- Sponsorship -

Special education: fulfilling the promise of education for all

Editor’s note: ‘How Schools Work’ is a column explaining the day-to-day workings of public schools. Our writer is Carol Lautenbach, a veteran educator and School News Network contributor.

All districts — In 2016, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, the district I was part of for three decades, began a journey to reinvent how its schools worked. Through a process we called “Designed for Success,” we tried to put aside any assumption we had about what school should be. We really took the time to listen to what our families, students, staff and community thought about school. 

A transformative part of this process was a series of home visits we made to families who were representative of the district. So many were willing to welcome us into their homes to talk about what mattered most to them — their children. 

I remember all of the three-hour evening visits like it was yesterday. I can see the living rooms, the toys and books, the family photos, the snacks and even the meals that our families provided to us, their guests. A lot of what I thought I knew about our families was simply false; new ideas were born, given the stories and experiences the families shared around their kitchen table, as we sat in their living room or played on the floor with our students’ little siblings. 

In one of these memorable visits, the family included one young child, Rebeca, who received special education services. She had a condition that required assistance in reading printed text. Her mom teared up as she described the way she felt about this; her daughter, she said, had everything she needed to succeed. No one judged her for her difference. Students and teachers were helpful and kind. Her daughter had a future, she said, because of the school’s resources and care.

Needless to say, the family’s guests teared up, too. 

I am very grateful for so many teachers who have helped me.’

— Rebeca Lopez-Vizcarra, Godfrey-Lee senior

It’s a Journey 

Maybe you are like this family, just embarking on a new journey with your child. You may feel excited, worried or something in between. When I had a question about special education when I was in the district, I knew who to ask — my friend and colleague Jessica Crampton. She was the director of student services then, and she is now assistant superintendent. So, we got together and I asked her some questions that I thought families might have.

What will school be like now that I know my child qualifies for services? Except in cases of more complex and severe disability, the biggest change is that your child will now have access to individualized support through an IEP (Individualized Education Program) or other special education plans like a 504 plan. An IEP details what a student needs, what their goals for learning are and what specific services will be provided to help the student reach those goals. 

Because special education is based on the least restrictive environment, much of your child’s day will remain the same — the same teachers, same friends, same classes. “Least restrictive” means that your child will be in general education classes and activities as much as possible while still meeting any unique needs through specialized services, Crampton told me. 

New specialists may become part of your child’s experience, too, to help them achieve targeted goals. Your child has the right to participate in all aspects of FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education). So all parts of school, from recess, to music class, to learning grade-level content will be part of their school day as needs allow. 

FAPE is a powerful legal right. Services that children need must be supplied through an individual school or in a regional program at no cost to families. 

What do I have to do as a parent? “The most important thing a parent can do is be an advocate for your child,” Crampton said. “You will be given lots of paperwork when your child enters special education. This is important, but most important is being sure your child’s needs are being met.” 

She recommended resources such as this Special Education Parent Handbook for learning more about the paperwork, forms and acronyms that you might encounter.

How do I know for sure that this is the best way to go? It’s important to remember that beginning a special education program is a process, Crampton said. If you are concerned about your child, talk to someone in the district. Start a conversation about what can be tried before any formal evaluation is initiated. If you ask that your child be tested, the district has 10 days to respond to your request and 30 days to complete testing, if needed. If testing is not conclusive, other approaches like more time to learn content and shortened assignments can be tried for 6-8 weeks. 

If testing does reveal a disability, then remember that “your child will now have access to a team of highly-trained individuals to create a plan in the best interests of your child,” Crampton explained. “They have the data, experience, best practices, knowledge of the legal obligations, and a network of county support.”

Do I have a choice, or does my child have to have services? Parents or guardians can decline special education testing, services, and programs that the team recommends, at any time. Crampton offered this reminder: “We strive to collaborate with families to come up with a plan that everyone agrees on.”

