Monday, March 16, 2009

Harassed Teacher Withdraws From KIPP Unionization Push

Teacher Kashi Nelson, a leader in the push for Unionization at KIPP-AMP in Brooklyn, NY, has withdrawn her support of unionization at her school.

Citing the pressure of the workload and the school administration's retaliatory measures against the pro-unionization teachers, Nelson stated, "I just don’t see how having the union be a part of our everyday life will help.”

Before Nelson, who has a daughter that attends the school, announced she was backing down, “It got ugly,” she said. “It was really bad.” Retaliation against the teachers included rumors of teacher firings, no longer praising teachers in newsletters, administrators not speaking to teachers or answering direct communications from teachers, the principal sitting in the hallway to monitor teacher activities, an emergency meeting with Dave Levin, co-founder of KIPP, in which he told teachers to reconsider their union request, and meetings with school administrators in which teachers were told pensions and benefits were in jeopardy and asked for the "dirt" on the pro-union teachers.

Originally, 15 of 20 KIPP AMP teachers signed on to a letter explaining they wanted to unionize in order to reduce teacher turnover and create a more stable environment in the school. The contract they were asking for was a tenure-less one, simply stating that

Administrators would have to prove “just cause” before firing a teacher, and discipline would follow a graduate scale, including measures to support struggling teachers.

Later, a 16th teacher pledged her support.

The KIPP teachers love their school, love their students, spend 10 hours a day with their students,and are accessible to the children in their classes 24/7 via email, text, and cell phone.

Here are some other reasons why the teachers at KIPP AMP have worked as hard as they have for unionization (emphasis mine):

KIPP AMP teacher Leila Chakravarty makes a powerful case that organizing aunion is necessary to “build a sustainable community in our school” and address the problem of teacher turnover. “Because as KIPP teachers we are so invested in our kids and form such close bonds with them... When they become close to a teacher who is gone in three months because she has burnt out, it undermines the trust we are working so hard to build.”

“For us, unionization is ultimately all about student achievement, and the ability of teachers to best serve students at this crucial middle school time in their education,” said KIPP AMP teacher Emily Fernandez.

“We organized to make sure teachers had a voice and could speak their minds on
educational matters without fearing for their job,” said KIPP AMP teacher Luisa Bonifacio. “There is a need to make the teacher position more sustainable so that teachers don’t burn out, but are able to make a long-term commitment to the students and the school.”

One of the teachers’ goals is to help create a PTA, which up until now has not been permitted. In a letter to parents, the group said, “We value parent input and know a school cannot run effectively without parent involvement and voice.”

“I firmly believe in the importance of having a school that’s viable and sustainable for the students who attend here,” said Kashi Nelson, a KIPP AMP social studies teacher who has a daughter in the school. “As a member of this school community, I am
committed to doing whatever it takes to make our school a place we all feel good

In a telephone interview Sunday, Nelson said that she didn't know what would happen with the movement to unionize at KIPP AMP, but stated that it might become unionized but the teachers who voted to do so wouldn't be there.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

"These are Baghdad numbers. These are war zone numbers"

From our local paper, the Commercial Appeal, comes this article about the latest child to be murdered in Memphis.

On March 11th, an entire floor of Hamilton High School students erupted into a fight between the Bloods and the Crips. Ten kids were arrested, many were hurt, and one of the kids who was arrested and released that day, Rozelle Green, was fatally shot that evening in a spillover of the school fight.

Parents had been concerned about potential violence at Hamilton since 2007 when the school board voted to merge Southside High and Hamilton High, forcing students from rival neighborhoods and gangs together. The Memphis City Schools system merged the schools due to a drop of enrollment at Southside and a desire to continue to provide those students with access to a variety of academic and enrichment programs.

Now, in the name of free market education and closing down failing schools, school mergers are becoming even more common, as well as increased violence and deaths of school children. No more so than in Arne Duncan's former school district, http://http//,chicago-school-violence-record-cps-031109.article , where 508 students have been shot in the last 16 months. Five hundred eight school children shot in one and a half school years.
17-year-old Rozelle Green Jr. dreamed of being a High School Graduate. He would have graduated in two months.

