Longform

Communication Breakdown

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When Jennifer attended a parent-teacher conference earlier this year, the teachers asked her for suggestions on dealing with his behavior problems. Her son has a habit of getting into food that is not supposed to be eaten until snack time; when the teachers tell him he can't eat his snack until later, he throws a tantrum. So Jennifer asked the teachers to keep the food in a cabinet until snack time. "They said 'No, we can't do that,'" she recalls. When she suggested they keep supplies for art projects involving marshmallows and other candy on a shelf, they told her they couldn't do that, either. "They turned down all of my suggestions and said I should consider other programs for him." According to her, that was their way of getting him out of a regular classroom and into a special-education class. "Then they gave me a sheet with the district's guidelines for suspension and expulsion. They told me he can't succeed in a regular classroom, yet they refused to make any accommodations. And when I say I've got people who can come in and show him appropriate behaviors and give teachers suggestions on keeping him engaged, I get turned down."

Riordan says cases like Jennifer's are not the norm. "Boulder is a district that does a tremendous amount of inclusion. Most special-needs students are served in a general-education classroom. A very small percentage of students are pulled from regular-education classes," Riordan says. "Our society -- and our schools -- vary in how accommodating we want to be. It's very frustrating for parents when they find an attitude blocking their kid's education. Attitudes are the hardest things to change."

But Riordan says she's proud of what she's done for the special-education department since she took over as director last December. She has secured several state and federal grants for special education and formed the Parent Professional Partnership as a way to reach out to parents; the PPP sponsored the recent informational meeting between parents and special-education administrators. "I'm doing everything I can on every front I can. I think there's a small group of parents that's dissatisfied and don't seem to like those efforts," Riordan says, adding that those who complain rarely offer solutions to the problems they claim they're facing. "This door is open. We've tried hard to take input, but it's hard to have a conversation when both sides don't sit down and converse."

PAGE members are hoping that parents of special-needs students throughout the state will see some improvements now that the federal government is looking into Colorado's special-education departments. Every three years, the U.S. Department of Education audits special-education programs nationwide to make sure they are in compliance with federal special-education laws. For three weeks this month, federal education officials held focus groups across Colorado in which parents and educators provided input on the state's special-education programs. Several Boulder parents, including Jones, took part in the focus group for Front Range schools. Education-department officials will return in January to conduct a more in-depth look at individual school districts; sometime after that, they'll suggest how the Colorado Department of Education can improve things.

In a letter PAGE sent to special-education parents, its organizers wrote: "Over the past couple of years it has become clear that there is an increasing divergence of opinion regarding the quality, effectiveness and implementation of programs designed to meet the educational needs of our children. In large part, Boulder Valley [School District] seems satisfied while parents do not. To get to the bottom of this 'divergence of opinion,' the group PAGE was formed, to elucidate and clarify exactly what the nature of such a divergence may be."

At the recent meeting between parents and the school district, John Jones asked the special-education administrators to grade themselves on how they work with parents. They all gave themselves As and Bs.

John Jones tried to make a difference at the state level for children with autism by joining the Colorado Department of Education Autism Task Force when it was formed in October 1998. But he says the thirty-member group -- made up of parents, special-education advocates, teachers and autism experts -- has accomplished nothing since it began. The state education department formed the group in response to requests from teachers seeking guidance on how to work with the state's growing number of autistic students. By next summer, the task force plans to publish a manual of guidelines describing the different methods that can be used to educate children with autism. But Jones says the group's progress has been marred by disagreements over educational approaches.

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon