

My best answer is to lean on my village. I wish more people would embrace their “village.” Our children, community, and country would be better for it!

Courtney's two boys

Troy and Hunter


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Meriden Public Schools’ Community Classroom Collaborative

Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett and Deputy Assistant Secretary Kim Richey visited Meriden Public Schools during the 2018 Back-to-School Tour. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Nyrka successfully completes Meriden’s Community Classroom Collaborative Program.

Nyrka successfully completes Meriden’s Community Classroom Collaborative Program.

The Meriden Public Schools in Meriden, Connecticut creatively programs its education offerings to meet the needs of all students to ensure their success.

Creative programming requires high-quality and appropriate staffing investments, state-of-the-art facilities, and board of education and school buy in.

When evaluating the needs of our 18–21 year old students, it became clear that we needed a district-wide continuum of services. We recognized the need for transitional programming to be outside of the high school walls and in the students’ home-based community.

The Community Classroom Collaborative (CCC) was launched to serve students with varying disabilities, ages 18–21, in an age-appropriate and natural environment. The purpose of the CCC is to serve as a bridge between school and adult life by involving students in a variety of transition, vocational and employment activities, social/leisure/recreational skills training and opportunities for independent living activities.

The CCC program is based in Meriden’s city center rather than in the high school, and young adults continue to be enrolled in high school while receiving “transition only” services through the CCC program.

Meriden Public Schools created the community-based program in 2012 with the assistance of the YMCA, one of our major community partners. The program has tripled in size since then.

Nyrka, a former CCC student, is a true success story, and we are proud that she is a Meriden Public Schools’ graduate. Her personal story is not an easy one as she was presented with many obstacles both at home and at school. Nyrka was an active participant in her planning and placement team individualized education program and it was planned for her to attend the CCC for transitional programming.

While Nyrka was involved in the CCC, she participated in all that the district offered. She was supported in her employment; she learned to utilize her community for healthy/leisure activities through her YMCA membership provided as part of the CCC; and she gained skills in personal finance, self-advocacy, and independent living and life skills. With the support of the staff and programming, Nyrka became connected with the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), which assisted her in moving into her own apartment and aided her in making healthy life choices.

As Nyrka progressed through the program, her independence skills soared. Nyrka gained competitive employment in retail and gained enough confidence to speak at different events in regards to her school growth experiences.

Last January, Nyrka requested to complete her program early in order to attend the spring semester at Middlesex Community College in the college’s human service assistant certificate program. Today, Nyrka is employed as a self-advocate coordinator through DDS. She lives independently and enjoys her work and sharing her story with others.

We couldn’t be more proud of Nyrka and all that she has accomplished.

Nyrka’s story is one of many. When our students start in the CCC they are often reserved, unsure of themselves, and unsure where they fit in for employment and socialization as young adults. When they complete their education at the CCC, they leave with confidence in communication, confidence in knowing what they want out of their employment and confidence in being able to work through the social aspects that lie ahead.

Having the students graduate and able to live a healthy, active, productive lifestyle within the community is key to ensuring that we are giving our students a chance for a better life.

In Meriden, here all students succeed.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Patricia Sullivan-Kowalski
Posted by
Senior Director of Student Supports and Special Education Meriden Public Schools

I REALLY Love My Life!

Rachel Mast posing on the floor

NOTE: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month

I am Rachel Mast. I am 19 years old. I really love my life.

I have a great life, and I love telling people how great my life is.

I was born in Memphis. In third grade, my family moved to Olathe, Kansas.

I love lots of things about my life. I love my church. I love my school.  I love my family. I love dancing, acting, and singing. One of the best things about my life is my friends.

I graduated from Olathe South High School in May. Just like my friends, I got a diploma. I loved my school. I was on student council, and was the volleyball manager for four years. In ninth grade, I was on the Winter Court. I was the Prom Princess. I was in National Honor Society and on the honor roll.

Rachel Mast on stage as Strato in “Julius Caesar”

Rachel Mast on stage as Strato in “Julius Caesar”

I took general education classes with my friends. My favorite classes were my theatre classes. Even though it was hard, I learned Shakespearean monologues. It is hard for me to memorize, but I worked very hard and did a great job. One of my best high school memories was being Strato in “Julius Caesar.” I am a member of my school’s thespian troupe. I have my name on a brick at my school.

I liked all my classes, but I don’t like math very much. Math is hard for me. I really like English. My favorite book was “Romeo and Juliet,” but I didn’t really like Frankenstein.” I worked very hard in my classes, so I could make good grades and go to college.

I really liked my parenting class. We pretended we were going to have a baby—that was funny. I had to bring a baby home and I named her Sarah Nicole. She cried three times during dinner. I decided I do not want children.

