Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Guest Blog at Parents Place

"Every child deserves a proper diagnosis. Every child is worthy of a free and legal education. Every parent is entitled to know their options." This is the proclamation on the welcoming page for the Diagnosing Parents Rights website. The site, authored by writer and activist Sera Rivers, is a full of information and encouragement for parents of kids with disabilities. In addition to information about Sera and her journey as a parent, the site contains useful links and is home to "Parents Place," a blog / discussion board for parents. I was impressed by the creativity and enthusiasm with which the information on this site is presented, so when I was asked to guest blog at Parents Place, I eagerly agreed. The topic is advocacy strategies for parents, and I shared some of the top tips for advocacy based on my experiences in attending IEPs with many parents over the years. Parents - this blog post is for you, and I hope you find it useful and insightful!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Medi-Cal and the Regional Center

Given the current economic climate more and more families are being asked to apply for Medi-Cal by their Regional Centers as an additional funding source. Many people are unfamiliar with the process (as was I) so here's what I learned.

Medi-Cal is basically the California version of Medicare and is both funded by the state and the federal government. The Medi-Cal Home and Community-Based Services Developmental Disability Waiver (“Waiver”) allows Regional Centers to get reimbursed for services provided to Regional Center consumers. It’s a "waiver" because it allows Medi-Cal to only pay for certain services for Regional Center consumers and not other people who qualify for Medi-Cal. There are certain criteria that the client has to meet to qualify but its in the best interest of the Regional Center to qualify consumers because it is an additional funding source.

To qualify for the Waiver services the consumer has to be a Medi-Cal recipient. If the consumer is not a Medi-Cal recipient or is a Medi-Cal recipient with a share of cost because of income of his or her Parents or spouse then institutional deeming under the Waiver may qualify him or her for no share of cost under Medi-Cal. (This means that the family's income and resources are not deemed to the consumer, therefore making the consumer eligible for Medi-Cal if all other criteria are met.)

If the Regional Center determines that the consumer is eligible for Waiver services then they will contact Medi-Cal who will do a screening to determine if the consumer is eligible for Medi-Cal without having to pay a share of cost.

Besides providing additional funding for the Regional Centers, if the consumer is a Medi-Cal recipient then their family's contribution under the Family Cost Participation Program is $0. Typically, under the Family Cost Participation Program, which was implemented in 2005, families of consumers who are between 3 and 17 and live at home are required to pay a portion of the cost for respite, day care and camping services. If the consumer is a Medi-Cal recipient, however, including under the Waiver, then the family doesn't have to pay for any portion of the services under the Family Cost Participation Program.

If the consumer does not qualify for Medi-Cal under the waiver and you have to contribute to the cost of the services listed above then you need to submit the required paperwork to your Regional Center within 10 days of signing the completed IPP/IFSP or the Regional Center can set the family contribution at the maximum amount (80% of the cost of the service). The family contribution is based on a sliding scale and only families who have a gross annual income that is four times the Federal Poverty Level or more will have to make a family contribution. If you go to there is a Family Cost Participation Calculator which will allow you to figure out what % your family contribution would be.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Two Schools in Two Days

A2Z is often invited to open house events in Southern California to learn about and tour local non public schools. As these opportunities are made available to us, we will post to let you know about schools in your community and how they may be appropriate for your child.

Last week, I had the pleasure of touring two different schools in Los Angeles County: The Pacific Schools & Aviva High School

1. The HELP Group's Pacific Schools

: 15339 Saticoy Street, Van Nuys, California

What makes it unique: The Help Group's Pacific Schools are actually made up of 3 specialized programs: Pacific Ridge, Pacific Harbor and Project Six. In the Pacific Ridge and Pacific Harbor program, which are therapeutic day programs, the class size averages about 10 students with 2 adults. Various services, including family therapy, psychiatric services, counseling, speech and language services and Occupational Therapy are available on site. The Pacific Schools serve elementary, middle and high school aged students.
  • Pacific Ridge is a day program serving children and adolescents with special needs in the areas of emotional, behavioral and neurological challenges.
  • Pacific Harbor is for students who internalize their feelings, such as depression and anxiety, and may display mild behaviors. This program is also appropriate for students with emotional disturbances that require more intensive and comprehensive mental health services.
  • Project Six is a residential treatment center for adolescents with emotional and behavioral challenges.
Is it appropriate for your child? The Pacific Schools may be appropriate for your child if he/she has emotional disabilities, behavioral disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, significant behavioral challenges or internalizing disorders. It provides a safe environment for students who were previously bullied at a typical school due to their differences, and who now show internal or external behaviors.

