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We imagine that many readers of our California special education blog at Steven A. Greenburg in Santa Cruz had one or more teachers that they remember with fondness and deep gratitude. A former student’s feelings of thankfulness for quality teaching often endure for decades and even a lifetime.

It is likely that Erin Castillo will be regarded that way in future years by students whose lives she is positively affecting right now. It seems altogether appropriate to spotlight such a quality instructor in the near wake of last week’s national Teacher Appreciation Week.

You might have heard of Castillo. Although she doesn’t seem the type to self-endorse, she now commands quite a worldwide following among other teachers who have been inspired by her methods.

Those centrally include efforts to engage both special education and general education high school students in her Fremont classroom. A recent national article spotlights a so-called “mental health checklist” developed by Castillo that tracks kids’ moods and encourages them to come forward when they need to connect with others.

CBS News notes that the checklist “went viral” globally when Castillo posted it online. Teachers internationally now use it in their classrooms as a vital tool for identifying challenged students who can benefit from some timely adult input.

Compassionate, involved and truly knowledgeable educators are critically important catalysts promoting special education opportunities for children across California and elsewhere. They are true assets to their profession.

Parents of children involved with special ed programs sometimes have questions or concerns regarding policies, requirements, accessibility and related matters. They can contact a proven law office that focuses exclusively on special education and education law matters for answers and, when necessary, strong legal representation.

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San Diego State Assistant Professor Jessica Suhrheinrich refers to a “misconception” she views as being apparent in the realm of special education. Namely, that is the widely held view that a skilled teacher can forge optimal classroom outcomes after receiving and subsequently applying “some initial training.”

That training is both coveted and valuable, but the “initial” tag denotes its limitations. Gifted teachers often do take circumscribed new learning and apply it in wondrous ways for their students, but newly imparted knowledge without additional and ongoing support will logically have only marginal utility.

Suhrheinrich has always wanted something more for California’s special ed teachers that supplements initial training with continuing coaching, the availability of relevant resources and strong ongoing leadership support. She stresses that it takes a complementary package of tools to continuously buoy and enhance special education outcomes for an already energized and top-quality educator.

The tools have now arrived.

A gift package earmarked specifically for Suhrheinrich’s stated prerogatives was recently delivered to her in the form of a $5.5. million grant award from the California Department of Education. An article discussing the grant notes its intent to “support the scale-up of evidence-based practices for students with autism.”

What that means is this: Suhrheinrich will now be the director of research and analysis for a team of professionals probing research-driven ways to improve autism education across the state. Teachers who have in the past received the above-cited initial training will now see it supplemented by a broad-based effort aimed at constantly improving mentoring/coaching and finetuning proven tools and processes to perform consistently better.

Suhrheinrich touts what she says will be a new learning-and-apply process in California special education. She calls it a “train the trainer” model and vows that the money allotted to it by the state grant will be “a huge game changer.”

Suhrheinrich’s special ed pedigree is proven, and her goals and enthusiasm infectious. Legions of supporters across California are understandably hoping that she and her team of educational researchers and professionals help engineer enhanced special education outcomes in a broad way.

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State and federal laws mandate that American children with learning and other disabilities have a right to a meaningful education. That is as it should be, of course, and pro-child/pro-parent special education attorneys often deem it their privileged life’s work to fully promote that crucially important interest.

Centrally important in the special education sphere in California and nationally is the so-called Individualized Education Plan that is developed between parents and relevant officials. An IEP is an action plan that sets forth the type and parameters of services and related accommodations that a student needs in a given case.

The IEP entails a complex process with a number of detailed procedures and deadlines. Sometimes parents and school authorities disagree over the details. And in some instances, too, officials refuse to even entertain the idea of an IEP, insisting that a child is not eligible for special education.

When any such outcome occurs, parents can request a due process hearing, which can obviously be critically important to a child’s future.

We provide on a relevant page of the special education law firm of Steven A. Greenburg fundamental information concerning IEP due process hearings that we believe many parents might want to closely peruse. It is presented from the perspective of mistakes that school authorities sometimes make that spur escalated formal proceedings. If you are a concerned parent of a child with disabilities and/or special needs, you might reasonably want to insist on the following (and have proven legal counsel beside you):

  • Clear and response explanations from officials concerning rules, procedures and the rationale for any material decisions
  • Your full inclusion and involvement on all IEP matters (you are parents; no one is more concerned with your child’s welfare than you)
  • Transparency and a fully realized plan concerning any transition plan
  • An unhurried atmosphere fully conducive to a complete airing of all issues, with an opportunity for future contacts/meetings that fully promote that key interest

As loving parents, you know that the contacts you have with school officials concerning special education eligibility and opportunities go to the heart of your child’s best interests. A proven and empathetic special education attorney can help you fully promote them.

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Readers of our Santa Cruz special education blog at Steven A. Greenburg might reasonably believe that California officials can instantly shut down a nonpublic school when it has unquestionably compromised a child’s safety or health.