My senior year, I worked in the attendance office and the counseling office. It was so much fun. I took passes to people and greeted people. They told me my smile made everyone happy. I just got a job as a hostess at the Olive Garden. It is kind of like what I did in the school office.

One of the best things I remember in high school was scoring a touchdown at the powder puff football game. During homecoming weekend, the junior and senior girls always play a powder puff game. My friends helped me out and, when I got the ball, I scored a touchdown. It made me have happy tears.

I love my friends very much. My volleyball friends called me the #bestmanagerever. I gave them pep talks. My theatre friends helped me to know when to do things on stage. They helped me when I was on the crew for the “Addams Family.” I love them very much. My friends from church are the best. We go to church camp together. We went on mission trips. We had fun. I miss them very much. We still pray for each other.

Theatre is my life. I have been in 22 plays. My favorite was “Hairspray” because I love to dance and sing.

I have the same dreams as my friends. I want to go to college. In January, I am going to start as a student at Missouri State University. I will be in the first Bear POWER class. I am so excited to live in the dorm, take theatre classes, and make friends. Some of my friends go there, too!

I also travel to Washington, D.C., and to the Kansas state capitol building in Topeka to talk about laws that will help people with Down syndrome. I even got to testify in Topeka. I helped to pass the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act. I was the first person to open an ABLE account in Kansas. U.S. Senator for Kansas, Jerry Moran, says that I am “the best lobbyist in Washington, D.C.”

When I started going to Washington, D.C., I told them to support the ABLE Act so I could live in a pink house. My dream is to move to New York City, be on Broadway, get married, and live in a pink house.

Did I mention I have Down syndrome? I have Down syndrome, but I am not Down syndrome. I am Rachel. I have dreams. I REALLY love my life.

Rachel, now an Olathe South High School Graduate


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Rachel Mast thumbnail image
Posted by
Olathe South High School Graduate and future Missouri State University student

Announcing New OSEP Director

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services is excited to announce that Laurie VanderPloeg is joining the team as Director for the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). We have full confidence that Laurie’s depth of knowledge and experience as well as her dedication to preparing students for success will move us forward in our commitment to raise expectations and improve outcomes for infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities across the country.

Laurie has dedicated the past 38 years to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to a high-quality education, and her passion for empowering students to succeed began long before she entered the field. Laurie’s mom was a teacher who helped develop one of the first instructional support models for a school district in Lansing, MI, and her work ethic inspired Laurie to seek a similar career path.

“My mom was my first mentor and role model,” Laurie said. “I watched her commitment to her profession and observed her passion for meeting the individual needs of students.”

During the four years she spent earning her Bachelor of Science degree at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, MI, Laurie’s passion for meeting the needs of students with disabilities grew. After she graduated in 1976, she kicked off her career by working with high school students as a special education teacher at Wayland Union Schools.

Laurie’s experience in the field of special education expands far beyond the classroom. After teaching high schoolers and middle schoolers for 15 years, Laurie returned to Grand Valley to earn her master’s degree in special education administration, which has proven valuable in her work. She has since served as supervisor of special education for Grand Rapids Public School District, special education consultant with the Michigan Department of Corrections, and most recently as director of special education for Kent Intermediate School District. She also plays a vital role in helping special education administrators develop strong leadership competencies by teaching classes in Grand Valley’s Special Education Administration Program.

As Laurie steps into the role of OSEP Director next month, she is excited about the opportunities this position will afford her to continue raising expectations and improving outcomes for children with disabilities.

“My focus will be on developing and supporting an effective system that is going to meet the unique and individual needs of children with disabilities,” Laurie said. “We need to look at the structures we have in place to ensure that each child is prepared for success.”

Laurie believes one key element to preparing children for success is confronting the shortage of special education personnel that the nation is currently facing, and she aims to support States in their work to recruit and retain special education professionals. Through the leadership roles Laurie has held with the Council for Exceptional Children, the Council of Administrators of Special Education, and other national organizations, Laurie has built strong relationships with local special education directors and state special education leaders, and she looks forward to continuing these partnerships in her new role as OSEP Director.

In addition to her professional experience serving children with disabilities, Laurie brings to the Department a more personal interest in improving special education. She is the mother of a son with disabilities, so she has a unique understanding of the obstacles that families of children with disabilities face.

Laurie’s commitment to supporting special education teachers, administrators, and instructors across the country reflects her commitment to helping every child reach their full potential and lead successful lives. Please join us in welcoming Laurie to the U.S. Department of Education, where we are all working together to rethink special education and ensure that nothing limits any child or student from being prepared for what comes next.

