Long has the cyclical nature of our existence been celebrated in song and story. We know that 529,600 minutes is but one measure of a year and that the seasons “turn, turn turn.” Success or even life itself can depend on recognizing and understanding the importance of cycles. Surfers, fisherman, and cliff divers depend on their knowledge of the tides and waves. Farmers predict changes of season and weather to schedule when to plant and harvest their crops. Astrologists and astronauts study the movement of the planets and stars to determine their missions and fortunes. And, woe be to the city driver that doesn’t know when rush hour begins.
While the special education process may at time feel like and winding road of ugly surprises and endless delays, there are several predictable cycles. Understanding of these cycles and the opportunities and dangers that can be found in them can dramatically improve the success of your journey through that system. A subtle and often dangerously misunderstood art is knowing when certain strategies have the best likelihood of success, and how to adapt your strategies based on where you are in these cycles. Fortunately, many of the cycles and patterns of the special education system are coded in the very statutes that created the system, and others in the understanding of basic human nature.
Everything has a beginning and an end, and special education is no different. It begins with a realization. “Child Find” is the name given the obligation of schools to recognize signs a student may have a learning disorder and conduct further inquiry to determine whether a condition exists that would make the student eligible for services. Nonetheless, in probably 90% of the cases, I see the original referral comes not from the school, but from the parents. However, a review of records invariably reveals a history of comments and observations by school staff of those very same signs and symptoms. When a child is found eligible for special education services due to parent requested assessments, reviewing the records to determine whether a “Child Find” violation occurred can provide leverage to maximize services and supports. The end of the special education journey comes in one of two ways, age or achievement. When a student turns 22 they “age out” of special education and the responsibility for their support shifts from the education system to the social services system (In California, that means from the school district to the regional centers). In the alternative, a student’s eligibility ceases when they receive a “regular diploma.” Many parents sadly recognize too late that the district used their dream of their special needs child graduating to manipulate them into maintaining their child on a diploma track, even though they would need significant additional time (years) to successfully complete the required high school curriculum. Many others find the district has pushed academics and ignored necessary training for success in secondary education, career, or independent living (Yes, the law requires schools provide education to support each of those goals, even if your school ignores it). The result is a growing population of students being exited from the special education system without any hope of success in secondary education, employment, or even living independently. These students get dumped on an already overburdened social services system and remain largely dependent on their parents who find themselves struggling with the debilitating worry of who will be there for their “child” when they are gone.
Once in the system, there are cycles within cycles and critical transition points. Once eligibility is found, schools must re-assess the student in all recognized areas of need at least every three years (the Triennial Cycle). But, few schools will tell you that a parent has a right to request assessments annually. Schools must hold an annual IEP meeting no later than one year from the last “annual” IEP. The designation of “annual” means there must be a report on all present levels of achievement in classes and on goals. Missing or holding an annual IEP late can be another potential violation. You may be saying, “why potential”, isn’t it either a violation or not? But, judges routinely operate on a “no harm, no foul” policy. Unless you can show the violation resulted in denying, delaying, or damaging access to education or parental participation, they will ignore even the clearest violations. Within the annual and triennial cycle, you also find the educational year cycle (including the school year, extended school years, and all breaks and vacations). Vacation or breaks over five days may not count in some deadlines, and some deadlines change completely as you approach the end of the school year. You may know that a school has fifteen days after a parental request for assessments to present a completed assessment plan for signature, and 60 days after the returned AP to complete assessments and schedule and hold an IEP meeting. But, do you know what impact different breaks and holidays have on that calculation? When you file due process do you consider when the mediation or hearing will be scheduled and how that date might affect each party? Have you requested an emergency IEP only to have the school delay it until after the beginning of the next school year? All these problems are avoidable and advantages may be obtainable by understanding the cycles and rhythms of the system.
Within those rhythms are critical transition periods, that can also present both challenges and opportunities. Each of the school transitions; pre-school to kindergarten, elementary to middle (or junior high), middle to high school, and high school to post-secondary. Transitions are also triggered by age; at age 3 with the move from an IFSP to an IEP, at 14 (or 16) with transition planning, 18 with the assignment of educational rights, and finally exiting by receiving a regular diploma or aging out. An often overlooked transition opportunity is a move between districts. This can be due to a grade transition (some districts are only K-5 or K-8), or a physical move. IEPs are designed to be “portable” and districts are much more generous with other districts resources. A placement or service can be much easier to get when the IEP team knows they are only on the hook for the cost for a few months. But, once that placement or service is included in a signed IEP the new district must honor it, and you have the benefit of “stay put.” Understanding these cycles, rhythms, and transitions can make a world of difference in executing a successful strategy to secure your child’s educational rights. Factoring these into your planning may help you turn your “circle of strife” back into the circle of life.