Who are students with disabilities?

Students with disabilities are often lumped into one monolithic category, but nearly 20 percent of DC students are students with disabilities and their needs are not a monolith. In fact, they are diverse in their dreams and academic needs. Meet three families who are sharing their unique perspectives on navigating DC schools for their children.

LaJoy Johnson-Law is a DC parent of a middle school student who attends E.L. Haynes PCS

E.L. Haynes has been outstanding and supportive of our transition to middle school and E.L. Haynes. I’ve seen in-depth collaboration between my daughter’s E.L. Haynes’ team and her elementary school team. A team member of her elementary school team attended her IEP meeting before we even started at E.L. Haynes, which is the in-depth collaboration we need as students transition between schools. We also had the opportunity to go to the school before the year started so my daughter could be more comfortable at her new school, meet with her teachers, and generally get acclimated. So before day one, she knew what school was going to be like and what she was going to do.

I initially wanted her in an inclusive classroom because she learns better with her non-disabled peers and with a paraprofessional for one-on-one support. But she was struggling in the inclusive classroom and I knew we needed to adjust and build up to that. Our goal is that she moves to an inclusive classroom by the end of this year or next year. While it’s hard to be in a self-contained classroom, I appreciate that the E.L. Haynes’ team has both candor and compassion for my child. They work with us and there is constant and consistent communication. 

Academically, my daughter is doing well in reading, and often uses audio support. Math is more of a struggle, but we focus on using manipulatives and are working to advance her division and multiplication skills. I’m excited for her to come into her own and to make new friends, engage in extracurriculars, and be an advocate. I push her to be her best and I advocate for her so that she knows she is important to the community and the disability community. She deserves to be included and celebrated and have the same opportunities as any other child. My daughter is a miracle baby: She was born at 23 weeks and has chronic lung disease and epilepsy, and multiple learning disabilities.

I’ve had a great experience with my daughter in school, but that is the exception. It should be the experience of every child with a disability and every child in this city. Children with disabilities are just like every other child but may have different emotional, academic, or mental-health needs. But that doesn’t mean they should be treated differently. We need to nurture our children and help students be a part of our communities. Lastly, we all must be more compassionate and empathetic across all of our communities. This will help ensure happy, healthy, safe, and holistic children across the city.

Serena Hayes is a DC parent of two students who attend DC charter schools 

I’m the parent of a middle school student and an elementary school student who both have disabilities, one with dyslexia and dysgraphia; and one with ADHD, visual and spatial deficits, and dysgraphia. My experience with school is that I am the primary person responsible for my children’s education—not the schools, not teachers—me.

My eldest started having discipline and behavior trouble in early elementary school. I thought the school was harsh and the challenges were an environmental problem, so we switched to a private school. At the private school, I saw my son wasn’t grasping the materials, and once I saw that I knew it wasn’t environmental. But neither the charter school nor the private school mentioned the possibility of a disability. I learned that when I opted for a private evaluation.

The empowerment of the diagnoses allowed me to better advocate for my son and understand how he learns. When he entered middle school, he didn’t get the supports he needed in private school, so we went back to the charter school sector. There have still been challenges with the transition, but we are working on ensuring he gets the support he needs. The school leadership has been very supportive. His teachers noted that he isn’t disruptive, but I worry they mistake quiet for grasping the material. I’ve done a lot of proactive support by hiring a tutor to fill in gaps that the school is not addressing. 

My youngest son hit every developmental milestone, but when the pandemic hit, I was suddenly sitting next to him during Kindergarten. I saw he didn’t know his letters, and the school’s curriculum taught him to guess when he saw an unfamiliar word rather than sounding it out. I researched the science of reading and taught him his letters myself. When we returned to school for 2nd grade, he still wasn’t on grade level. I asked for an evaluation, which was approved. However, he was found ineligible for special education services. I asked for an independent evaluation. The school agreed, and he was eligible for services based on the independent evaluation. The process took nearly a full school year. I did not want my son to continue to struggle without the support he needed, so I paid for a private tutor. Now he’s in 3rd grade and on grade level with reading. Even with the IEP, we still pay for private tutoring. The progress has been good, but he still needs support in reading and writing.

Sometimes I want to take education off my plate, but I know I cannot. For both of my children, I identified that something was not right and that an evaluation was needed. I wish all teachers were better informed to improve the identification of students with disabilities. There have been times when I have felt as though everything was a fight. I have had to be the parent who constantly complained. I was told that the challenges I observed were normal and age-appropriate. I felt dismissed but never gave up and trusted my intuition. I wish more schools embraced parents as the experts on their children. Our focus needs to be a holistic approach to all students to ensure we take care of the fundamentals, extracurriculars, and enrichments.

Margie Yeager is a DC parent of three students who attend DC Public Schools (DCPS)

When my oldest son was in kindergarten, we started to notice he was struggling to complete school work, easily being distracted and getting off track, which sometimes led to behavior programs. In talking to his teacher, we all believed that this was not a question of understanding the content, but something else. By 1st grade, we were seeing this intensify: My son had trouble getting work done and sitting still and even more behavioral issues. It was incredibly hard to see my joyous son struggle so much in school. While the school would not conduct testing, we knew we had to understand what was happening and how we could support him so we tested him privately. We learned that my son had Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And right when we got these results, COVID-19 shuttered schools. We had a diagnosis, no plan in place with his school, and now school was virtual.

We were able to secure a Section 504 federal plan, but it was hard to implement in distance learning. Remote instruction was deeply challenging for my son because his strengths are interaction and connection with people: his teachers and his peers. That could not be replicated over a screen. 

When school finally opened “as normal” for his 3rd grade year, we had an entirely new experience at his new DCPS school. The school and his teachers welcomed my son into the school and classroom, not as a burden, but as any other student. Together, we were able to put accommodations in place and iterate as needed. My son was getting priority seating so he could be near his teacher and he had the ability to walk around when he needed to move. He got occupational therapy to work on fine motor skills to be able to write more easily. The school did everything that my son needed and was creative in providing the right supports. We knew, for example, he would need accommodations to take PARCC and we knew he thrives with connection. So the worst decision would have been to accommodate, but isolate him, for testing. Instead, the school was able to provide accommodations and my son could take the assessment alongside some other students. 

Last year was the best year of his life: He got back on-track academically. He started being happier at school. I emailed his teacher after bursting into tears because my son spontaneously picked up a book and read it at home. He had never done that before. I believe that happened because our school and our family partner to understand and provide what my son needed. We had a really strong plan and a strong team that implemented that plan.

This year, we still have a 504 plan in place, and it’s so relieving to see him thriving academically, socially, and be the kid he is instead of the “acting out kid.” 

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