NDEAM 2018 | Ida’s Success Story—Knocking Down Barriers for Blind People Throughout New Jersey and Beyond

Ida and her service dog

Ida and her service dog

NOTE: October is Blind Awareness Month and National Disability Employment Awareness Month


Ida is a senior at Drew University in Madison, N.J. where she majors in computer science with a minor in humanities. In addition to a recent paid summer internship and an offer of employment from JP Morgan Chase upon graduation next spring, Ida has had a range of exceptional experiences as she pursues her career goals.

In the summer of 2016, Ida studied abroad at Hannam University in South Korea as a Student Program Developer in the Robotics Program. In 2017, Ida spent the summer as a Research Assistant at Texas A&M University working on natural language processing and information extraction.

Ida is legally blind.

The Governor of New Jersey recently appointed her to serve on the State Rehabilitation Council for the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CBVI).


The Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CBVI) has been a constant presence in my life.

I clearly remember looking up from my plastic dinosaurs and seeing a friendly CBVI caseworker chatting with my kindergarten teacher. From then on, I was pulled out of class about once a week for games and exercises that taught me how to read braille.

As my passions, worldview, and eyesight changed, CBVI remained a steady current in the sometimes tumultuous waters of my adolescence. Like many visually impaired people, I ran into the pitfalls of denial, of trying to ‘pass’ as sighted. However, when I was finally ready to accept myself and embrace my disability, CBVI’s vocational rehabilitation (VR) program offered training, career counseling and referral services to get me up to speed.

I joined EDGE 2.0, a New Jersey pre-employment transition services program, and gained invaluable mentorship. I later joined EDGE 1.0, a similar program for high school students, as a mentor. I strive to make sure high school students have a head start and helping hand at one of the most pivotal points in their lives.

True to form, my greatest opportunity came wrapped in just a few kilobytes when CBVI’s Business Relations Unit emailed me a tremendous opportunity to apply for the We See Ability program at JP Morgan Chase through a Disability Mentoring Day event as part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). I would have never spotted the niche event on my own and might have simply glazed over it in a list of hundreds of other intimidating corporate functions. However, my CBVI counselor encouraged me to apply and all it took was her gentle nudge to urge me into the next chapter of my life.

JP Morgan accepted my application, and CBVI helped me arrange transportation to a midtown Manhattan high rise. There, I went through four rigorous rounds of interviews, met hundreds of talented college students, and eventually received an internship offer. I was over the moon and my CBVI support network was equally—if not more—ecstatic at my achievement.

Throughout the internship, I received orientation and mobility training, counseling, and general support to ensure my success. I knew that CBVI was always just a call away and that they were invested in my development as a young blind professional.

Now that I have accepted an offer to return to JP Morgan as a full time Software Engineer, I realize that I owe my success to the passionate people at CBVI.

As a marginalized group, blind people like me need someone in their corner to encourage them to reach their true potential.

I believe that—especially in historically homogeneous fields like science, technology, math and engineering (STEM)—diverse perspectives breed innovation. Thus, we must encourage young people from all walks of life to pursue their passions unflinchingly.

CBVI has been instrumental to my success, but their work is not done. We need to continue knocking down hurtles, stereotypes, and barriers for blind people throughout New Jersey and beyond.


In 2016, CBVI established its Business Relations Unit with the primary responsibility of addressing misconceptions regarding the employment of people who are blind or visually impaired through education, training, and other opportunities. CBVI continues to develop partnerships with businesses, such as JP Morgan Chase, in order to promote a work environment inclusive of people with disabilities and assist in facilitating the successful employment of individuals with disabilities, like Ida.

For more information about the VR program serving individuals who are blind or have visual impairments in New Jersey, please visit our partners at the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

OSERS shares Ida’s success story in recognition of NDEAM and in partnership with the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Kathleen West Evans, Director of Business Relations, Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR)
Posted by
Director of Business Relations Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR)
Chris Pope
Posted by
Rehabilitation Services Administration Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services U.S. Department of Education

My Truth About Dyslexia―What I Wish for Other Kids With Dyslexia and Their Parents

Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month


My name is Douglas Rawan II. I am 11-years-old, live in Massachusetts, and I have a story about dyslexia.

It starts back in fourth grade when I began to feel different than my friends in school. Making jokes was the way I would cover up having no confidence in school. No one knew that inside I felt stupid. I remember one day when my mom asked me to do some reading and writing, and I threw pencils on the floor and my book. I remember my mom looked really sad. Inside I knew it would be too hard, but I didn’t know why. Since Kindergarten, my mom hired tutors to help with reading, but nothing changed at school. I also had a hard time focusing at school until one day I came home and told my mom that I asked the assistant principal for a standing desk. My parents didn’t even know what that was.

One day, my fourth grade teacher called my mom and said she thought I was really smart but that my work did not show it. She encouraged my parents to get me tested. I did get tested, and after that I thought things would get better for me but they didn’t. My parents finally told me the testing showed that I have ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] and dyslexia and that I was two to three years behind in reading. I was so mad and asked them “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME BEFORE?”

