How to advocate for your special-needs child in CPS

Written by: Carrie Shonk

As Chicago parents, we have many, many questions about our children’s education.
These questions start before our little ones are even born: Should I send my child to CPS, look at private schools, or move to the suburbs? What is my local school? Is it “good”?
Parents of diverse learners face many more questions as their children grow: How will my child get her needs met once she is in school? Is CPS up to the challenge? How do I start the process of enlisting school support? 
More questions arise once your child is in school. You may start to hear teacher concerns or have your own concerns about reading, behavioral difficulties, attention, etc. Some of these questions may be: Can my child’s needs be met in her current classroom? Will he have to leave his friends and teacher? Will she be labeled or seen as “different”? Will he qualify for special-education support? 
In my years as a school social worker and a diverse-learner clinical staff member, I have seen how daunting these questions can be for parents. Here are some key points to help you through the process of engaging support for your diverse learner:
IEP (Individual Education Plans) and 504 plans are different. An IEP is a plan based upon an educational diagnosis that is determined due to a school-based educational need. A 504 is a medical plan based upon a student’s medical diagnosis. An IEP carries with it support from a special education teacher or speech pathologist; a 504 does not.
But they do look a lot alike. Students on a 504 can receive educational accommodations and modifications, such as extended time on tests. Conversely, students can have medical accommodations provided through an IEP. 
CPS schools are not inherently “bad” places for special education. As in suburban schools, CPS schools have uninspired, bitter teachers who are waiting to retire, and they also have knowledgeable, passionate, miracle-worker teachers who make significant gains with diverse learners. Teachers and members of clinical staff do what they do for the kids.
Don’t be afraid to raise your voice. I am a social worker, not a speech therapist or school psychologist. After more than a decade on the job, I am not ashamed to say that I do not fully understand every clinical assessment of every child. As clinicians present their evaluations, please feel free to stop us to ask questions. If you disagree with our findings, let us know. Determining eligibility for support is a collaborative process. We want to make sure that we have all of the facts before making this important decision. 
Know where to park your squeaky wheel. Are you having an issue with your child’s special education placement? Were you told that your child would require a paraprofessional, yet this position has not been approved at your school? Ask school staff (typically the school counselor) for the name of the person who is in charge of these decisions. If that person does not call you back, contact their supervisor. Some overarching decisions do not come from your local school. You will increase your odds of getting action when you reach out to those in charge rather than rely upon school staff. Parents wield much more power than they know.
Your child is your child, not anyone else’s. If you tell other parents, family members, neighbors, etc., about your child and her needs, you will find that everyone has a story about a diverse learner and the school support that the child has or has not received. Please know that this experience is not your experience or that of your child. Try to start from a place of trust, believing that your child’s school support team will do all that they can for your child. 
Please remember that you are not in this alone. You are your child’s life-long advocate, but you are also a member of his or her school support team. Your questions, thoughts, feelings and hopes for your child are important for the school team to know and take into account.
Carrie Shonk has served students and their families for eight years within the Chicago Public Schools and in the Chicagoland area for more than 10 years as a school social worker. She provides advocacy and support to parents, assists teachers with the implementation of interventions within the classroom, and is passionate about helping students access their innate strengths in order to achieve their goals.

Learn more about advocating for your child at the March 26 Developmental Differences Resource Fair, plus RSVP now for Carrie Shonk's next IEP workshop on May 25.

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Posted on April 14, 2016 at 12:40 PM