Rozelle "Kept telling me, 'Dad I'm going to graduate,'" Green's father, Rozelle Green, Sr., said Friday.
Green's sister, Markisha Wilson, says life will never be the same without her big brother. "He made me laugh when I was mad," she said. "We used to be together all the time."
Green was shot to death outside his girlfriend's house Wednesday night.

"I ran to where he was at and when I got there he was laying out in the grass, and they said he had no pulse," his father said.

Wilson added Rozelle recently received a reward from school for "Most Improved," saying the school's new principal made an impact on him. "He really did help my son out," she said.

Well, I'm Struggling...

I've been MIA for a while. It started with going back to school in January to start my doctoral program in Ed Research. Then, I had two conferences back to back. And I had a couple other trips thrown in there somewhere. I still have my toiletries in an airport security baggie.

If I had been on top of things I would have blogged at the time about the Learning and the Brain Conference I went to, particulary the discussion of developing teachers' social-emotional capacity. It was fantastic. Then I went to COPAA's annual conference (Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates) and attended a fantastic whole day workshop on creating quality Functional Behavior Assessments and Positive Behavioral Intervention Plans. I've scanned the excellent handouts and if you'd like copies, email me.

But honestly I haven't written much recently because I'm struggling with the complexities. On a list serve digest I received recently someone wrote, "We're losing the war.(Duh)."

As we get farther and farther away from individualized, developmentally appropriate education and more and more entrenched in defining "quality" teachers, students, schools, and public education as a certain score on a nationalized standardized test, I find myself increasingly frustrated. I feel that I'm a smart person... I should be able to figure out a way to win the war. I've studied how change has been activated by the netroots. I've learned about lobbying Congress for changes in the law. I have a first hand understanding of the system.

Yet...those of us in the education internet community cannot get organized. We do not have a shared vision. We should work to get rid of NCLB. No, to overhaul education all together. No, I'm going to advocate for my particular pet educational method. How about addressing societal influences on education such as poverty, violence, and illiteracy. No, let's advocate for un-schooling...or homeschooling. Should we support charters, or not? How about merit pay? Unions? It goes on and on. We're constantly playing defense, reacting against the framing of the standardista reformists. Should we organize (without unions who have not been addressing the work place environment)and demand that all teachers refuse to give the standardized test or walk out (and lose their jobs)? Or is that asking too much? (Short answer: yes).

While we flounder, guess who has met with President Obama regarding education? Hint: it's not educators. See and and

Monday, February 9, 2009

Interview on - 2

By Dora Raymaker
Thursday I posted Jennifer Parker's take on why it can be difficult for students on the autistic spectrum to get academic accommodations. Now with more of her attorney hat on, I've asked Jennifer some questions more about the legal and self-advocacy side of academic accommodations at the primary and secondary school level.

Dora: Give me a brief summary of the laws that govern special education and public school accommodations.

Jennifer: Section 504 is a civil rights law that allows medical and classroom accommodations for children with disabilities who do not require special education services. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ensures that all children with disabilities have a free appropriate public education that emphasizes education that meets their unique needs.

Dora: What is the most common legal issue people face with the special education system? Why might this be so? How do you think might this be addressed more globally so it's no longer an issue?

Jennifer: There are four common categories of disputes: eligibility, failure to provide a free, appropriate education (FAPE), failure to implement the IEP, and inappropriate discipline. In my personal experience as an attorney and advocate, eligibility issues are often caused by the school district's attempt to keep numbers down. It looks bad if the district has a high number of children in special education. Also, it can be expensive for the local district since IDEA is underfunded. Inappropriate discipline has several roots. Either the school staff do not understand how the child's disability affects behavior, or the school is not adequately trained in Functional Behavior Assessment/Behavior Plans, or corporeal punishment has been used for years and is entrenched in the school system. I have a case right now where a child has a wonderful IEP with every service and need explicitly outlined in his IEP, but the school is just not implementing it. They have told the parent to go ahead and file a due process complaint against them. Sometimes parents will see brazenness like this because the deck is stacked against the parent in these situations: the parent lacks resources or knowledge about filing for due process, school attorneys have trained the administrative law judges, judges rule for the school a high percentage of the time. In order to address these problems, there needs to be more oversight and monitoring by the U.S. Department of Education and full funding of IDEA.

Dora: I am going to switch topics slightly from the parent perspective to the student. A barrier to self-advocacy I've seen is people aren't taught what their rights are, legally. The IEP or 504 processes always seemed like a great way to start teaching people their rights. Is the IEP/504 process ever used that way? Should it be?

