Teaching English Learner Students with Disabilities

Erica Sommer

Erica Sommer is a special education teacher in Del Valle Independent School District, which serves students in and around Austin, Texas.

Sommer works closely with the district’s substantial English learner population, has almost 15 years of teaching experience and has been passionate about teaching for as long as she remembers. She shared with us how working with English learner students and those with disabilities has impacted her as a teacher and individual.


English learners make up one of the most diverse student groups in schools today. When English learners enter our schools, they come from varying racial, ethnic, linguistic, socio-economic, educational, and cultural backgrounds. Serving the needs of English learner students, particularly those identified as having a disability, can be a challenge for schools and teachers, but it is also an interesting and exciting group of students to teach and learn from.

I have had many unique opportunities to work with English learners who are also students with disabilities both at the very beginning of my career in Kansas City, Kansas and now, as I work with students in and around Austin, Texas.

In Kansas City, I worked with English learner students with disabilities who were part of a public-private school partnership in the district.

In my current school district, bilingual students make up about 87 percent of the student population, and about 60 percent of those students are English learners. I really enjoy this work, especially the relationships I’m able to build with individual students and their families.

Over the past two years, I’ve been working with a young English learner with learning disabilities including dyslexia. She has been such an inspiration to me. She is the hardest working student I’ve ever worked with, and I can’t wait to get invited to her high school graduation!

Teaching English learners with disabilities is of course challenging at times, but those challenges become learning experiences. I have found several strategies that work well when facing challenges in my work.

  1. I learned to ask for help when communicating with parents. This sometimes requires getting a translator, and these situations have helped me to develop another skill, which is to learn how to communicate effectively while using a translator.
  2. I have learned to be flexible and open to change.
  3. I have learned the importance of connecting with classroom teachers and advocating for my students. I work with bilingual teachers and mainstream teachers in settings that are more collaborative and less formal than an official individualized education program team or planning meetings. What we do is more about coordinating our work and sharing professional development opportunities and information. We work together like this because we know it will make our jobs easier and ultimately benefit of our students.

I think that the best way teachers and schools can help English learners, students with disabilities and all kids is by working with their parents. Reach out and learn how to effectively communicate with parents of English learners because this can be absolutely crucial to a child’s success in school. We, as teachers, can be someone who influences our students’ whole trajectory in life.

The most rewarding part of my work with English learners with disabilities is actually saying goodbye to my fifth graders, and knowing they have so much more to do and accomplish! These students make a big impact on me as an individual, especially those who are particularly surprising and the most challenging. I often find that my students who seem tough and rugged throughout the year are the same students who cry and hug me on the last day of school.


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.

Erica Sommer
Posted by
Special Education Teacher Del Valle Independent School District, Del Valle, Texas

October and Disability Awareness

ICYMI "In Case You Missed It!"

In addition to announcing OSEP’s new director, Laurie VanderPloeg, and interviewing Caryl Jaques at Little One’s University preschool, this October, we highlighted aspects of disability awareness for National Disability Employment, Dyslexia, Learning Disabilities, ADHD, and Down Syndrome!

Check out the stories below:


Down Syndrome


Courtney and her twin sons

It Takes a Village | 10/19/2018

Courtney’s twin sons just started kindergarten. This military family also moved across the country this year. Read how she’s advocated for her son with Down syndrome to be included in the same class as his brother.


Rachel, now an Olathe South High School Graduate

I REALLY Love My Life! | 10/12/2018

Rachel, a 19-year-old, loves her family, friends, school, social activities and so much more. She’s traveled to DC and testified in Topeka to talk about laws that will help people with Down syndrome.


ADHD | Dyslexia | Learning Disabilities


Lena McKnight

Learning About My LD: Accepting My Challenges & Finding My Voice | 10/30/2018

Lena struggled through middle and high school, but she eventually earned her GED, an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree. Read how Lena learned more about her learning disability, accepted her challenges and found her voice.


Strong Foundations School logo

Public Charter School Founded to Provide Excellent Reading Instruction to All | 10/29/2018

Beth McClure envisioned a school designed specifically to provide excellent reading instruction to all students, so she started Strong Foundations School, a public charter school.


Veronica and Myriam Alizo

From Miami to New Jersey | 10/25/2018

Myriam recounts her journey from a young, new mom learning her daughter had a speech delay and attention issues to a career assisting other parents of children with disabilities to help them navigate their rights and get involved in their child’s education.


Dylan and Nicola at the beach

Reflections on Where We’ve Been: A Mother and Son’s Journey with Dyslexia | 10/23/2018

Dylan is a college sophomore, a soccer player and ceramic artist who loves to travel the world when there’s time. He also has dyslexia. Dylan and his mom share their story in hopes of inspiring others.


Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

My Truth About Dyslexia―What I Wish for Other Kids With Dyslexia and Their Parents | 10/09/2018

Sixth-grade student pens blog about dyslexia in “My Truth About Dyslexia—What I Wish for Other Kids with Dyslexia and Their Parents.”


Candice Crissinger and children

High Achievement Requires High Expectations: My Family’s Story | 10/04/2018

One mom, two sons 10 years apart in age. Candice shares her family’s story of the vastly different experiences they had when seeking educational supports and services for her sons with disabilities and ADHD.


National Disability Employment Awareness Month


Hands On Hyatt trainees

Hands On/Hyatt | 10/31/2018

Hands On Educational Services, Inc., a vocational training program that prepares individuals with disabilities for careers in the hospitality industry, celebrates its 20th year of partnering with Hyatt.


WINTAC logo

Meeting WIOA Requirements: Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance | 10/31/2018

Learn different ways to stay current with employment trends related to the workforce and people with disabilities.


Way2Work Maryland logo

Way2Work: Helping Marylanders with Disabilities Transition into the Workforce | 10/30/2018

Way2Work helps Marylanders with disabilities transition into the workforce. Check out some of their success stories!


Alaska and Nevada VR Websites

Successful Work Experiences | 10/26/2018

The Alaska Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Nevada Ready show how states are creating programs to help youth with disabilities transition into a work environment.


Logo - National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT)

Transition Resources Help Agencies and Service Providers Support Youth with Disabilities | 10/24/2018

The National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT) has many resources that help state and local education agencies, state vocational rehabilitation agencies, VR service providers and other service providers prepare student with disabilities for successful postsecondary education and employment.


Veronica and Victor

ASPIRE! | 10/22/2018

With the help of ASPIRE, families in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah are taking charge of their futures, learning about benefits available in their state, and more.


Logo - National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM)

Finding Rehabilitation Training Materials: RSA Technical Assistance and Other Resources | 10/22/2018

OSERS Rehabilitation Services Administration’s grant recipients offer numerous training materials and resources for those interested in vocational rehabilitation. Learn how to find these resources through the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM).


Nyrka

Meriden Public Schools’ Community Classroom Collaborative | 10/18/2018

Meriden K–12, a Connecticut public school, gets creative to help students like Nyrka find success by bridging the gap between school and adult life.


AR PROMISE logo

The Importance of Connection | 10/17/2018

The Arkansas PROMISE program shows how a personalized connection between youth & their families and case managers can leave a positive, lasting impact on youth with disabilities.


Kwik Trip Storefront

Kwik Trip | 10/16/2018

The Wisconsin Workforce’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation worked with KwikTrip, a family-owned business of convenience stores, to successfully recruit and train individuals with disabilities for the role of “Retail Helper.


Logo - National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM)

The National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM): Finding Promising and Effective Resources in the Clearinghouse Library

| 10/12/2018

Calling all vocational rehabilitation professionals. Did you know NCRTM provides quick, streamlined access to resources and technical assistance centers funded by OSERS Rehabilitation Services Administration?


Ida and her service dog

Ida’s Success Story—Knocking Down Barriers for Blind People Throughout New Jersey and Beyond | 10/10/2018

Ida’s a Drew University senior with a recent internship and employment offer from JPMorgan. She’s also legally blind. Read Ida’s story and about her work with the New Jersey Department of Human Services Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.


Christopher Pauley does the Marshmallow Challenge.

“Always Aim High!” | 10/03/2018

Christopher has a computer science degree. Yet, he applied to nearly 600 positions without much success—that was until a California Department of Rehabilitation vocational rehabilitation counselor helped him connect with Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program.


NDEAM 2018 Poster: Man in a wheelchair conversing with co-workers over laptop computers.

“America’s Workforce: Empowering All” | 10/02/2018

OSERS and OSERS Rehabilitation Services Administration proudly supports numerous programs relevant to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.


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Learning About My LD: Accepting My Challenges & Finding My Voice

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

Lena McKnight


Have you ever sat in a classroom and your teacher asks everyone to read a paragraph out loud? You skim through to see which paragraph has the easiest words to read out loud.

That was me. I was the young girl shaking in my boots when I knew I had to read out loud. Often, I would try to identify the “easy” paragraph, and if I couldn’t find one, I would make the class laugh by getting myself into trouble and taking the pressure off me. I was scared, although everyone thought I was the girl who didn’t fear anything and was tough. I was scared because I saw others do things that I struggled with. Middle school was hard for me. Not only was I dealing with social pressure, but keeping up with my academics was a lot of work in and of itself.

Have you ever just felt like you were different from others? Have you thought that people wouldn’t understand when you expressed your thoughts?

It was very hard for me share the challenges I was facing and explain what was going on for me. I always thought people would think there was something wrong with me. People still tell me, “you’re a tough girl, don’t sweat it.” As a young student, I didn’t talk about my struggles as a way to avoid embarrassment.

What I didn’t know back then was that I have a learning disability. I struggled every day with reading and processing issues. No one had explained to me what my learning disability meant. I had no idea that my individualized education program (IEP) could actually help me succeed. I couldn’t understand how I could do so well in my theatre classes but struggle in others.

Eventually, I fell so far behind in high school that I was not allowed to take any arts classes. I had too many academic classes I needed to complete if I wanted to graduate. So, I dropped out of school. I remember thinking that I would never get a GED (general equivalency degree). But with hard work and determination, I passed the GED exam after trying three times. I was so proud when I passed, and I wouldn’t believe it if anyone told me that I had a disability or needed extra supports after that to succeed. It wasn’t until college that I discovered I was still having trouble.

Soon after getting my GED, I began working at Harlem Children’s Zone. I was listening to the disability specialist speak about the problems high school students will encounter when they enter college. It clicked for me. For the first time, I was able to explain the challenges I faced and I admitted to the specialist that I had an IEP while I was in school. The specialist helped me get testing done so that I would finally be able to prove that I have a learning issue and could receive supports in college. It was like the world turned upside down. I was finally able to get the help I needed. I saw the “perks” of having a disability and getting the services I was entitled to. And, for the first time, I understood what it was I needed help with.

It took me a long time, but I have finally found my voice. I used to be ashamed to talk about my learning issues because I thought I was the only one who struggled, and I worried no one would believe me. But accepting who I am and taking the time to understand what I need has made all the difference. I was lucky to have advocates and people who believed in me. Because of them, I believe in myself and have achieved more than I once thought I could. I am grateful for the ones who stood up with me. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I wouldn’t be working to empower others to speak up as well.

Every person with a learning disability deserves the chance to realize their potential and reach their dreams. Understanding yourself and being able to ask for what you need is the first and most important step.