My parents didn’t know what to say to me and never even used the word dyslexia, as the school told them that they don’t use that word. Once I learned about dyslexia and all the famous people who had it I told my dad one day, “Dad, I hope that I have dyslexia as Albert Einstein had it!”

I am dyslexic, which means I have a problem with reading. Having dyslexia doesn’t mean you have low intelligence or are lazy, it just means that your brain works differently. When I read, I don’t understand what I am reading, and I get easily frustrated. When I see a long word, I think “OH NO,” because I think I can’t read the word. Sometimes I break up the word or skip it. Also, when I read it usually comes out slow. I forget what happens when I read. A lot of words are hard for me to read. This makes me feel stupid.

Luckily, I go to a new school, which helps kids like me. When I came to my new school for fifth grade, I had a gap between my reading and grade level. In my first year, I made more progress in my reading than I ever had before. Today I’m still a little below my grade level, but with the right instruction, I expect to close the gap all the way. The teachers help me understand how my brain works, which helps me to read.

I am now in sixth grade in small classes and can get the tools I need, which is helping me to focus and “unlock my brain.” The way they are teaching me actually builds new connections or neurons in my brain, which changes the way my brain works, helping me to communicate and read better. I don’t have to struggle alone and think about how stupid I feel any more.

Knowing that I just needed the right tools makes me wonder what happens to other kids who are dyslexic. Are there other parents like mine that need the help for their kids? I wish that kids like me who still struggle with reading and paying attention in school can get the help they need.

This is why I decided to write a letter last year to President Donald J. Trump asking him what he could do as our president to make sure no child like me was ever left behind. After I sent the letter, my mom started getting other calls from moms who also see their kids struggling.

At the beginning of sixth grade, I met a new student who was visiting my school named Michael who was having troubles just like me. My mom told his mom that I wrote a letter to President Trump, and she sent it to Michael’s mom. The day I first met Michael, he asked for my autograph. It made me feel like I just won the World Series. Michael had never met someone like me who had the same troubles as he did.

If I look back, I wish my mom didn’t have to cry so much. I wish that my school had tested me back in elementary school so that I did not struggle alone. I wish the word dyslexia was used all the time so all kids could know that some of the most successful people like Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Steven Jobs, Sir Richard Branson, Walt Disney and JFK Jr. all had dyslexia.

If kids like me knew that dyslexia doesn’t have to do with intelligence but that we have a hard time understanding how sounds and letters go together, which makes it really, really hard to read. I wish kids knew that when a teacher read me a test I got a 107, but if I had to take a regular test and write the answers I would get a 67 or 57. When the teachers told my mom that I just had to study more, I wish the teacher knew that it wasn’t the material I didn’t know, it was the way that they were asking me to take the test.

I wish for so many things for the kids who struggle. I wish I could go back to my old school and talk to all the kids who feel stupid because of reading and tell them the truth about dyslexia. I wish for all of this and so much more for kids and for their moms and dads.

I hope that no kid spends another minute feeling stupid and sad.


Related Blog: OSERS Assistant Secretary Collett expressed his commitment to rethink special education in a blog post last month.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

High Achievement Requires High Expectations: My Family’s Story

Candice Crissinger and children

Candice Crissinger and children

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month


“High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.”

Charles Kettering, American inventor, engineer and businessman.


As parents, we all want to see our children reach their full potential. Our visions of their successes and accomplishments may vary, but we all yearn to guide our children to greatness. How do we set them up to fulfill their potential? What foundations are we building for them? What roadmaps can we provide to help them navigate on their journey?

I am the proud mother of three terrific children (Biased? Yes!). While each of them is unique and inspiring in their own abilities and qualities, my sons have some very distinct similarities.

In the early school years, both began showing similar behaviors: high impulsivity, defiance, acting out, disruption, the inability to follow direction and under-developed social skills.

Both were bright and strong willed and insisted on doing things their own way in their own time.

Both were identified by educators as “challenging and difficult” and by peers as a “bad kid.”

They were both evaluated at five years old, 10 years apart. That’s where the similarities ended.

Let’s start with my older son’s journey.

In 2007, at age five, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), pervasive development disorder otherwise non specified (PDD-NOS) and anxiety. His individualized education program (IEP) team, despite all good intent, viewed my son through a deficiency lens. We let the troublesome behavior take the driver’s seat. His aptitude for learning did not seem to align with his behaviors. The behaviors escalated. The suspensions began. His progress regressed, and his growth stalled. We changed schools often. Even though we began as advocates, we soon became adversaries in IEP meetings.

On the other hand, my youngest son has had a very different experience. At age five, he was diagnosed with anxiety and showed a high likelihood of having ADHD. He was also identified as gifted. We worked closely with his school to find a teacher who was a good fit and we collaborated with the occupational therapist, the talented and gifted team, and the area education team, just to name a few.