As sensible as it sounds, though, it is not the prerogative presently of state authorities.

AB 1172 seeks to change that.

That brief combination of letters and numbers is the shorthand description for legislation recently introduced in the California State Assembly. AB 1172 was drafted by Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D-Discovery Bay) and sponsored by California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

Those advocates and a legion of others demand a progressively tighter scrutiny over nonpublic schools. A recent Sacramento Bee article loosely defines those institutions as “private, nonreligious schools that contract with local school districts or the county office of education to serve students with special needs.”

The goings-on at one such school heavily triggered the momentum that now marks AB 1172. A young boy with autism died some months back when he was left in a face-down restraint for nearly two hours by staff members at the Sacramento-area El Dorado Hills School. Authorities quickly revoked the school’s operating credentials. It is now closed.

If AB 1172 is enacted as law, it will mandate a number of new rules and policies. State authorities will no longer have to endure procedural delays prior to taking strong actions in instances where school officials have clearly endangered a student’s health or safety. The proposed bill gives them the power to immediately suspend or revoke a school’s license. AB 1172 also places a mandate on every nonpublic school to have a licensed behavioral analyst onsite during school hours.

We will keep readers updated on any material developments concerning AB 1172 as it moves through the legislative process.

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As they say, “the proof is in the pudding.”

At one time (and tragically so), it was widely believed that children with special learning needs of any type were best served by being isolated from other students and generally kept apart from the wider learning community.

Of course, such thinking has been progressively debunked over many years, with dangerously outmoded perceptions being retired and replaced by far wiser thinking concerning student diversity and learning methods.

Candidly, that hasn’t always been a smooth and unchallenged process, and constant vigilance and enforcement is needed to ensure fairness and logic in the learning environment.

A recent article in the publication Education Week spotlights one California public school that is unquestionably getting it right when it comes to the fostering of an inclusive and nurturing atmosphere for student learning. When Thrive Public Schools first opened its doors in San Diego in 2014, it purposefully sought to create a maximally diverse demographic of student learners. With that goal, Thrive reportedly increased its percentage of students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) from about 4 percent of its total population to a current 20%.

And they are, well, thriving. In fact, empirical data conclusively establishes that students with a reported “broad band of unique neurological profiles” are doing exceptionally well at school, largely owing to the personalized learning they receive in the midst of – and not separate from – other children. They are unquestionably benefiting from inclusivity and a general education environment that simultaneously serves all students, with the same being true for students not having recognized special needs.

Thrive and schools like it point the way forward for special education. Inclusion, diversity and personalized learning are clearly key components that promote performance and maximum potential.

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Do you ever wonder as a California parent if your child is being shortchanged by curtailed educational prospects? Do you perhaps think that learning opportunities routinely afforded others are not as readily available to your son or daughter owing to a disability or singular challenge?

Rest assured, no law sanctions such an outcome for California students participating in special education programs. In fact, bedrock protections have long existed to safeguard every child’s legal entitlements. We expressly note in a recent blog post at the proven education law firm of Steven A. Greenburg in Santa Cruz a key point that should make parents of children with special needs feel empowered.

That is this: “Special education is not a privilege for those who need it; rather, it is a legal right conferred through strong federal and state laws.”

One such law is the seminal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which was the first disability rights provision ever enacted in the United States. We spotlight that legislation’s Section 504 on our website, noting especially its school-linked ban against discrimination focused on children with learning disabilities and their open access to full educational opportunities.

That statutory law is supplemented by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA ensures that children eligible for special education programs have all the resources they need to maximize their opportunities.

In addition to these important federal laws, California regulators have drafted legislation over the years that further addresses special education and its vital role in promoting equal opportunities for all students.

There is likely no more edifying work for a lawyer than the role that can be played as an advocate for families logically seeking the best special education services and outcomes for their child.

Every child has an ethical and legal right to a quality education.

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Can you still hear the applause?

Ironically, it links to an utterance from California’s top elected official spotlighting deficient state performance in one critically important area.

That is education spending, which Gov. Gavin Newsom prominently addressed last month is his State of the State address.

What Newsom openly admitted was that, despite improved funding efforts in recent years, state taxpayers need to step up even further to ensure that California’s educational system – including, importantly, its special education programs – is viable and robust in the future.

Because, arguably, it isn’t right now.

In fact, Newsom told a statewide audience that California’s educational budget is flatly “not enough” to fulfill its mission. “We’re still 41st in the nation, in per-pupil spending,” he said.

That admission was welcomed – not lamented – by many education advocates and commentators as a necessary step toward an increased focus and improvement. Underscoring the educational funding gap and the vital need to fix it was “really significant,” noted one school lobbyist.

Concededly, California’s current spending can sound initially impressive. Reportedly, educational outlays will be more than $80 billion next year, a figure that spells an uptick of more than 40% from a mere seven years ago. In discussing specifics, Newsom especially stresses the $576 million he says will be applied to special education programs next year.