Jennifer: The student has a right to attend the IEP or 504 meeting and I highly recommend they do so if they are of an appropriate age for the subject matter of the meeting. It is a great way to learn about the process and self-advocate. Schools don't always invite the student, however, or model productive discussions... Perhaps it's happening in some schools or some districts, but working in the Mid-South, I see some schools hold meetings (illegally) to decide the fate of a child without even inviting the parent. However, I'm a proponent of training school teams to include students in this process and if I were involved with policy or oversight of the special education system it would be a priority for me. I believe that the quality of Individualized Education Plans would be greatly enhanced by input from the student. That's a no-brainer. In the mean time, I encourage students to read as much as they can about education law and either teach themselves or draw from advocacy training offered in the community.

Dora: Considering how old school-as-a-system is in the US, how long do you think it will take to change? What do you think is needed to facilitate that change?

Jennifer: Part of this process will depend on who is chosen to be Deputy Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration. The Deputy Secretary oversees the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. Linda Darling-Hammond is currently rumored to be a candidate for this position and many progressive reformers, myself included, are rooting for this appointment. (You can sign a petition to appoint Linda Darling-Hammond to a top DOE position on the Education cause blog). It will also depend in some part on the ability of citizens to bring the issues to the forefront and to change some conventional wisdom about education, accountability, and reform... the good news is I don't think we need to start from scratch with special education law. The law is excellent, the problem is the delivery system. I do believe strongly, however, that we need to scrap No Child Left Behind and just reauthorize ESEA while educators work on developing a better school accountability system.

Interview on

By Dora Raymaker
I posted what I thought was mostly a fluff piece on teachers arguing that accommodations are not part of the "real world", and got such interesting discussion from y'all that I was inspired to learn more. Since I'm no expert on the special education system in the U.S., I pinged Clay Burrell over at the Education blog. Clay in turn introduced me to his special education expert, Jennifer Parker. I got pretty excited about Jennifer who not only has specific expertise working with students with invisible disabilities (including autism), but is also a special education attorney. So I hit Jennifer up for more than one interview. Here's the first, continuing the themes that were explored in the "real world" post--why can it be so hard to get seemingly simple accommodations from teachers? Is this a problem with individual teachers, with teacher education, with the educational system, with--with what?

Dora: People often report high variability in their experiences with teachers. What reasons do you think there may be for this variability?

Jennifer : I think the main reason for this variability is in the training of the teachers. Generally, most "regular education" teachers report having little to no preparation for working with students who have special needs. Another reason for variability is comfort level with making accommodations and perhaps experience with working with children with disabilities. Unfortunately, schools do not usually have school-wide policies for IEPs or any uniformity in this area.

Dora: Do you think that current emphasis on standardized testing and curriculum-based structures makes it harder to meet the needs of students who don't learn in conventional ways?

Jennifer: Absolutely. I have become a strong advocate for progressive reform in education away from high-stakes standardized testing towards individualized instruction because I have personally seen the negative impact that testing and scripted curriculum has had upon our students, especially those students in poorer districts. The current emphasis is a one-size-fits all system that does not meet the needs of any of our students and makes school a very un-engaging, stressful environment for everyone. Currently schools are so afraid of being labeled a "failing" school by not meeting AYP under No Child Left Behind that every resource goes toward teaching to the test. I have been appalled by how many IEP meetings I've gone to where the special education teacher has told me that we could not create our own learning goals or accommodations, but rather, had to use the standards-based goals used for every other child in that grade. No Child Left Behind has created a system that is in direct opposition to students who don't learn in conventional ways.

Dora: Do you think there are problems getting accommodations [like working on green paper or extra time on tests] for students on the autistic spectrum that students with other disabilities don't have? Of so, what are they?

Jennifer: Well, that's a good question, since working with green paper instead of white is not a costly accommodation. Also, more time on tests is free! I think parents who run into difficulties getting these types of accommodations are running into one of two things. Either the IEP team needs more education regarding the disability and need for those accommodations or - and this seems silly since, as I just stated, these are easy accommodations - this is a school district that is very rigid. I run into this now as an advocate. I serve three states. The city school system where I live is great about accommodations, but some of the suburban school districts are very rigid and refuse to make even small accommodations. These are school districts that have good reputations and good "report cards", and feel that they know best how to educate students and they do not waiver from their way. As I mentioned earlier, they have their own customs and culture. Also, they have a school attorney who tells them not to budge an inch.

