Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Letter to NYS Regents Regarding Children With Special Needs by Jennifer L. Fox

I would like you to consider the following scenario: Physical education is a requirement to graduate high school in New York. There are students in this state who are blind, in wheelchairs, are deaf, or may need to use walkers, crutches, or other devices in order to be mobile for whatever reason. These students have a disability that makes a general ed. physical education class impossible. There are then alternative classes made available to these students to satisfy the requirement, which of course makes sense. Now imagine that after years of accommodations and differentiation in physical education we tell them, “But in order to graduate you must complete the 50 yard dash and the 600 yard run/walk from the President’s Physical Fitness Test in order to graduate. Don’t worry, we will provide you extra coaching and extra time in order to complete the tasks, you can try it as many times as you want until you can do it” So we push the wheelchair to the starting line and say “Go, you can do it!! Get up, all that extra coaching should help!!” If this actually ever happened it would be all over the news, not only because it is a ridiculous concept it is also discriminatory.
Just because you cannot see a disability, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Autism, Dyslexia, Speech and language processing disorders, and a whole host of other disabilities EXIST. They are diagnosed by physicians, some require medication and extensive therapy, and all of them affect the way someone processes information, most of the time the way they are able to process language (both written and spoken). Children diagnosed with these disabilities, most often since pre-k, are given differentiated instruction in accordance with their IEP’s since they began school. Classes most often break down curriculum into smaller chunks, simplify language in order to better understand content, use manipulatives, break multistep instructions into smaller pieces to assist comprehension, etc. As a result children learn the content necessary to understand the curriculum. But then, when they get to high school they are expected to take the same regents exams that all general education and honors students take, and to pass them (with only a ridiculously small “safety net”) in order to receive the one credential that will give them a small opportunity to become self-sufficient, wage earning, independent adults, a high school diploma. You are pushing the wheelchair to the starting line and yelling “go”. There is no amount of extra coaching, extra time, or multiple attempts that will ever enable a wheelchair bound student to run a 50 yard dash. Likewise for many, many students with seemingly “invisible” disabilities there is no way they will ever pass a regents exam.
My daughter has high functioning Autism. She is bright, gregarious, curious, and an overall great kid. But she has a disability, one that makes school difficult. One that makes it very hard for her to understand abstract concepts that do not relate to her everyday life. So when we study nonfiction, we look up Youtube movies on Pangea and the layers of the earth instead of just reading about it. We break study guides into one topic per page sheets to make them easier to understand, her teachers quiz content after each topic instead of after an entire unit to make content more attainable, and we simplify the language in the curriculum so that she is better able to understand the content (because after all, are we learning about history or are we learning to understand 5 syllable academic vocabulary which really is unnecessary in order to understand the content?). And she learns, slower than others and in a different way…but she learns.
Right now she is going into 7th grade. Every day I worry about high school, yes high school, and yes, every day. Something that will not even happen for another 2 years. Why? Well, it is simple…Someday her father and I will no longer be here. She has the ability to be independent, go on for some sort of higher education/vocational training, have a job (possibly even a career), earn a wage, be self-sufficient, but none of those things will be possible without a high school diploma. There will be no doors open to her for meaningful employment and in turn she will be dependent on us and when we are gone….??? Aside from her practical future employment I worry about her spirit. Taking the same tests 3 or 4 times over and over to try to pass…is just cruel. How many times does someone have to try their hardest and fail before they are broken? I have seen it in my friend’s children who are in the same situation as my family. I do not want that level of heartbreak, low self-esteem, and hopelessness for my child.
A CDOS credential is not recognized by any employer I know of, and is certainly not recognized in any other state. It is not a diploma, and after all of the effort, struggle, extra time doing homework, studying, the tears, the encouragement, the extra effort (and yes, I know I said effort already) she deserves one. I have considered how to move out of state for a time in order for her to get a diploma, leaving friends and family for the sake of my daughter’s future. I shouldn’t have to do that. According to the New York State Department of Education’s website the graduation rate for students with disabilities in 2015 in New York was 53%. That same year the graduation rate for students with disabilities in New Jersey was 78% according to the New Jersey Department of Education’s website. How is that acceptable to you?
I could go on about how low the cut scores are set so that passing scores in no way show mastery which is ridiculous. I could go on about math exams that are so difficult educators are opposing them, not to mention questions with either no correct answer or multiple correct answers (I can only imagine the anxiety and stress that caused typical/honors students without even mentioning students who already struggle). I could mention the numerous personal stories I have heard about honors students crying during exams… all of these things cause me to pause.
I am imploring you, one size fits all education doesn’t work. There are thousands of students in this state who are being denied the opportunity to thrive as adults because of high school graduation requirements that are out of their reach because of disabilities that EXIST. Five exams should not determine someone’s entire future. Five exams do not show: work ethic, tenacity, perseverance, scholarship, the ability to persist through numerous challenges and come out successful… grade point average shows those things. There needs to be a path to a valid high school diploma that is not dependent on regents exams. My daughter’s father is a decorated police officer…he did not graduate with a regents diploma, many of my high school friends did not graduate with a regents diploma and went on to higher education, advanced degrees, and/or successful careers. Regents diplomas were not always the requirement and many of those who graduated without them have gone one to be very successful adults. Fix this, please. Fix it now… you are failing a generation of students, and it is the most vulnerable that you are failing the most.
Regards,
Jennifer L. Fox M.S.Ed.
Elementary school teacher
Parent of a special needs child
Concerned citizen