What I love about this school:
The staff at the Pacific Schools place a strong emphasis on finding individualized incentives that are of interest to its students and using those things to help the student access his/her education. For instance, if your child is interested in playing instruments, sewing or guitar hero, these things would be made available as an incentive. For each program, there were "reward lounges" where students could play games, watch TV or use the computers. The importance of incorporating a child's interests into his/her program was a universal message across all three programs at the Pacific Schools. I believe that it was for this reason that the Pacific Schools had a personal touch where the personalities of the children were very evident.

2. Aviva High School

Where: 7120 Franklin Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90046

What makes it unique:
Aviva High School is one of the few all girl, non public schools in Los Angeles County. Aviva also has a residential treatment program that has 42 students enrolled in the high school. Aviva provides a range of on-site clinical and educational services. Aviva also offers a mandatory 6 week summer school program designed to enrich and broaden the students' reading, writing, and math skills and prepare them to pass the California HIgh School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). Aviva High School has a maximum enrollment of 84 students. The maximum student:teacher ratio in class is 6:1. Over 95% of its students go on to post secondary programs, including universities and junior college.

Is it appropriate for your child?
Aviva High School is appropriate for girls in grades 7 through 12 who need special academic, emotional, or behavioral support to maximize their educational potential. If your daughter requires a dual enrollment program, then Aviva may be the appropriate placement for her.

What I loved about this school
: It was very clear that the staff at Aviva were dedicated not only to its students, but were also dedicated to working on improving the bureaucratic system that can often be an impediment to special education students. The staff at Aviva have forged relationships with individuals in the LAUSD system that are in charge of making important decisions, and are working with them to try to evoke a change in the system. This passion was not only present at the administrative level of Aviva, but was also apparent through the teachers, aides, and even hallway monitors at the school.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Join A2Z tomorrow at the Autism Walk in Pasadena.

Come tomorrow morning to the Rose Bowl to participate in Autism Speaks Walk Now for Autism. Even if you can't participate in the walk, you can come check out the booths at the resource fair where there will be attorneys, service providers, therapists, school representatives and many opportunities to network with the special education community! There are also activities for the kids to participate in as well as food and live entertainment.

Also, don't forget to stop by A2Z's booth to say hello and pick up some goodies.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Conversation with Advocates, Attorneys, and a school district board member

This morning, Elizabeth and I attended a breakfast and tour at Aviva High School, a non-public school here in the LA area. As part of the morning's activities, Aviva had invited Marlene Cantor, LAUSD board member, to be a guest speaker. The audience included advocates and attorneys who represent special needs kids. I can't speak for everyone, but I found Marlene's comments to be very insightful. The conversation focused on issues related to the relationship between parents and school districts. While this is a big, important conversation beyond the scope of an hour-long talk, I appreicated hearing Marlene's thoughts on these issues, which were exactly on point to what we all need to be doing to take steps in the right direction towards collaboration. So, I wanted to briefly summarize in our blog:

1) Bring the focus of the conversation back to the child! Too often we focus on the actions of the other side, how rights have been violated, or (on the part of the district) what has to be done to meet technical compliance. This isn't what it is about. The conversations related to special education programs have to be focused on the kid, not on adult feelings and issues. What Marlene said about this that I found particularly insightful was that we all have to remember to take responsibility for how we engage in these conversations, and we as adults need to focus not on our own feelings or opinions, but on the needs of the child and that child's best interest.

2) Come to the table with compassion and understanding! Parents of kids with disabilities obviously already have a lot to deal with emotionally. As Marlene put it, the last thing they need is to come to the school looking for help and get stuck in some "compliance driven process" rather than being able to focus on helping their child. Teachers and administrators need to remember this, and they need to approach conversations with parents with true compassion for what those parents are experiencing.

3) Relationships are the key! Marlene talked to us about the importance of starting out by building a relationship. This applies to parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and attorneys, to people on both sides of the issue. We all need to work on building relationships when possible, so that we can be collaborative when the situation calls for it, and effective in our advocacy when we need to be more zealous.

