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Supporting parents, teachers, and/or students who take a bold stand

Publication Date: 2009-03-21

It is both instructive and inspiring to read about the work of the Parent Empowerment Network's work.

It is a shock to read how the Washington State Education Department treats students with special needs and their teachers.

Some of Parent Empowerment Network's best work (if I may say so myself) comes about when we support parents, teachers, and/or students who take a bold stand, by sending out a press release that tells their story. In the current case of Seattle teachers and parents, PEN was discovered by one of the parents involved, who put words related to "WAAS refusal" into a google search and found one of our previous press releases on the internet. She contacted our Special Education consultant, Nancy Vernon, who contacted me. We then:

* Talked by phone and met in person with one of the teachers, to understand all details of the situation and offer our assistance.

* Researched and drew on our knowledge of state and federal policy.

* Consulted with administrative and special education experts.

* Contacted the State Superintendent's office.

* Wrote a letter to the Seattle School District detailing state and federal policy and pointing out the errors of judgement that were taking place on the part of district administration.

* Filed a public disclosure request with the district to obtain district policy that would cover the situation (we have yet to receive requested documents).

* Phoned and spoke with parents (one from each family involved)

* Sent a PEN press release, including all details of the situation and contact information for parents who had agreed to be available for interviews.

* Spoke with the State Superintendent's Director of Communications and External Relations, suggesting once again that there was need for the Office of Superintendent to look into the matter because the Seattle School District was out of compliance with state policy.

* Spoke with and provided in-depth background information to television, radio, and newspaper reporters.

* Assisted reporters with parent contacts and logistical information.

* Offered ongoing moral support to parents and teachers involved.

* Spoke with Seattle activists who offered further support to the teachers and parents involved.

* Provided on-air interviews for radio talk shows/newscasts.

Just after the press release went out, the story was picked up by several television and radio stations, and the Seattle Times printed a front page article. The Times article was read by KUOW reporter Phyllis Fletcher, who had not received our press release. Ms. Fletcher then contacted and interviewed one of the moms, Rachel McKean, at her home. Rachel told Phyllis about the PEN press release. Phyllis found my contact information on the PEN website and called me (while I was in California visiting my daughter-- my computer and cell phone take vacations with me). We spoke for quite a while, and I then sent her the press release and the electronic copies of the suspension letters received by the teachers. I also sent her links to the Dave Ross interview on KIRO radio and other reports.

In addition to local and national news outlets, the PEN press release was emailed throughout the nation to our colleagues working for educational justice and sanity in their own states. This is the advantage of being thoroughly networked with fellow education activists who are ready to support our cause here in Washington with words and, sometimes, monetary assistance.

If you think the above work is worthwhile, please consider making a contribution to PEN (see contact info at the bottom of this email). At the moment, I am covering the expenses of the organization out of pocket. Our bank account has slipped too low to mention. I am very appreciative of the contributions that have kept us going as a state and nationally recognized nonprofit organization for the past four years. Yes, we have a new state superintendent, and we may soon have a new test with a different acronym, but the stifling conditions under which our students, parents, and teachers are expected to "perform" continue to cry out for support that can only be offered by independent organizations such as PEN. We say what needs to be said and fight for what is right without strings of government or private foundation funding, thanks to your contributions.

To me, the current proof that our work is worthwhile is that, for the time being at least, our teachers are back in their classrooms, and we have a very well done story to read here, which was broadcast this morning on NPR affiliate KUOW. Thank you, Phyllis Fletcher!

NOTE: Parent Empowerment Network is a nonprofit, public charity continuing to fight the good fight thanks to tax deductible contributions from good people like you. Please consider becoming a member or making a contribution today. http://www.mothersagainstwasl.org/member.html

Parent Empowerment Network
PO Box 494
Spanaway, WA 98387

by Phyllis Fletcher, KUOW News

Special Education: What to Teach, How to Test


Two special education teachers in Seattle were suspended without pay this month. The teachers refused to give their students a federally mandated test. It's called the WAAS Portfolio. It's an alternative to the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL. It's for students with the most severe cognitive disabilities. Washington State has struggled to come up with the best way to test these kids. Some parents and teachers have decided the whole thing is a waste of time.

Rachel McKean is one of those parents.

Her son Jackson likes to play with the Venetian blinds in their apartment. He wants his mom to give him the string.

Jackson: "That."

McKean: "He learned, actually, how to point to something that he wants, and say 'that.'"

He learned it from his teachers at Greenlake Elementary.

McKean: "He learned how to feed himself at school. With a spoon. And he learned how to drink out of a cup. He learned how to push his own wheelchair. His head control has gotten extremely better, because his head is a little bit bigger than an average sized kid."