Lena McKnight was born in Norfolk, Virginia and raised in Harlem, New York. She attended public school in New York City until 10th grade and later enrolled in a YouthBuild program where she achieved a High School Equivalency Diploma. Lena then went on to graduate with an associate’s degree and later a bachelor’s degree in Theatre and Sociology in May 2017. Lena has served as a Student Advocate for 10th graders through the Harlem Children Zone and remains involved with YouthBuild. She now works full time and devotes her career to serving kids in her community. Lena is committed to using her voice to have a positive impact on the field of education and on society at large.


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.

Way2Work: Helping Marylanders with Disabilities Transition into the Workforce

This is the final blog in a series of three blogs in October from the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT) to honor National Disability Employment Awareness Month.


Way2Work Maryland logo

Way2Work Maryland is a project designed to improve the academic and career success of students with disabilities in Maryland through work-based learning experiences.

The project is open to any student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 Plan who will complete high school with a diploma or certificate in 2020.

The project focuses on helping students engage in paid or unpaid work experiences, aligned with their interests and skills, while supporting a student’s academic success to complete high school.

During the 2018-19 school year, seven Maryland counties engaged in the program for juniors and other students who are two years away from finishing high school.

The program is a partnership of the Maryland’s Department of Education, Maryland’s Division of Rehabilitation Services, the American Job Center Network, and the Department of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education at the University of Maryland.

The following stories highlight the work done by those Way2Work Maryland serves.

Rose’s Story

RoseRose has always loved animals. Dogs, cats, horses, sheep—she loves them all. So, when she met her job developer, Wayne from Humanin, a job development/ career placement agency, there was no question about what industry to place her in.

Wayne was quick to connect Rose with a volunteer job at Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding School in Maryland.

Even though Rose had never worked in a stable, she quickly became one of the center’s top volunteers.

“She comes in and gets right to work,” said Kathleen Schmitt, executive director and founder of CTR. “She always has a smile on her face.”

Rose has achieved proficiency in grooming and feeding the horses, mucking stalls, and performing general barn duties.

When Rose completes this work-based learning experience, she will be qualified to work as a trainee at a horse farm anywhere.

Lisa Miceli, Rose’s mom and biggest advocate, said, “I want her to keep coming here, even if she gets another job. It’s been such a great experience for her.”

Karli’s Story

KarliKarli dreamed of finding a job that would combine her three loves: photography, art and design. Her first work-based learning experience was heavy on the art, but light on photography and design.

Her new job at Silver Linings Lavender, which she got through Way2Work, has everything she was looking for, but it took a positive attitude to find it.

Karli’s first day on the job was the day of the Pride Parade in Westminster, Maryland, one of the busiest retail days of the year. Traffic in the small boutique on Main Street was non-stop all day.

“There was a line out the door. Products were flying off the shelf,” says Dawn Pritchard, Silver Linings Lavender’s owner.

Having Karli’s help that day was really important; she re-stocked the shelves as quickly as they became empty.

“I can’t sell product if it’s not on the shelf,” says Dawn. “That day, I didn’t lose any money.”

According to Dawn, “To be in retail, you really have to be an extrovert.”

Karli is a shy person, and interacting with customers wasn’t her favorite thing. After that first day, Karli thought, “I wouldn’t want to do this for a living.”

Not wanting to interact with customers in a store could be a problem for someone who is shy like Karli; however, there’s a silver lining.

Dawn opened Silver Linings Lavender in 2013 as an online store, but it wasn’t until September 2017 that she expanded into a brick and mortar store. The majority of her business is still online, and that’s where Karli shines.

Now, at Silver Linings Lavender, Karli is learning to do online marketing and using her love of photography, art and design in a retail setting.

Dawn gave her an office and a computer, with software such as Photoshop and InDesign.

It’s a win-win for employer and employee.

“I didn’t have anyone to teach me (about business),” said Dawn, “so I’m happy to share what I know and spread the word.”