Dora: What general advice would you give to parents and students on the autistic spectrum for better getting academic accommodations with minimal fuss?

Jennifer: In general, I would take advantage of any local workshops on advocacy and learn to become a strong advocate for yourself or your child. These may be hosted by protection and advocacy organizations, education attorneys/advocates, hospitals, or autism organizations. If parents and students do not have a copy of "From Emotions to Advocacy" by attorney Pete Wright, they need to get a copy right away. This book's title is dead on: it teaches parents and students to move from an emotional state regarding their educational and developmental needs to a strong advocate state.

Dora: I've heard a lot of good things about too, do you recommend that site?

Jennifer: Yes, it is Pete Wright's site. You can order any of his publications from the site, write in questions, peruse a library of articles on all kinds of topics, and see a listing of workshop locations. The only negative that I've found is that it's a very "crowded" site and a little difficult to navigate, but it is a wealth of information and support.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Intent of the Ninety-fourth US Congress

Originally posted at

Members of the Ninety-fourth United States Congress took notice of the facts and rulings in PARC and Mills. Congressional response included an investigation into the status of all children with disabilities. After an investigation and hearings, Congress enacted Public Law 94-142, originally titled Education for All Handicapped Children Act and later reauthorized and renamed Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004).

As noted in the United States Code Congressional and Administrative News 1975 (USCCAN), Congress introduced the legislation in response to

…landmark court cases establishing in law the right to education for all children [Mills and PARC] … In 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States [Brown v. Board of Education] … stated “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

The investigation yielded valuable data about the numbers of children not receiving an appropriate education. Congress found that, out of 8 million children with disabilities, only 3.9 million were receiving appropriate education. 4.25 million children were either receiving no education or inappropriate education.

USCCAN reported Congress’s findings on the social and economic costs of failing to educate all children:

The long-range implications of these statistics are that public agencies and taxpayers will spend billions of dollars over the lifetimes of these individuals to maintain such persons as dependents…With proper education services, many would be able to become productive citizens, contributing to society instead of being forced to remain burdens…

It should not … be necessary for parents throughout the country to continue utilizing the courts to assure themselves a remedy….

In 1975, the Ninety-fourth US Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Act. After several reauthorizations, IDEA now requires states, school districts, and schools to ensure that

All children with disabilities ages 3 through 21 receive a free, appropriate public education that meets their unique needs, regardless of the type or severity of their disability.

Children with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment possible….

Each student with a disability is to have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that describes the education and related services to be provided to that student.

Parents of students with disabilities have the right to notification, informed consent, due process, and involvement in key decisions…

Federal grants are authorized to help pay state and local costs associated with implementing IDEA mandates and serving students with disabilities.

I think of IDEA as an amazingly progressive piece of legislation which codified a 180- degree turn around in conventional wisdom regarding the educability of disabled children. It is a generally well-written act (although it has highly litigated terminology, such as what is an “appropriate” education) that ensures parents important and fair rights. However, there have been obstacles in the implementation of IDEA that I believe have kept the act from fulfilling congressional intent.

The National Council on Disability (NCD) (, whose mission is “to provide a voice in the Federal Government and to Congress for all people with disabilities in the development of policies and delivery of programs that affect their lives”, published “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Reauthorization: Where Do We Really Stand?” in 2002. For this publication, NCD solicited public responses to questions about four areas identified as critical to the implementation of IDEA: eligibility and over representation of minorities; funding; monitoring and enforcement; and discipline. In the introduction NCD notes:

From the students, we hear the reality of their lives in special education. In most cases, the comments we received from them are a scathing indictment of the implementation of IDEA.

I’ve read through the public comments published in “Where Do We Really Stand,” and all of them are poignant and significant, but one stands out for me as a clear, objective summary:

The findings … were a confirmation and documentation that the statute is strong, but implementation and enforcement are thin and inconsistent. This study confirmed what children with disabilities and their families have repeatedly told NCD, namely, that too many students (1) did not receive FAPE [Free, Appropriate Public Education]; (2) were inappropriately placed in separate settings; (3) did not receive appropriate services whenserved in regular classrooms; (4) had not been able to access critical transition services and supports; (5) were not provided with related services such as speech therapy, physical therapy, or psychological counseling as reflected in their IEPs. And, (5) did not receive the benefits of procedural safe-guards and protections in evaluation in some states.

