Educational choice has been vitally important to our family. I want to tell you about my daughters Andie who is 16 and has moderate to severe autism, and Amy, who is 14 and has very mild autism.
“The journey over the years to provide them with an appropriate education has been one of the most difficult I have ever faced.”
When my two girls were born, I remember promising them that I would do whatever I could to provide them with what they needed to be happy and healthy. At the time, I truly had no concept of what that meant. The journey over the years to provide them with an appropriate education has been one of the most difficult I have ever faced. I have worked tirelessly to keep the promise I made to them so many years ago.
As with many children who were diagnosed with autism in the early 2000s, it was quite difficult to obtain a diagnosis even though instinctively, I knew something wasn’t right. While for Amy the road was a little easier because I had traveled it before, it was bittersweet…my instincts were right, but now I had not one, but two little girls with a disability about which I knew so little. At least with the diagnosis in hand, I believed that doors would automatically open for them to get what they needed. I was so wrong about this, and I quickly learned my fight was just beginning.
Our first interaction with our public school district was positive. I liked the team who evaluated Andie for her ETR and IEP. We tried itinerant services for a year for preschool, but with sessions only once a week for a child with significant learning issues, this clearly was not enough. Our second year of preschool went better when she attended the public school program in the classroom with a 1:1 aide. All went well until the end of the year when I was told that she would lose her aide and they would likely not be able to supply one for the following year. At the time I knew so little about IEP law, that I didn’t know I could appeal this decision. No one made sure I knew what our rights were. I felt defeated, so I chose to seek other options.
Through my own research I learned about the Autism Scholarship and found that we had one provider in Richland County. I enrolled both of my girls in services at this provider’s location. Soon after services began, I felt that the girls were not making progress, and this was not the best option. At the time, I had no one to guide me on my choices. As far as I knew, the options were public school or this provider.
“This made a huge difference to our family, and in the center, my girls thrived!”
It wasn’t until I had a chance meeting with someone from an out of county Autism Scholarship provider, that I had some hope. I remember begging this person to bring services to Richland County. After several months, this provider agreed to provide in-home services to my children billed through the scholarship. This worked for awhile but it was an exhausting process. We had to work with this provider to hire and train staff to come into the home to provide services. When working full-time, this was a challenge for sure. Dealing with schedule changes when staff would call off, trying to make sure we had the equipment and items they needed, monitoring the progress to send it to the provider…we made it work until such time this provider was able to open a center in Richland County. This made a huge difference to our family, and in the center, my girls thrived! Andie started talking; Amy started regulating her emotions. I was elated and felt we had finally found our educational option for Andie, and that Amy would eventually be able to be integrated back into a general education setting!
We tried various options for Amy to integrate her back into a general education setting. We tried a local charter school. This wasn’t a long-term option as the school could not see her disability and wanted to take her off of an IEP altogether. We went back to the local school district, to find that this was a disaster. The school could not understand her disability, and therefore, put her in a large general education program without supports. After several meetings with the team where the teacher absolutely refused to provide a compromise on supports to make her successful, we again used our options and located a school in Crawford County that accepted the John Peterson scholarship. This school proved to be an amazing resource as Amy was in a classroom of no more than 12 students, was able to get the pull-out supports she needed. She was successful for the first time in a general education setting! What a relief!! Unfortunately, she was only able to use this resource for three years as the public school would not assist with transportation, (the school was 30 minutes and 20 miles from our home) and the person who I had been paying to pick her up in the afternoons got another job and was not available. We moved her back to a Richland County Autism Scholarship provider.
In the meantime, our Autism Scholarship provider where Andie was thriving was shut down by the Ohio Department of Education two weeks before the start of the school year. This left us with almost no options for her as we were very limited in Richland County. I even contacted the Ohio Department of Education to explain the position this last-minute shut down created for families. I sent letters and emails to specific individuals in the Office for Exceptional Children. I was ignored each time, and they never responded to me. Aren’t our government entities supposed to be here for the people in the state? How could they ignore me? How could they be blind to the situation this put the families in merely two weeks before the start of the school year?
After trying to work with the local school system on solutions, I asked for a contract between the school district and a private non-scholarship program that I felt would meet Andie’s needs. I met with the public school and discussed with the special education team Andie’s needs: she has severe aggressive behavior toward others, she has noise sensitivity. I was told that they would prefer she attend there, and they would do the best that they could, but they would not guarantee that she would not be suspended for aggressive behavior, and that she would have to have lunch in the lunchroom with 200 other kids. No other accommodations would be provided. I knew this was not going to work for her.
When I again asked for funding for another location, they turned me in to juvenile court for truancy, since my child had been attending private scholarship providers but had not been registered as home-schooled. A rule that at the time that I, nor the provider, knew about; a rule of which I had been out of compliance for years and the district never notified me. They used this when they needed leverage, and it was never clearer to me that my child was nothing more than dollar signs to them. I attended weeks of meetings where I had to hire an attorney and a registered advocate to accompany me; sitting across large tables of professionals who had never even met my child but had an opinion that she belonged in their school. It was intimidating, but I never backed down. I was finally able to locate another Autism scholarship provider in Richland county who agreed to help with meeting Andie’s needs. We quickly moved her there, and we are very happy with our choice.
Andie and Amy have remained in private Autism Scholarship provider programs as my distrust of our local school district is vast. I do not believe that they have my children’s best interest at heart and see them as nothing but lost revenue when they go somewhere else. The current provider sees them for the exceptional, special people they are, and they truly individualize the services to meet their unique needs. Some families feel that their local school system can meet their needs, and that is wonderful for them. However, other families must be afforded choice when it comes to the manner of which they educate their children. This is true especially when trust has been lost and the public school has failed the child and the family. This is a basic right, and we need these options in Richland County and the State of Ohio.