Coardell’s Story

CoardellBy day, Coardell is pursuing a trade in welding at Worcester Technical High School. He doesn’t love welding, but it’s better than any of the jobs he’s had at MacDonald’s or Walmart, or washing dishes at a restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland

Outside of school, though, Coardell has other passions. He amazes audiences with his dance moves. He has performed in venues all over Maryland’s Eastern Shore as well as in New York, and he dreams of making a living as a dancer and rapper one day.

Someone with the soul of a dancer might feel restricted and confined in the tight quarters of a welding booth, and the protective gear that welders wear—including a heavy mask—might make it hard for a dancer to move his feet.

Way2Work helped Coardell get a job at Go Glass, a shop that specializes in residential, commercial and auto glass. At Go Glass, Coardell has room to bust a move now and then.

“I finally found something I enjoy doing,” he says.

In addition to having room to move when he has the urge, a crucial piece of Coardell’s success is his mentor, Jeffrey Sewell.

Having a supportive person to show Coardell the ropes and to nudge him when he gets distracted has meant the difference between floundering and feeling comfortable on the shop floor.

Jeff is teaching Coardell all about the glass business—how to cut and install auto glass, table tops, mirrors and doors. He’s also teaching Coardell how to make window and door screens for homes and businesses.

Coardell has learned how to use a tape measure, how to cut glass, and how to keep the blades sharp by storing them in auto coolant. Each time Jeff gives Coardell a little bit more responsibility, Coardell grows more confident.

“He’s a good worker,” said Jeff. “He comes in and gets right to work.”

Way2Work Coordinator, Tammy Hauck, said she knew the environment Go Glass would accommodate Coardell’s needs. “It suits him,” said Tammy. “It gives him more space to be himself.”

Tim’s Story

TimAfter just two months on the job at Avenue Tailor and Cleaners in Westminster, Maryland, Tim is already looking forward to a big promotion.

This summer, he will receive management training and take over as manager of the store’s Gettysburg, Pennsylvania location.

“Dry cleaning was never my first thought,” says Tim. “But it worked for me.”

Tim has always wanted to work at or own a shoe store, so his job developer, Megan O’Neill of Schapiro Training & Employment Program (STEP), a Carroll County, MD supported employment agency, thought the small business on Main Street might be a good fit. She was right.

The experience he has gained at Avenue is pointing him toward college and a degree in business.

Working two-three hours a day, five days a week, Tim drives the company vehicle and picks up and delivers dry cleaning in four locations around Carroll County, Maryland. In his new job, he will learn how to work the front counter, interact with customers and gain an insider’s view of the operation.

According to Tim’s dad, Brian Wall, the job at Avenue Tailor, for which Tim is paid, has made a tremendous change in Tim.

Brian sees his son being more engaged in school and having a more positive attitude in general. Tim even signed up for the SATs on his own to the surprise and delight of his parents.

“I wish Way2Work would have been available when I was in high school,” said Brian. “You can’t put a price tag on experience.”


The National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT), funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), assists state and local education agencies, state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies and VR service providers in implementing evidence-based and promising practices to help ensure students with disabilities, including those with significant disabilities, graduate prepared for success in postsecondary education and employment.

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.

Public Charter School Founded to Provide Excellent Reading Instruction to All

Strong Foundations School logo

Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett and Deputy Assistant Secretary Kim Richey visited Strong Foundations Charter School during the 2018 Back-to-School Tour.

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


Seven years ago, one of my former students came to visit me and see the school I helped to found, Strong Foundations Charter School, a public charter school formed to provide excellent reading instruction to all students.

My former student was home from college where he majored in music and also played in two successful bands nearby. As we walked through the halls, he saw the elementary students working, some of whom were in Orton-Gillingham class—a structured reading approach to help students learn to read. I remarked that if he had been in a school like this, he might not have had to struggle so much with reading when he was younger.

His reply was bittersweet to me. “If I had been to a school like this, I might have been able to be your friend sooner.”

Translation: I might not have seen teachers as the enemy and schools as the battleground for so much of my childhood.