Overall, I enjoyed hearing a presentation from a very balanced viewpoint on the issue of special education. I think we can all recognize, no matter what "side" of this we are on, that the community as a whole, including advocates, attorneys and folks on the school district side, could be doing a lot better in terms of collaborating to meet the needs of these students.

These discussions were certainly thought-provoking to all of us there. You can look forward to future blog topics related to the issues of relationships between parents and school districts, as we believe there is a lot to discuss on that subject!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Top Ten Ways to Protect Your Rights and Keep Your Sanity

By the time we meet with Parents they are usually so frustrated with a school district or an administrator that they are ready to cry or pull their hair out (their own or the administrator's). Here are just a few tasty tidbits that can keep you from losing your mind as well as protect your rights along the way.

10) Never sign anything before you have a chance to completely read the document. This goes for assessment plans, IEPs and even settlement agreements. Just because the district, an assistant principal or a teacher tells you something doesn't meant it is written in the document. Read it and then reread and then have someone else read it.

9) When in doubt write it out. Put everything in writing - it can't hurt. There are many rights under the law which are not activated until you document your request in writing or provide the district with written notice. For example, always put in writing a request for assessments, a request for documents, and a notice of your intent to remove your child from a placement. Take notes during IEP meetings (or have someone else do it for you) and during telephone conversations. I like to follow up particularly "interesting" telephone conversations with a letter that documents all the statements made by the other party that are false or outside the scope of what is allowed under the law (you may want to save this for a particularly noteworthy conversation as the person will be less likely to say anything that "interesting" ever again).

8) You don't want the "best" you want what is "appropriate." Whenever a Parent says "best" at an IEP meeting I wince as it is a perfect opportunity for a district representative to pipe in about providing that child with a basic floor of opportunity. If you keep focused on what is appropriate they won't ever be able to say that you are after the "Cadillac" (although personally I would prefer a more efficient car - but I digress).

7) Don't over rely on technicalities. The law is filled with procedural rights that are meant to protect Parents and children but if you get caught up in the technicalities you could lose focus of the big picture - what your child needs to make educational progress. Unfortunately, a hearing officer or an administrative law judge is probably not going to care that the district didn't provide you with "prior" written notice that your child was no longer going to receive speech services - especially if you can't find anyone who recommends that he still needs speech services.

6) You need to learn to share. Provide the district with copies of all reports that you have done and with information about outside services you are providing. Parents sometimes want to keep information, such as independent evaluations or the fact they are providing services a secret until a hearing. This only makes you look like you have more to hide down the line and provides the district with the perfect defense - "had we known we would have paid for it/implemented it/considered it" (or the more likely "we would have provided you with notice we weren't going to pay for it/ implement it/ consider it").

5) Keep and organize all your documents. While you can always request records from the school district it is much easier if you have kept your own set of records if you need a document immediately or if you need to provide your documents to an advocate or an attorney. Also if there is going to be a "smoking gun" (and there usually isn't) it will be that the district has a "different" version of a document at a later date and your original document will help clear up any confusion. Also don't write on the documents - they may need to be used later as evidence and clean documents are better than ones where Parents have scribbled out words or taken notes all over.

4) Kill them with kindness. This could be a hard pill to swallow especially to Parents who have had a hard time with a particular administrator in the past but just because you are having a disagreement over services does not mean that you should be rude or get angry with someone as it usually won't serve any purpose - other than bringing a meeting to a screeching halt or making Parents look vindictive if they file for due process later. I've found that you can get a lot more information out of people if you are polite rather than calling them a liar or throwing papers in their face. Also you will come across as a much more credible witness to a hearing office or administrative law judge if you don't have a history of battering district employees.

3) Be the squeaky wheel. You can't assume the district will do what's right, fair, appropriate or even legal. While you should be courteous that doesn't mean you should lay down and let them roll over you. If you want an independent evaluation- ask for it. If your student isn't making progress - request an IEP. A school is much more likely to address your concerns if you let them know what they are on a regular basis rather than waiting until your child's annual IEP to ask questions.