We first took a close look at youngest son’s evaluation and began the work of identifying supports and developing a plan for acceleration. His problem behaviors were seen in the context of his aptitude and understood as a part of his development as a twice-exceptional student. His IEP centers around his strengths. And yet, we have only just begun to build the foundation of his future achievements. There is still far to go.

If you ask me, the major difference between my two children is in the way that we view them. After all, children with learning and attention issues have a unique set of challenges, and my children are not alone.

Children with learning and attention issues make up 1 in 5 students in our nation’s public schools.

Kids with learning and attention issues account for two-thirds of the children with IEPs who are suspended or expelled. They are 31 percent more likely to be bullied than kids without disabilities. They are three times as likely to drop out of high school as kids without disabilities, and half of all kids with learning disabilities are involved in the juvenile justice system by young adulthood.

These numbers could describe my oldest son, and that is alarming for me.

What drives these numbers? And what can be done?

We must set high standards and expectations for our kids. We must encourage and support our kids to meet the same expectations as their peers, and make sure they are engaged and feel a sense of ownership of their learning. We must encourage our students to view a wrong answer as a learning opportunity, rather than a shortcoming.

We expect insight and reflection to instill a lifelong journey of learning. Our expectations should likewise remain lofty.

When we have low expectations of our students, we allow for minimal effort. Student engagement, self-advocacy and achievement will most definitely stall when the bar is set too low. Self-esteem and gaining a sense of confidence in one’s abilities are lifelong benefits with roots in meeting high expectations.

We can make high expectations real for so many more kids if we focus on their strengths. Using strengths as a framework for educational support and structure will allow for children to use their natural abilities and talents to reach their highest potential.

Across the country, school districts are taking a new approach with Strengths Based IEPs. The move to this type of IEP will certainly require greater professional development for educators in each district. Parents can go to school board meetings and demonstrate their value, but there are great resources for anyone who wants to begin this process within your school or community.

Using a strengths-based approach made an incredible, positive difference for my younger son. Setting high expectations and focusing on strengths allows parents and educators to view our students through a mindset of competence and high achievement. The tools are available and my family has seen the impact firsthand. So let us begin the work to build the foundations of an exceptional educational experience for every child!


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Candice Crissinger
Posted by
Understood Parent Fellow with the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Medical Assistant in Pediatric Specialties, University of Iowa.

Time to Head Back to School and to Rethink Education

Johnny Collett and Kim Richey met with special educators and teachers at Hiawatha’s Essex Westford. Kim Richey chats with a student at Strong Foundations Charter School Kim Richey observed individualization strategies at work at Hugh Cole Elementary School. Johnny Collett and Kim Richey with students from Baxter Academy for Science and Technology Johnny Collett and Kim Richey meeting with teachers at the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science Johnny Collett and Kim Richey observe a lesson at Birch Meadow Elementary of Reading Public Schools Johnny Collett and Kim Richey visiting a classroom at Hanover Elementary School at Meriden Public Schools. Johnny Collett and Kim Richey participate in a round table discussion at St. Johnsbury Academy. Johnny Collett sat with children at Little One’s University. Johnny Collett and Kim Richey meeting with teachers, administrators, a parent and a board member at St. George Municipal School Unit. Group picture from the visit RSEC Academy in New Hampshire.

By Johnny Collett, OSERS Assistant Secretary


OSERS Deputy Assistant Secretary Kim Richey and I spent the week of September 10 traveling as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s 2018 Back-to-School Tour. During the week, ED leaders toured the country to get a closer, first-hand look at how schools are meeting the unique needs of students.

Kim and I spent the week in New England visiting traditional public, private/independent, and public charter schools to meet students and educators and to learn how these schools provide supports and services to students with disabilities.

We were encouraged by how these schools are rethinking education to ensure nothing limits their students from being prepared for what comes next in life―whether it is continuing their education, transitioning to a work environment, both, or whatever is their next right step.

We heard from diverse education stakeholders at each school. They provided us with great information, and it was incredibly helpful to benefit from their unique perspectives and experiences. We were reminded again, that those closest to the child really do know best about their education, and that the best ideas and innovations to ensure the success of children come from them, and not from Washington.

Day 1: Maine

First, we visited Maine’s St. George Municipal School Unit and the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science. They knew that science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) initiatives could help their schools better meet the needs of all children.

St. George Municipal School Unit, a public kindergarten through eighth grade school, has employed a “makerspace” for students to experience both high-tech and low-tech tools to learn, explore and share the world around them and turn their imaginations into tangible creations.

The Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, a public charter high school, exposes students to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career fields and professionals while still offering students a strong humanities curriculum to cultivate well-rounded individuals and passionate, self-directed learners.