Jackson has a form of hydrocephalus. It's a neurological disorder that has caused some severe developmental disabilities. Jackson also has intestinal problems. He has to wear a diaper.

Jackson can turn pages in a book. He can say "yes" and "no," and in sign language he can say about eight things. He's still learning. But his mom doesn't expect reading and math to be part of his education.

So she was annoyed to learn that last year, Jackson had to take a standardized reading and math test. He was in fourth grade.

McKean: "They would hold up two cards. One of them was a half, and one of them was, like, three fourths. And the question was, 'OK, which one's bigger?' OK, he doesn't...he doesn't know. And it really doesn't measure his intelligence at all, because the only person you can really compare him to is himself."

Rachel says Jackson's score was zero.

The test was developed by the State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, or OSPI. It was rushed to meet the Federal testing requirement â" which the state hadn't enforced for 5 years.

Some teachers agree with Jackson's mom â" that it was a complete waste of time. And that it was educationally inappropriate for kids with the most serious cognitive disabilities.

The state heard those complaints. And criticism from the Federal government that the test still wasn't quite right. So the state made some changes.

This fall, OSPI offered training on the test.

Seattle Public Schools videotaped one of the sessions.

In the video, Lori Pollett from OSPI picks a teacher in the front row for some role play. She calls her "Elizabeth."

Lori describes what OSPI calls a "prompt." A way to get a student to do something. In this case, the task is to touch a flashlight. Lori pretends her own left hand is the flashlight.

Pollett: "So, I'll say, 'Elizabeth, touch the flashlight.' She doesn't do anything, so I start with verbal."

Lori works her way up through different levels of prompts. Verbal. Partial physical. And, ultimately, the physical prompt.

Lori takes Elizabeth's hand in her own, and places it on the pretend flashlight.

Pollett: "She's touched the flashlight, but you know what? That's not really even intentional. But what it's doing is it's giving 'em access to â" to offering...some opportunity. In this case, to take the WAAS Portfolio."

That's what OSPI is asking special ed teachers to do. Put the kid's hand on the right answer.

This is training Jackson's teacher was supposed to get. She didn't go. The Seattle School District called it a "refusal." It's one of the reasons she was suspended.

Judy Kraft is in charge of special ed testing for the state. I asked her...

Fletcher: "It sounds like a teacher could put a student's hand on the correct answer, and then count that as correct in the WAAS. Is that right?"

Kraft: "We ask that at the lowest level they have one distracter."

A distracter is a wrong answer. Judy explained that a distracter forces a choice between the wrong answer and the right one.

Fletcher: "So with the distracter there, and the correct answer, the teacher would go through a process that might end in the teacher putting the student's hand on the right answer, and then scoring that as correct."

Kraft: "It might, it might. Again...I think teachers are doing the very best they can to gather the data on the learning of the student."

Judy goes on to explain that teachers gather that data three times a school year in the WAAS Portfolio. So the idea is that maybe, over time, the student would come to the right answer on his own.

Judy admits that won't happen for some kids. Maybe a lot of kids.

Jackson's mom Rachel says a test like the WAAS Portfolio takes away from time Jackson's teachers spend on life skills. Like going to the bathroom. Or how to stay calm when a loud truck goes down the street.

Judy Kraft says she understands, but teachers have to give this test. Because it's a federal requirement to test students on academic concepts at their grade level.

Parents like Rachel say grade level doesn't apply to her son and his abilities. Judy Kraft questions that idea. She says people have made assumptions about what kids can and can't do in special education.

Fletcher: "What about a mom like Rachel who doesn't feel like what she's doing is making assumptions? She feels like she knows her child."

Kraft: "I absolutely...trust the mom's intuition. I mean, she knows her child best...maybe we have set some artificial ceilings for this population of kids...there have been immense changes in how we believe in their ability to learn and grow...I would say that we have a lot of work to do in this assessment to help make those connections for parents and it would be my job to have that happen."

Judy has written a brochure on the WAAS to explain its value to parents.

Rachel doesn't see the value in it. This year, she refused to let Jackson take the WAAS.

McKean: "I mean, it's not like a oneâ"day test. I mean, it's basically from December to March, they have to constantly do stuff for this test that my son's gonna get a zero on. He's not learning anything. And I know for a fact if my teacher thought for one second that he would get anything out of this experience, she would do it."

All the parents in Jackson's class refused the test.

Judy Kraft says that's their right. But in large numbers, those refusals would cause problems. Federal regulations say 95% of disabled kids have to take tests like the WAAS and the WASL. When districts and schools don't hit that number, their federal funding is jeopardized.

Jackson's teacher and her colleague have appealed their suspension. They're back in the classroom for now. Jackson's teacher didn't return a call for comment. Her colleague says their lawyer told them not to talk to reporters. Their spokesperson says they're filing a complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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