By Cori Mielke, FACT Oregon Program Coordinator
I recently listened to a webinar that described the impact of the Endrew F. vs Douglas County School District case, which asked the Supreme Court to answer this question: must schools provide a meaningful education to children who experience disability in which children show significant progress and are given substantially equal opportunities as children who do not experience a disability, or can schools provide an education that results in just some improvement? Is a child receiving their Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) if that child is only making minimal progress? The Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in favor of the family, stating that the school district should be providing more than “de minimis” or “a minimal” education.
As I listened to the speakers discuss the ruling, I reflected on Chief Justice John Robert’s court opinion, “When all is said and done, a student offered an education program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly’. . .awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.” After hearing that, I couldn’t help but think about my own personal experience with the education system.
In August of 2012 my partner and I were enrolling our 8-year-old son Aidan in public school for the first time. He didn’t have any previous public school experience and we weren’t sure what to expect. As parents, this was our first introduction to the world of special education. As we walked up to the school, I felt the fear growing inside of me. What if the school couldn’t meet his needs? Would he meet the needs of the school? Would he have friends? Would this be a place he would thrive? What would my role as a parent look like? Would I be a strong advocate? What kinds of services should we expect for our son? We walked in to the room that day not knowing not what would be offered, but with strong feelings about what we’d prefer for our son.
As parents, we argued that our son needed to be placed in second grade instead of third, and in a specialized classroom. We said things like “he isn’t ready” and “he won’t be able to do that.” Members of the education team countered, saying we were asking them to provide too minimal of services. They said things like, “how do you know he won’t be successful if he’s never been given a chance”? Our fear was intense and it all felt so scary. We were asked to trust people that we didn’t know with our son; we were asked to trust in humanity. We decided it was time to take the risk.
At FACT Oregon, we call this the dignity of risk. We wanted to provide Aidan with the same opportunities as our other children, the opportunity to thrive and the opportunity to fail and get back up and try again. Ultimately, we agreed to the third grade general education classroom, but that did not change the fact that we were terrified. My mama heart hurt when he became frustrated, or the school called to say he was doing fine now, but had some challenging moments earlier in the day.
I would be lying if I said the first weeks and months were easy or that every day is easy now. That just isn’t the case, and in fact some days are still incredibly challenging. There have been plenty of tears (I am talking about me!) and stressful weeks. Often times I wondered if he was in the right place, and if the expectations and goals we set were too high. Were we empowering our son, or were we setting him up to fail?
Now Aidan is in eighth grade and this year he led his very first Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting using his one-page profile. I wonder if we/he would be here if we had gotten our way back at that first school meeting? He is thriving at school and having the same experiences as his peers. He doesn’t always enjoy school and still becomes frustrated at times, but so does his 16-year-old brother who does not experience disability (as well as every other teenager I know). Isn’t this what life is about? Growing, learning, and experiencing all that it has to offer, the bad and the good! We can’t enjoy the sweet without a little sour in our life. My partner always says, “We know happiness because we also know sadness. To have one, we must have the other.” Today, Aidan is more empowered than I have ever seen and continues to make progress toward his own lofty goals.
As I reflect on the years since that first meeting and absorb the full implications of the Supreme Court ruling, it is hard not to think about our role as parents in setting high expectations. The Endrew F.decision instructs school districts to set high expectations for learning, for children who are integrated to general education classes and those that are not. Chief Justice Roberts closes his opinion by saying, “If that is not a reasonable prospect for a child, his IEP need not aim for grade-level advancement. But his educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but everychild should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.” Every. Child.
Parents: in this world, at this time, it is more important than ever to dream big dreams, set a vision for the future, and encourage your team to challenge your child when planning their education. A meaningful education is something we are all entitled to. When we set high expectations, take risks, and create robust meaningful goals, we build stronger communities. The proof is in the pictures.