As a young teacher, nothing hurt worse than knowing I could teach someone how to read, but having them be so emotionally damaged from failure that they didn’t even want to try.

Time after time, that was my experience.

When I first began working with the student I quoted above, he was in the sixth grade. A bright mathematician, he had never learned to read despite his teachers’ efforts. Now it was my job to teach him to read and spell. For the first three months, every reading lesson was met with refusal and anger. Gradually, he began to have success and respond to my encouragement until finally, by the end of the year, we could accomplish an entire lesson in one sitting.

I had recently been trained in using the Orton-Gillingham approach. I worked as a special educator in a small private school in New Hampshire, and this student was one of many with a similar story. After years of failure, the first hurdle to help them overcome was their hopelessness when faced with the prospect of trying one more time.

I knew, though, that the English language is actually logical and can be taught systematically.

In my experiences, a multisensory structured literacy approach is essential for dyslexic learners and can also be beneficial to all learners.

At Strong Foundations, we accept all students at all academic levels, from low-achieving to high-achieving. Every student receives Orton-Gillingham instruction in a group as part of their regular education curriculum because we believe it is beneficial for all learners. We also believe it will prevent many students from ever struggling to learn to read. We work on building background knowledge using the Core Knowledge curriculum, a sequenced curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade students.

In the classroom, students receive Orton-Gillingham instruction at a differentiated pace. Students identified with a learning disability in reading normally receive additional Orton-Gillingham instruction at a therapeutic level, so it reinforces what they have learned in the classroom.

Our hope at Strong Foundations Charter School has always been that more schools would see our success and would use structured literacy approaches from the beginning of a child’s reading instruction.

I would like to see teacher-training programs include training in structured literacy approaches so that all elementary and special education teachers are prepared to teach reading.

It has not happened as quickly as I had hoped, but I am seeing some progress.

The story of my student I mentioned above has a very happy ending. I worked with him through ninth grade, when he let his parents know he wanted to stop tutoring because he wanted to learn to play an instrument. His tutoring time with me conflicted with music lessons. We all agreed that if he could maintain his academics without my help, he could “fire me.” He went on to graduate from high school, earn a four-year degree from a prestigious college of music and now works as a professional musician.


Beth McClure has served as the principal of Strong Foundations Charter School for twelve years. She earned a master’s in learning and language disabilities and a master’s in Educational Administration. She is a fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators and currently serves as its president. She recently joined the Professional Standards Board of the New Hampshire Department of Education. Her favorite professional activity is teaching reading.


The U.S. Department of Education does not endorse specific curriculums or approaches to education. 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. 

From Miami to New Jersey

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


Veronica and Myriam Alizo

Veronica and Myriam Alizo

When my first child was born I was a young and inexperienced new mother. My husband and I had just moved to the United States from Venezuela, and we were far away from our relatives.

I wasn’t sure if I should speak English or Spanish to our first daughter, and felt really perplexed. Everyone told us to stick to one language because children might get confused when they were spoken several languages at a time.

Once I realized my daughter had a speech delay and attention issues, I started to read everything I could about early child development. I felt very overwhelmed and isolated.

The pediatrician referred our child to an evaluation center in Miami where we lived. All our concerns and intuition were confirmed: our four-year-old child had some type of learning disability. The year was 1994, and I didn’t know anything about Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Veronica’s private speech therapy sessions were conducted in Spanish. Since we lived in Miami, a very bilingual community, the Spanish-speaking speech therapist recommended us to enroll our daughter in a bilingual cooperative preschool that existed in the community. The preschool teacher referred our daughter to our school district to have a series of tests. Then, Veronica had her first IEP. A few IEPs later, it was determined that Veronica not only had a learning disability, but she also had “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.” In other words, she had a form of autism.

When Veronica was in the fourth grade, I found a flyer in her book bag about an organization that would assist parents of children with IEPs understand their rights. That flyer changed my life!