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this important and profound letter.

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  2. Please join us on NY Stop Grad HST and Multiple Pathways to a Diploma. We stand with you.

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  3. Thank you Jennifer. You have beautifully articulated all of my concerns. I too have a daughter. She has been diagnosed with auditory processing disorders since primary school. She will be entering high school this year and I am trying so hard to remain calm. My district will do everything in their power to get her to pass those tests. What does that mean? Four years of test prep! I will not have that. Four years of zoning in on her weaknesses and trying to fix them? No. No. I won't have this. My child has so many strengths and gifts;t she needs time to explore them all. I want her to find her passion and interests and build on them to discover a fulfilling life. How will she do this when in their effort to get her a diploma, the school will give her double academic periods to help her prepare for these tests. There will be no room in her schedule for electives and courses that interest her and may inspire her. I do not fault the district. They are doing what they can, working within the constraints that the state puts on them. Next year will be a challenge for both my daughter and me. My daughter needs a small class setting to thrive but all the small classes will be doubled as I said above. She will try some integrated classes this year to avoid this but she learns differently than other children and probably will not get the support she needs in these classes. And the Regent Exams? I do not plan on setting my daughter up for failure. My intent is to have her Opt Out of NYS Regents. They are not required to pass the course or at least they are not supposed to be. Move out of state, private school, online school, home schooled. Are any of these viable options? I don't know. I will keep fighting in the meantime to change the requirements for her and all the children like her that have so much to offer which can not be bubbled in and graded on a NYS Regent Exam.

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  4. This! I have a son who, because he is not testing low enough to be eligible for an EIP, struggles daily in the classroom. He has trouble understanding abstract concepts as well, and becomes frustrated and has intense anxiety because he sees the other kids "getting it" (or at least they are in his mind). I am a special education teacher myself, and see how the requirements have turned these once optimistic, happy young adults into sour, unconfident future members of society. People keep shuffling the blame on the next guy, and nothing ever ends up getting figured out. Even the NYS Education Department is overstaffed, overworked, overwhelmed, and bitter-if you call them, they will tell you the state doesn't hire enough people to assist everyone. They will say, "I am the only one here right now, and we need to wrap up our phone call because I have other people waiting". This is a travesty. If this is what's happening in our state ed department offices, how can we expect them to do the right things by our kids in the schools? It's a sad state of affairs we are in.

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  5. As a middle school teacher in the Bronx, I often have this conversation with other educators who don't get it. Sadly, I here, "... there are no special considerations given in the real world!"

    You have written a piece that explains the unfair problem well, thank you. The Regents in HS and NYS exams in 3rd - 8th grade, do not/can not determine a child's value or employability in the future.

    I enjoy teaching but my heart aches to know that 50% of the students I teach may not graduate.

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