STEAM and STEM activities at these two schools help support students with disabilities build confidence in their own abilities, be introduced to technical skills that they can apply to future career endeavors, and explore possibilities that may not have been available to them if schools did not challenge themselves to rethink how they best serve students with disabilities.

St. George Municipal School Unit and the Baxter Academy are preparing America’s students for professions not yet imagined.

Day 2: New Hampshire

We visited the Regional Services and Education Center (RSEC) and the Strong Foundation Charter School in New Hampshire Tuesday. These schools know that a one-size-fits-all or one-size-fits-most approach to educating students does not work.

The RSEC Academy’s middle and high schools specialize in the education of sixth through 12th graders with learning disabilities as well as other social, emotional and behavioral needs. RSEC Academy prepares students to transition from middle school to high school to graduation and beyond by ensuring students have access to educators and staff trained to support individual student needs. We had the opportunity to speak to students, faculty (including their Positive Approach to Learning Disabilities team), and alumni. Each person had a unique story to share, which helped to further emphasize the importance of individualized decision-making related to students’ needs.

The next school we visited in New Hampshire was the Strong Foundations Charter School, a first through eighth grade school whose history highlights the importance for families to choose a learning environment that works best for their student. Founded as a public charter school, Strong Foundations formed in order to provide comprehensive reading instruction to all students and improve student literacy and reading outcomes. New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut joined us as we observed students taking part in structured reading lessons and when we met with teachers, special educators, the school’s principal and board members.

Day 3: Vermont

We had the opportunity to visit traditional public schools, as well as private schools to see how Vermont’s public and private schools’ partnerships are helping to ensure students have opportunities in a variety of school settings.

We started at Essex Westford School District’s Hiawatha Elementary, a pre-K through third grade public school. We participated in the students’ morning routine including their interactive classroom meeting before observing direct instruction with a student using augmentative and alternative communication. Hiawatha demonstrated the importance of a customized learning experience to improve outcomes for all students. Through our interactions, observations and discussions with the Hiawatha community, we witnessed what is possible when schools work to empower students, give them their own voice and way of communicating, and support individual needs.

We followed our visit to Hiawatha Elementary with a tour of Vermont’s Little One’s University, a private preschool that has partnered with its local school district, Essex Westford. Their focus on early childhood education showed how providing early learners, including young learners with disabilities, with the proper educational foundation can set them on a path for success. As part of a private/public partnership, we toured the school and interacted with preschool learners in an inclusive setting with and without disabilities. We were thrilled to have Vermont’s Secretary of Education Daniel M. French join us as we met with a diverse group of stakeholders that included parents, teachers, special education directors and school administrators.

While in Vermont, we also visited the St. Johnsbury Academy, an independent coed day and boarding school that, in partnership with public schools, provides public school students with an education that best meets their individual needs. The academy offers a variety of educational experiences such as bio-medical and health services certificate, culinary arts, fashion design, and pre-university engineering and robotics. The academy also has on-site adult education courses, including training certificate programs, through a partnership with Vermont Technical College and the Vermont Department of Labor. We met with parents and students to hear why they chose an independent school, and we spoke with representatives from local education agencies in Vermont regarding the public/private partnerships with St. Johnsbury Academy. The insight provided by these parents, students, educators and LEAs offered valuable information on the importance of educational options for students with disabilities and their families.

Vermont offered us a wonderful opportunity for a listening session with administrators, educators, families, students and other special education stakeholders to discuss what excites them and what challenges them about the education of students with disabilities. It was evident that each person was committed to high expectations and improved outcomes for people with disabilities.

Day 4: Connecticut

We spent Thursday morning at the Meriden Public Schools system in Connecticut. Meriden Public Schools offered us a view of services and supports from early childhood education through post-secondary activities.

At Meriden’s Hanover Elementary School we saw the early learning wing, discussed ways they support students with disabilities, and visited their inclusive playground.

We also had the opportunity to hear presentations from students and learn more about Platt High School’s college and career readiness initiatives, which include working with select ninth grade students requiring additional support of the basis of grades, attendance or behaviors to plan their paths for success as a way of helping them set and achieve goals.

In addition to Meriden’s high school initiatives, we learned about their school’s Community Classroom Collaborative (CCC), a community based program that serves student with vary disabilities ages 18 through 21 in an age appropriate and natural environment, and the Success Academy, a program that provides individualized support and student-centered options for students in the district as they work toward their goal of graduating to receive a high school diploma . We learned how they chose to implement these programs, heard the reasoning behind establishing these programs, and listened to success stories of equipping students with the tools they need for the future. Programs like those in Meriden show there are many avenues for students to find success.

The district’s focus on the individual helps to prepare students for success, no matter what that version of success might look like.