The organization was Parent to Parent of Miami, a federally funded Community Parent Resource Center in South Florida. I contacted them and got all the information and assistance I needed at the time. Then, I decided that I wanted to work there! I wanted to help other parents, especially immigrant parents like me, understand their rights and get involved in their kids’ IEP process.

My lucky day came a couple of months later when I found another flyer in Veronica’s book bag. This time the flyer said that Parent to Parent of Miami was looking for bilingual parents of children with IEPs to work helping other parents. The year was 2000, I got the job, and I have been working within the Parent Center Network since.

Another big move awaited us, and we ended up living in New Jersey. As soon as I knew we were going to live in NJ, I contacted the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network, the New Jersey Parent Training and Information Center, to get information about the school system in our new state and to get a job or a volunteer position at the parent center. I started working at SPAN in 2003.

During my 15 years at SPAN, I have worked on several different projects from helping parents organize advisory groups to training parent mentors under New Jersey Parent to Parent to coordinating the OSEP English to Spanish Translation Glossary project to working on two national projects assisting parent centers across the regions.

My trajectory at SPAN has helped me empower my daughters to speak up, fight for their rights and have high expectations in their lives. It also has made me appreciate the impact of the civil rights and the disability movements in our society at the local and national level as well as globally as an international community.

Veronica attended a public high school in northern New Jersey where students with and without IEPs share the same building; and for most of the students, they also share classrooms and after-school activities. Veronica grew up in a naturally inclusive environment and was part of her high school basketball team. She participated in several SPAN transition-to-adulthood trainings and workshops. In addition to her high school academic courses, Veronica sampled jobs in the community, volunteered for several years at a summer camp for younger children in the spectrum, and learned to use public transportation as part of her IEP goals.

Now, Veronica is an adult who takes classes at the local community college and has a very active social life that includes a fiancée. Recently she got her driver’s permit and was admitted into the 2018-2019 New Jersey Partners in Policy Making cohort.

As for speaking English and Spanish with my daughters, I speak both languages with them, and it’s wonderful.


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.

Posted by
Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) at the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network

Reflections on Where We’ve Been: A Mother and Son’s Journey with Dyslexia

Dylan and Nicola at the beach

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

Nicola—a mom of three and an advocate—and her son Dylan, a college sophomore, share what has made their journey unique in hopes of inspiring others. Below, they take turns asking questions and telling their story.


Nicola: I want to start by sharing what I love most about my son. He sees the world in many dimensions. He is inquisitive, caring and creative. Traveling with Dylan is one of my favorite things to do because he sees the nuances and details of the culture, architecture, food and music wherever we are. He expresses genuine joy when experiencing new things. He is very social and adventurous, and people seem to be drawn to him like a moth to a lightbulb. But what I’m most proud about is that after years of struggling with an undiagnosed learning difference, and battling self-doubt, he is a sweet and curious guy and he has found strategies to deal with his learning and attention issues.

Nicola: Do you remember what it felt like for you when you started school?

Dylan: I remember being asked in first grade to write down my name and to describe something I liked. I didn’t know how to write or spell, so I wrote how they do in cartoons with just a scribble in a bubble on the page because that’s what I thought writing was. I felt defeated—like I wasn’t normal, and I didn’t know why. I didn’t like going to school because I felt different, but I did like seeing my friends. Everything seemed easy for them, and it was frustrating that they seemed to understand what the teacher was asking but I didn’t. I kept waiting for something to click.

Dylan: When did you first really know that I was having trouble learning in school? Was it in reading or writing? 

Nicola: When you were young, we knew you had some trouble when it came to sensory things, and we worried you’d be overwhelmed in a big school. So we started you in a small, private school with your brother, hoping that a small community would make you feel secure and you could explore your ideas.

You were very creative and bright, but when it came to writing and reading you avoided the tasks; you had difficulty writing your name, yet your vocabulary was advanced.

When we asked the school why there was such a disparity and to help us figure out what was going on, we were told that you were “all boy” and you had a late birthday, but you would eventually catch up.

