My wife, Shae-Brie, is usually the blogger of the house, but today I decided to have at it and be her “guest” blogger. As a father of two beautiful, smart, kind, and compassionate daughters with autism, I stand as their personal centurion, guarding them from harm. For the most part this is a quiet post, but recently I have had to assume a leading role advocating for our youngest daughter, Jocelynn. Our school district wants to kick our autistic daughter out of her accelerated math program although she has exceeded their criteria for continued participation despite them requiring her to give up her in-class resource support in order to be in the class. Because this is not right, Shae-Brie and made multiple appeals to the district but got nowhere. Each of our appeals fell on deaf ears, so I created an online petition to spread the word about our district’s practices and rally others behind our cause. I’ve never done a petition before, but I was left with no other recourse; what they are doing is wrong and has to end.
At last year’s Annual IEP Review Meeting for Jocelynn the Child Study Team recommended that she receive in-class resource support in mathematics. Jocelynn’s performance on 3 of 4 criteria “placed” her in the enrichment or basic level math class. My wife evaluated the reliability of each of the measures and even looked over Jocelynn’s work on the district math placement test with the district math supervisor and Jocelynn’s case manager at the time. After looking everything over my wife was confident Jocelynn would be up for the challenge of the accelerated math class. It was at that time the math supervisor gave my wife an ultimatum; Jocelynn could either go to the basic math class and keep her in-class resource teacher, or give up her in-class resource teacher and waive into the accelerated math class. In other words, our school district forced my wife to forfeit our daughter’s special education support she needed because of her disability in order for her to participate in the 6th grade accelerated math class and be “tracked” to have Algebra I in 8th grade.Although not in agreement with this practice, my wife conceded to the exclusion because she wanted Jocelynn to have as many options available to her when she moved onto high school, college and beyond. In our state, participation in 8th grade Algebra is a leading indicator of college and career readiness. Algebra is a “gatekeeper” course, a class standing like a sentry at the gateway to college. Take it and pass it and your odds of attending college are good. Take it and fail it and at least you have been exposed to challenging mathematics. Don’t take it at all and your chances of attending college are greatly reduced.
As parents, we assumed the responsibility of filling the void the district created by requiring Jocelynn to give up her special education support. We paid for a private tutor and helped Jocelynn extensively with her schoolwork ourselves. Inadequately supported in the classroom, Jocelynn struggled but never gave up. The first marking Jocelynn earned a C, 2nd marking period she earned a C+, 3rd marking period a B-, and has continued to advance from there. Jocelynn improved her grade each marking period although it was extremely difficult for her without the special education services she needed in the class. With just 4 weeks left in the school year, Jocelynn had a B+ (87%) in her accelerated math class. As parents we celebrated Jocelynn’s progress, as did the other members of Jocelynn’s IEP team. We all worked hard and were extremely proud of how Jocelynn rose up to meet the challenges presented to her. Imagine our dismay when we began planning for the following school year and began exploring course selections for the following year, only to learn the district intended to kick Jocelynn out of the accelerated math program under the premise that she had “failed to meet criteria.”
According to district math placement criteria, “students must have a B average (84%) to continue in the accelerated course the following school year.” In keeping with this criteria, if a B average (84%) is required in order for 6th grade accelerated math students to advance to 7th grade accelerated pre-algebra, then Jocelynn has exceeded the requirement and should be enrolled in the class without incident. Right? Well that is our position.
We learned that alternate criteria was used to dismiss Jocelynn from the program. Instead of using the published placement criteria of a “B average (84%),” the criteria use to count my daughter out was her 5th grade NJ ASK scores in Language Arts and mathematics, her 5th grade performance on the district’s ability test, and her marking period 1-3 grades for her 6th grade math class. Confused?? I am. On top of the fact that none of these measures matched the published criteria, I am especially confused because 3 of them were already waived by my wife when she signed Jocelynn up for the 6th grade class. Wouldn’t it be double jeopardy to use this same exclusionary criteria to screen out students from advancing the the 7th grade class? And how does Jocelynn’s performance in 5th grade tell more about her ability in math than her current performance? These are all questions Shae-Brie and I had. Unable to reconcile the use of these alternate measures over the published criteria to determine Jocelynn’s 7th grade math placement, we resigned ourselves that an error had occurred that could be easily remediated. This perspective was further validated after my wife reviewed the published placement criteria and saw the 4 measures used to exclude Jocelynn from the 7th grade accelerated pre-algebra class were actually the criteria for the HONORS accelerated pre-algebra class. Okay, simple enough. We were certain the superintendent would rectify this error in Jocelynn’s favor. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
When we alerted the superintendent to the error the superintendent refused to overturn the placement decision opting instead to use yet another exclusionary measure that he identified as being “implied” in the district criteria. Left with no other recourse, we have since filed for due process. It is extremely disappointing how these practitioners just threw aside my daughter and the work she’s done, instead of correcting their error and celebrating all that she’s accomplished.
According to Autism Speaks, autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States. Nationally 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism, and in New Jersey (where we live) that figure is 1 in 45. Jocelynn, my daughter, in addition to being a child of color and 1st generation American, is one of these children. These archaic, hurtful, and discriminatory practices of our district must be discontinued or our daughter and the many others that will come after her will continue to suffer.
Our district’s practice of disregarding the recommendations of students’ IEP teams and requiring parents to forfeit special education supports and aids in order for their children to be able to participate in the accelerated math program is not right. This, in addition to the district’s practice of then holding these same students accountable to elusive and “implied” criteria are practices inconsistent with the federal law and in violation of the spirit of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004.
I hope by writing this “guest” blog post I bring awareness to this issue, and that my petition for my special little butterfly, Jocelynn, will help end the discriminatory practices our school district is using to benefit all students. Our children are faced with enough challenges because of perceived limitations of their disability. Together my wife and I work to remove barriers for daughters and others like them encounter so that they may reach beyond autism.
A father advocating for his daughter and others like her!