Day 4: Rhode Island

We visited Rhode Island’s Hugh Cole Elementary school Thursday afternoon. This public elementary school uses data-based individualization within a multi-tiered system of support framework to meet particular intervention needs of its students. While at Hugh Cole Elementary, we observed their individualization strategies, heard about the school’s teacher development/support efforts throughout the years, and how the school makes its practices sustainable and replicable.

Day 5: Massachusetts

Our New England Back to School Tour concluded Friday in Massachusetts. The Reading Public School District showed how their district works with students with disabilities from early childhood through high school.

We had the opportunity to meet with staff from their Respect, Inclusion, Safety, Effort (RISE) Preschool, which emphasizes the needs of individual students. About half of RISE Preschool’s classroom students receive extra support to help them grow and develop based on their needs.

At the elementary school level, we observed co-teaching in kindergarten and fourth grade classrooms in Reading’s Birch Meadow Elementary School. We also spent time at Reading Memorial High School to round out the full picture of the supports and services provided to the district’s students with disabilities. Throughout the day, discussions with various staff including teachers, administrators, the district’s data and behavioral health coaches, and students demonstrated what it looks like when a district thinks holistically about the education of students with disabilities.

Rethink school. Question everything. Challenge the status quo.

Kim and I traveled to six states in five days and loved the opportunity to visit schools and meet many new people who are committed to doing what is right for each student. Students, parents and school personnel were eager to share their programs and stories with us. What we saw at the schools excites us about the possibilities of what can happen when people challenge the status quo of special education.

This week’s Back-to-School Tour further demonstrated that we must collectively continue to have the courage and perseverance necessary to make needed changes to our systems at the federal, state, and local levels if we are to achieve the goals that we, and most importantly the individuals we serve, envision.

Systems change is not easy, does not happen quickly and is not accomplished by a few. However, it’s worth it because at the heart of the system are the individuals we serve and their futures. The work is too important, the need is too urgent, and the stakes are too high for us to settle for anything less than whatever it takes to deliver on the promises made to students and families.

I’ve been asking people to join me in rethinking special education and in asking difficult questions that challenge the status quo of special education in our country. “Tinkering around the edges” is not going to get us to the goals that we envision.

I look forward to future visits to other states to see and highlight important work being done by states and schools to raise expectations and improve outcomes for children with disabilities.

Posted by
Assistant Secretary Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services U.S. Department of Education

Rethinking Special Education

Douglas, an 11-year-old 6th grader from Massachusetts, has dyslexia and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He struggled in school from kindergarten through 4th grade, feeling frustrated in a learning environment that did not meet his individual needs and caused him to question his ability to succeed.

Douglas recently wrote President Trump and asked, “How can you as our president help kids like me get the right tools so they don’t get left behind?”

I met with Douglas and his parents on behalf of the president and the U.S. Department of Education this spring when his family visited Washington. We discussed his previous struggles and frustrations as well as his parents’ determination to get Douglas the help he needed to succeed in school.

We must rethink special education in America for students like Douglas. “Rethink” means everyone questions everything to ensure nothing limits any student from being prepared for what comes next. That begins with acknowledging the unique needs of each child and then finding the best ways to prepare each individual for successful careers and a meaningful life.

As a former high school special education teacher and state special education director, I have learned that delivering on the promises we have made to children and parents will not be achieved by merely tinkering around the edges.

Rethinking special education will require an unwavering commitment to address barriers that stand in the way of improving opportunities and outcomes for each child, and to make needed changes at the federal, state, and local levels. We must be willing to confront anything that does not facilitate needed improvement. That includes structures that limit opportunities for children with disabilities; practices that put the needs of “the system” over the individual needs of a child; policies that, no matter how well-intentioned, do not have the impact of improving outcomes for students; or laws and regulations that constrain innovation. We cannot ignore the challenges that students, parents, teachers and schools face.

Any policy that could deny education services to a student who needs them would be a failed policy. So we must root out anything that separates students from the individualized education they deserve.

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services is committed to confronting these—and any other issues—that stand in the way of a child’s success. We will partner with parents and families, individuals with disabilities—anyone and everyone who is focused on raising expectations and improving outcomes for individuals with disabilities.

This commitment means acknowledging that states, school districts, and parents know the needs of their students better than we do. Our goal is to provide them with as much flexibility and support as possible so that they can ensure their students’ needs are being met.

Douglas’ parents told me it wasn’t until Douglas was tested, properly diagnosed, and enrolled in a school that understood his unique traits and addressed his needs that things began to get better for him. In a different school, Douglas told me he feels comfortable and confident. He said, “I’m getting the right tools I need and learning how my brain works.”

Every student deserves the same opportunity and the same individualized attention that Douglas has. To be sure, this is and will continue to be hard work. However, it’s not just about working hard. It’s about working differently and more collaboratively, because meaningful and effective collaboration with all those who have a stake in the success of individuals with disabilities is critical to improving the outcomes that we envision.