I knew there was something else going on, but I didn’t know what it was.

Dylan: At what point did you finally have hope and think it would get better?

Nicola: When you were in the private school, they wouldn’t do an evaluation, so we had to get a private evaluation.

The first big moment was when we finally had a name for what you were experiencing—dyslexia and executive functioning challenges. There was finally a reason why you were having such a hard time in school. However, there wasn’t a roadmap or any guidance from professionals on what kind of intervention services would best help you.

We spent years and a lot of resources finding tutors and trying to get you the services you needed.

It wasn’t until you entered middle schools—this time to our neighborhood public school—that things really turned around.

Finally, the school was proactive. They were quick to complete a full evaluation and get to the bottom of what was happening. They worked with us to put together an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and get the right interventions in place. It was then—once they were able to provide the specific type of reading intervention you needed—that you started to make real progress.

Dylan and his family

 

 

Nicola: What do you think your biggest accomplishment so far has been? And what are your goals?

Dylan: For me, it is being able to retain knowledge at a higher level and overcome my struggles with writing and reading.

It’s hard because dyslexia never goes away. I still have to work twice as hard as my peers. Ironically, it has made me a better student, and I have been on the honor roll since 10th grade.

Taking the SAT and ACT was difficult, but I was still accepted into many colleges including Loyola Marymount in Chicago, University of Colorado, Colorado State University, San Francisco University, Syracuse University, Oregon State University, Temple University  and San Diego State University. Receiving those letters of acceptance made me feel that they valued my learning style and I had something important to offer.

In the future, I want to have a successful career that I enjoy and allows me to be creative. I am interested in design, and I can see taking my ideas into the world of advertising or clothing design.

What is very important to me is that I am surrounded by friends and family and never stop learning.

Dylan: What has been the best part of this whole journey for you?

Nicola: Even though it was hard to see you struggle and it took a long time to figure out how to help, the best part is that you taught me how to be an advocate.

You taught me that in order to succeed, you have to build partnerships. You can’t accomplish things alone, and if you don’t speak up then nothing will change. I have also met a wonderful community of other parents and educators who are passionate about children and a career that I love and never imagined doing.

Dylan: If you could talk to every parent who’s dealing with some of the same worries, what would you tell them?

Nicola: First, I would tell every parent to trust their instincts; if you feel something isn’t right with your child’s education then reach out to your teacher or pediatrician.

I would add that parents should get involved and know their rights. It is every child’s civil right to an education and because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Rehabilitation Act, there are protections for your child.

If your child struggles with dyslexia, make sure he receives the correct evidence-based intervention services. Question everything, but also listen and learn. You don’t have to be an expert, but you do need to be an educated consumer.

Get involved, connect with other parents and educators, and create a team to work on the situation together. You can’t and shouldn’t do this alone.

Nicola: What’s one thing you want to say to younger kids who, right now, are where you used to be?

Dylan: The world isn’t built for us, but we shouldn’t conform to regular learning styles. You have a unique brain and you can use that brain to solve problems and come up with solutions that other people couldn’t even conceive of. When school is difficult, it doesn’t mean you should give up. It means you should try twice as hard and figure out a way to change the system. You cannot change the past but you can shape your future.


About the authors:

Dylan Frost is a sophomore in college, majoring in product design and development. He is an avid soccer player, ceramic artist, and world traveler when there is time. He is active in his fraternity and looking for an internship this summer in product design.

Nicola Frost is the Regional Field Manager (Colorado) for National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). Prior to becoming an advocate, she was an Emmy-award winning producer for the Food Network and directed documentaries. Her passion is in civil rights for all underserved communities. When she isn’t advocating she is biking the Rocky Mountains and kayaking with her family.


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.

Dylan
Posted by
College sophomore majoring in product design and development
Nicola
Posted by
Mom of three. Regional Field Manager, National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)

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