More tinkering on the numbers is yet required en route to a confirmed budget. Legislators intend to work on that this spring.

It is imperative that they do so from the perspective of families across California who justifiably rely upon the state’s special education programs to deliver quality and meaningfully tailored offerings. Special education is not a privilege for those who need it; it is a legal right long conferred through strong federal and state laws.

Questions or concerns regarding any aspect of special education can be directed to an attorney who practices exclusively and with passion in this important legal sphere.

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Every parent wants to know that their child is safe at school. They want to feel like there are teachers, administrators and other staff members looking out for their children and working to ensure the environment is free from dangerous conditions and people.

Sadly, there are children who get hurt at school; they suffer physical or emotional injuries at the hands of other students, teachers and others. When these troubling incidents occur, parents often wonder if something could have been done to keep their child safe. One increasingly common suggestion is to place cameras inside classrooms.

The case for cameras

Those who are in favor of putting cameras in classrooms say that doing so can provide an extra measure of protection, not just for students but also for teachers and administrators.

Allowing cameras in the classroom could provide indisputable evidence if an altercation occurs, and knowing that they are on camera could prevent parties from engaging in bad behaviors.

Supporters say that even if such a measure would not be feasible in every classroom, it could be beneficial for those classrooms that have especially vulnerable students, like special education classrooms

The case against cameras

Not everyone agrees that having cameras in classrooms is wise. Arguments against this solution range from violating the privacy of people in those rooms to creating an uneasy environment. When people know they are being recorded, they could be under stress to act a certain way, which can take the focus off learning.

Further, some people would rather spend the financial and personnel resources it would take to install and monitor the cameras elsewhere.

There are also concerns when it comes to storing data collected on cameras, deciding who will have access to it and assessing how to use recorded footage. Would recordings only be to monitor safety, or could schools use them to assess teacher performances and compliance with special education requirements?

What do you think about having cameras in classrooms? Would they be reassuring to you as a parent, or might they cause unnecessary surveillance and disruption?

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Assistance for special education students has never been more prevalent in the California education system. And awareness for the needs of these students has never been greater. That said, there is still a long way to go in terms of getting critical services and academic resources to the students that deserve them.

Unfortunately, it may not be getting any easier. According to a recent report, enrollment for special education students has surged over the last 10 years in California. Enrollment for students with autism alone have spiked 18 percent in the last two years. Though there is still some debate over why this is happening, it could have a dramatic effect on students.

Funding challenges

School already struggle to fund adequate special education services. Often, they fall short and students wind up without the assistance or tools they are supposed to receive. This can stem from lacking contributions from state and federal government.

Add in more students, and the problem doesn't get any better. 

Increased competition 

Finding a school that has the tools and approach to effectively teach students with certain special needs can be difficult. And once they find a school like this, unfortunately, they could face a lot of competition. Some families move across the state so their child can attend. 

This could add stress to an already difficult situation, especially as parents work to navigate eligibility requirements and any additional expenses they may incur.

Need for increased oversight

In situations where a child is one of only a few students that require certain services, it can be easy for teachers to monitor their progress. Parents can have an easier time communicating with the school about what a child is or is not getting. 

However, when there are more students in need of more special education services -- all of which should be individualized and monitored -- it can be easier for something or someone to slip through the cracks.

With special education enrollment increasing across California, delivering appropriate services should be a top priority for districts. Unfortunately, there will be failings and obstacles that make this difficult, which is why parental involvement and action will be as crucial as ever.

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Students across California are returning to school after the winter break, whether they feel ready or not. Unfortunately, some students may be dreading this return, particularly if they had a difficult first half of the year.

If your child is among those who struggled, then there are ways you can help them improve their experience in the second half of the year.

Acting fast (but not too fast)

One of the ways parents can help their child is to get (or stay) involved. This could mean talking to the teachers, seeking out tutors or requesting additional aid resources. Parents would be wise to do this fairly quickly after their child returns to school.

However, make sure to give teachers and administrators some time to adjust back to school as well. Consider waiting a couple days -- or maybe a couple weeks -- before holding any meetings or conferences.

Exploring additional resources

If a child has an Individualized Education Program or 504 plan, now can be a good time to make any necessary adjustments to the plan. And rather than making a complete overhaul of the plan, consider focusing on a couple especially concerns areas and tackling those.

As this Understood.org article notes, though, don't just focus on what areas need work. Make a note of solutions that are working and make sure those are in place for the remainder of the year.

Reassessing expectations

If you, your child or your teacher are disappointed but the child's performance is in line with his or her capabilities, it may be wise to reassess the expectations. Improvement and growth doesn't happen overnight; remind yourself and others that it can take time to see positive changes.

The second part of the school year presents new challenges and opportunities for students. By being involved in his or her academic experience, you can help set your child up for success. And if there are parties or problems standing in the way of that success, you can play a pivotal role in addressing those by seeking legal guidance to protect your child's rights.

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