‘The most important thing a parent can do is to be an advocate for your child.’

— Jessica Crampton, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools assistant superintendent

Is it forever if I do decide to move forward? No. Special education lasts until it is not needed. Crampton also said it’s important to remember that “special education support evolves and changes as the child learns and grows. The goal for all students is to participate and make progress in general education with support when needed and without when no longer needed.” 

What’s the best thing about being a student who gets special ed services? You get a team of your own! It includes an individualized program from teachers with a limited caseload who have specialized skills and knowledge. These educators develop deep and caring relationships with students and families over multiple years. They also meet regularly to think together with you and others about the best support for meeting your child’s goals.  

What Do You Want to Know about Schools? 
School News Network values and desires your input. What do you wonder about how schools work? What questions do you have about the world of education? I’ll review your ideas and hope to address many of them in a future column. Please email me at carollautenbach@snnkent.org

The Rest of the Story

I hope that my friend Jessica’s reassurances help you feel a bit like the mom I met on a home visit — supported, listened to and confident. 

Oh, and there’s a little more to that story. Our home-visit host shared with us that she has a relative with the same condition her daughter has. That relative grew up and lives in another country where services either were not available nor required. Her life has been constrained by her disability, she said. 

In contrast, the services our host’s child was eligible for were required. It is, in fact, an obligation of a public school to provide the range of services that any student needs. Before the mid-70’s, it wasn’t!

Senior Rebeca Lopez-Vizcarra will study public relations at GVSU next year

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, later renamed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), are milestones in the United States’ journey to guaranteed civil rights in education. 

Jaime Bellant, the director of student services in Godfrey-Lee, let me know that Rebeca, the student whose family we met in their home, is now a senior. She has been a member of the band since sixth grade and was just inducted into the National Honor Society. She works in her family’s restaurant and is a member of the yearbook club.

Rebeca has high praise for her experience in Godfrey-Lee: “Teachers have always been understanding. There were never any problems with my being seated up front, teachers printing materials in a certain font size, or with them providing extra time for me to complete assignments and tests.” 

She continued: “I am so grateful for this school and this community. They have helped to make me feel comfortable. … I am very grateful for so many teachers who have helped me.”

As she looks forward to attending Grand Valley State University, a much bigger school than Godfrey-Lee, Rebeca does wonder what support will look like. But Bellant reminds her that her 504 plan will allow for her to continue to receive services as needed in college.

A supportive family, wonderful educators, and excellent special education services can make all the difference. 

What Can Families Do?

  • Ask: There really is no question that is not worth asking! In addition to learning more from teachers and other professionals about the services your child qualifies for, ask if there is a group of parents of students receiving special education services who can help support you.
  • Do: Attend all IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings and use your own voice to advocate for your child and listen for ways that you can help teachers know your child better so that all are on the same page.
  • Read: Kent ISD has a wealth of resources to help families navigate special education services. Jennifer Gard is the area’s parent liaison; you can reach her by phone at (616) 447-2448.

Read more about special education: 
Newly configured preschool focuses on being inclusive
CORE vocabulary and symbols help youngsters develop language skills
Friendships form through positive links

- Sponsorship -
Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach is a reporter and columnist for School News Network. She has been a writer since second grade when her semi-autobiographical story, "The Magic Pencil," earned her a shiny Kennedy half-dollar in a metro-Detroit contest. For three wonderful decades, Carol served Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in a variety of teaching and administrative roles. In her current work as a consultant and at SNN, she continues to be part of telling the story of the great promise of public education. Carol has also written for The Alan Review, The Rapidian and Midwest Living, and is co-author of the book, “Making Schools Work: Bringing the Science of Learning to Joyful Classroom Practice.” She loves to not cook, and she keeps her bag packed for art, outdoor and writing adventures.


Related Articles

- Sponsorship -

Issues in Education

Making Headlines

- Sponsorship -


Maranda Where You Live WGVU