What are your experiences with IDEA? And check out the chart below that compares the yearly appropriation of IDEA funds with “full funding”. How many of the above inadequacies would be relieved by full funding?

Origins of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Originally posted at

I have the great fortune to be an education advocate for chronically ill children. It's rewarding and frustrating work that combines my public school teaching experience with my legal background as an attorney for parents of children who happen to have special needs.

Every week I talk to parents about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, federal laws that entitle children with disabilities to a free, appropriate public education. Most of the parents I work with have not heard of these legislative acts or want to know more about them. I look forward to helping guide this community through discussions on IDEA and special education in general. But before we get there, let's go back a few years. Just a few - because to discuss where we are, we need to examine where we've been.

Before 1975, when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, later reauthorized and renamed Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a child deemed "uneducable" could be (and often was) legally barred from entering public school in most states. Uneducable children were children who were - or who were thought to be - mentally deficient, "crippled," blind, deaf, "defective," "delinquent," epileptic, or "diseased" .

By the time the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was enacted, four out of every five disabled children were denied access to education in U.S. public schools. A majority of these children were institutionalized. In New York State, children declared mentally retarded were institutionalized at Willowbrook State School, an institution located on Staten Island that gained notoriety in the 1960s for conducting a controversial medical study. In this study, healthy inmates were inoculated with hepatitis by injection or orally - by being forced to eat infected feces.By the 1970s, dire conditions caused by lack of staffing and resources led a few doctors and parents of patients at Willowbrook to picket the administration building. Their activism led the local newspaper, the Staten Island Advance, to cover conditions in the institution. A few months later, a local news station sent fledgling reporter, Geraldo Rivera, to cover the controversy. Using a stolen key, Rivera brought a hand held camera into Willowbrook and filmed a video expose of conditions inside the school.

According to the New York Times' Celia Dugger:
Beginning in the late 1940's, Willowbrook offered a mean, often desperate existence to thousands of mentally retarded people. By 1962, there were 6,200 people there, 2,000 more than its capacity. The complex was overcrowded and drastically understaffed. As many as 60 extremely disabled people were packed into one big locked room during the day, for years on end, with only a few attendants to supervise.

Neglect was endemic. There were not enough chairs, so residents lay on the floor or in cribs. And there were not enough clothes, so they often wore rags or nothing at all.
Many could not feed themselves, and the shortage of workers meant residents often did not eat properly. The lack of supervision also allowed unchecked violence among the bored, despairing residents.

Conditions such as these were not unique to Willowbrook. In 1971, the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) filed a federal class action suit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on behalf of mentally retarded children, aged 6 to 21, who were excluded from Pennsylvania public schools. PARC did not go to trial, but a federal trial court endorsed a consent agreement between the parties. In language later echoed by IDEA, the consent agreement stipulated that no mentally retarded child could be excluded from public school without due process and that Pennsylvania school districts had to provide these children with a free and appropriate public education.

In a second landmark federal case, Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia (1972), the court entered a judgment in favor of the Washington D.C. class of children classified as being behavior problems, mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, and hyperactive, and who were excluded from school. The judgment stated that lack of funding could not be a reason for refusing service to students, a tenet which still exists under IDEA.

Parent activism, the formation of associations for various disabilities, state legislation, and landmark federal judicial decisions, including PARC and Mills, all led to the enactment of IDEA three years later. They stand as proof that action can lead to results.

As I've said, my direct experience with IDEA has been as an attorney and advocate. I'm hoping that those with diverse experiences (special education teachers, parents of children covered by Section 504 or IDEA, administrators, etc) will share their stories below, or if privacy is preferred, through a personal message. I hope to help guide this community's discussion of special education partially through the use of personal stories, mine plus those shared with me, that speak to the complexities, strengths, and weakness of special education law and policy.
Let me just close by saying how happy I am to see this community forming, and to help it along. Hats off to for knowing how to, well - org(anize) Change!

Photos: Willowbrook 1 (Source)Willowbrook 2 (Source)Willowbrook 3 (Source)
Comments (5)