The changes we need won’t happen overnight or only through the commitment of a few; but the work is worth it, because at the heart of all our efforts are the individuals we serve and their futures.

It is unacceptable for us to watch another generation of kids fail to achieve the outcomes they could have achieved just because the adults around them would not commit to solving difficult issues. We must demonstrate the courage and persistence necessary to achieve the goals that we, and most importantly the individuals we serve, envision.

No two children are the same, so no two children’s learning experiences should look the same. A personalized, student-centered education empowers students with disabilities and gives them the hope of living successful, independent lives, while a one-size-fits-all approach to education only limits students’ potential. Each child’s education should embrace his or her diverse traits and aspirations.

As we start this school year, I ask you to join me in rethinking special education in our country. While we all have a stake in the success of children with disabilities, no one has more of a stake in their success than they do.

The work is too important, the need is too urgent, and the stakes are too high for us to settle for anything less than whatever it takes to deliver on the promises we have made to children and families in our country.


 

Posted by
Assistant Secretary Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services United States Department of Education

The Many Roads to Becoming a Spelling Bee Champion

Aren participating in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Aren participating in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

At age 13, our son Aren can’t cross the street by himself, or eat without dropping food all over the floor. He struggles with reading and has difficulty following simple instructions. He also has a speech impairment called cluttering that often makes his speech incomprehensible to others. On top of this, he is hyperactive and needs to burn off his immense energy frequently throughout the day.

I could write pages about Aren’s many challenges and our struggles with figuring out how to work with them. As Aren’s parents, the journey has not been easy. On the other hand, Aren constantly surprises and humbles us with what he can achieve. Early on, we decided that our mission as parents was not to focus on his disabilities. We would not dwell on or be limited by the things he couldn’t do. Rather, we agreed to seek out and develop Aren’s unique strengths while scaffolding his weaknesses in a way he could understand and embrace. We vowed to be open to exploring his talents, even where he started out with marked deficits.

To accomplish this, we decided to pursue some homeschooling so Aren could work on both his strengths and challenges at his own pace. Later, we enrolled at Connecting Waters Charter School. Here, his teachers, principal, special education occupational therapist, speech therapist, and reading tutor each provide him with invaluable individualized support and guidance. Instead of subjecting him to traditional classroom instruction, which he would likely have tuned out, we chose the path of closeguided training. The results have been remarkable. Aren has developed incredible visualization, drawing, mental math, and creative skills. He particularly loves drawing complex freeway interchanges that would make a commuter faint. Remarkably, his drawing is effortless, and he often does it while in conversation.

Aren's intricate drawing of a highway interchange.

Aren’s drawing of a highway interchange.

When Aren was 9, my wife (staying true to being open to possibility) asked Aren if he’d like to compete in his school Spelling Bee. To be frank, my wife thought that a kid who didn’t read until just a year prior would not be interested in participating. To my wife’s surprise (and perhaps horror), he said yes. We later found out that he didn’t know what a spelling bee was; he just wanted to see what freeways we would drive to the competition. As a “human GPS,” he desperately needed to input I-580 to I-205 to Highway 120 to 99 to his system!

We were worried that Aren might be disruptive at the Spelling Bee and would not be able to sit still. But he surprised us—he put in diligent effort, was able to sit still and write legibly, and won! This victory left us both shocked and extremely proud. We were even more proud that he was able to follow through with the rules of the competition. Aren went on to represent his school in the county-level competition, where he came in 5th place! Once again, I was completely and utterly floored, and of course glowing with pride!

This was one of many humbling moments when I learned from my son that it doesn’t matter where your starting line is.

Aren continued to showcase his strength, winning, in total, four school bees and three county competitions. Later, at age 12, he even won the California State Junior High Spelling Bee! This child who could barely read 4 years prior had somehow spelled his way to the top of his state. Aren became so enamored of spelling that he dreamed of competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. This dream seemed impossible for our kid with a speech impairment, attention issues, and a reading disability. But yet again, Aren proved himself right, and proved us wrong. He tied for 42nd place at Scripps…out of 11 million. He had fantastic support and many people cheering him on. His school’s CEO even cut her vacation short to come watch Aren compete live.

Today, Aren is a happy, healthy, and energetic 13-year-old, brimming with enthusiasm on subjects as diverse as cars, chemistry, and mathematics. He is ahead of peer expectation in math and English. With strong parental involvement and support from our school’s special education department, he has come a long way in areas such as visual tracking and social interaction. His drawing skills and math talents continue to progress on his own volition. We are so excited to witness Aren’s future, his unique contributions to society, and the help and inspiration he can give to others.

Never give up, no matter where you are.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.