2) Learn the lingo. An IEP can be all about whether your student needs an SDC to address his SLD because RTI was unsuccessful based on his PLOP and if any other DIS services are needed for FAPE. If you have no idea what any of these acronyms mean you are going to quickly get lost at an IEP meeting. While you can certainly ask a district representative to explain them to you (although in my experience they hardly ever know what DIS actually stands for) you will have an easier time of it if you familiarize yourself with the acronyms and any other vocabulary related to your child's disability beforehand.

1) If you need help - ask for it. This can all be overwhelming and technical to a Parent who hasn't been through the process before and there are advocates and attorneys who can help you navigate through it. If you can't afford an attorney or advocate there are organizations that will work with parents at little to no cost and with a little research you should be able to find some in your area. Also consider joining a parent support group as there will be parents there who have been through the process and likely willing to give you some advice or even come with you to an IEP meeting.

Friday, April 17, 2009

What About Methodology?

Methodology is a hot topic in cases, IEP meetings and discussions all across the country. With a plethora of programs available, emphasis on research, and an influx of stimulus package money intended to be used for programs and curriculum, the timing is ripe for more and more methodology disputes to emerge. We see these issues come up everyday, in situations ranging from parents who initially come to us because they want a specific methodology to due process cases involving school districts pretermining methodology. Mandy and I have given two presentations specifically on this topic recently.

Parents think of methodology in terms of programs and curriculum choices. Examples of particular "methodologies" are Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) or Discrete Trial Training (DTT) for students with autism, Lindamood Bell, Orton-Gillingham or the Wilson method for students with reading deficits. The list could go on and on. With a focus on research based interventions in not only IDEIA but also in No Child Left Behind, there are new programs or "methodologies" emerging all the time.

Here are some thoughts and ideas on these issues:

Methodology disputes arise when the disagreement is in regards to two or more options that could each appropriately meet the child's unique needs. As advocates and attorneys, we can go a long way towards dealing with these disputes simply by learning to anticipate and recognize when a school district is going to claim that the issue is solely related to methodology. School districts are given discretion in these cases, and are generally permitted to choose what methodology to employ, so long as the method chosen provides the student a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Anticipating these disputes and reframing the issue as being focused on FAPE, rather than a choice among programs, from the very beginning, is an excellent advocacy strategy.

Asking questions about the methodology choice can be very useful. The IEP team should be able to discuss what research exists to support the use of a particular program, who is trained to implement the program, and why a program was chosen over other methods. There may be perfectly valid justifications for a school district's choice, but parents need to understand that information in order to meaningfully participate in the IEP process.

Even though school districts have discretion in choices of methodology, that does not mean that procedural requirements under the law don't apply! School districts are not permitted to predetermine methodology for a particular student before an IEP discussion about the student's unique needs. They are also not permitted to have a blanket policy to refuse specific methodologies or programs.

Finally, remember that everyone needs to keep an open mind in these cases. Often both parents and school districts have very strong opinions about what will or won't work for a particular child. School districts could prevent a lot of these cases from being litigated if they would simply listen with an open mind to what parents and their experts are saying about the program and the child's unique needs. Parents should also keep an open mind about possible programs and about how those programs may possibly benefit their child. Not only might this result in preventing the dispute from ever arising, but it will also go a long way to helping the parents present their case down the line if in fact it results in litigation.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Welcome to A2Z's New Blog!

Today, A2Z is entering the world of blogging, and we're very excited about it! We all are looking forward to posting our thoughts, ideas, frustrations and stories from the trenches of working in the special education law field. A2Z Educational Advocates is a team of attorneys and advocates in southern California, and we represent parents of students with disabilities who need assistance obtaining appropriate placements, services and supports under the I.D.E.I.A. and related laws. We'll be blogging about our experiences and sharing thoughts and ideas with all of you out there who are interested enough to follow us!

What this blog is: This blog is intended as a place for us to share general information about special education laws, both the federal law and California specific. We'll be posting information that we hope is useful to special education advocates and parents. We hope to also post the occasional heartwarming or even amusing story, in order to share our postive experiences and encourage others out there involved in this field.

What this blog isn't: This blog is not intended as, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you need advice in this area, you should know that in special education cases, each situation is extremely fact specific, and while you can research your rights and the school district's responsibilities under the law, it's advisable to seek out an attorney for a consultation if you have specific needs or issues.

Well, that's all for the introduction. We really hope you all will enjoy the blog, and not only find it useful and comprehensive, but also find encouragement from our stories and ideas!