Our nation’s classrooms have seen incredible change in recent years. Just over four decades ago, most children with disabilities weren’t even allowed in public schools. Today, 70 percent of students with specific learning disabilities (SLD) spend more than 80 percent of their day in general education classrooms.
Now that children with disabilities are welcome in every public school in our nation, we must focus on helping them achieve great outcomes. Parents and educators must work together to make this happen—neither can do it alone. More than 90 percent of students with SLD scored below proficient on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Students with SLD are more likely to repeat a grade and be disciplined than those without a disability. Only 70 percent of students with SLD graduate with a regular high school diploma, and in some states that number dips all the way down to 31 percent. We can all do better.
The children behind these numbers are kids like Jade-an eighth grader who struggled for years, feeling alone and hopeless, unable to read. Once Jade found the right school and the right teachers to help her, she began to thrive (listen to her tell her story at http://tinyurl.com/8thgradejade). But too often, children with disabilities languish, often silently. We all know that children, no matter how they learn, are full of potential and a desire to succeed. Together, parents and teachers can help.
Principals are essential leaders in ensuring that no child falls through the cracks. But they can’t do it alone. Parents can and will help. One great opportunity for collaboration is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). States and local school districts are currently developing and revising their plans under ESSA, so this is a great time for principals to reach out to parents and seek their help in crafting and implementing local plans.
Parents want their children to succeed and look to educators for expertise to help them grow. ESSA gives parents and schools more opportunity than ever to work together. But the reality is that most parents aren’t educators and don’t know where to begin. To help parents understand the law and how to speak out for their children and schools, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) has created an ESSA toolkit, available at http://tinyurl.com/NCLDtoolkit. This resource provides basic information about ESSA, how parents can get involved, sample letters to state and local officials promoting advocacy, and other useful tidbits. Sharing resources such as this with parents can help them become good partners in planning and advocacy to support local implementation plans.
Parents and Innovation
ESSA also offers opportunities for states and districts to initiate and expand their efforts to embed innovative practices that help all children—but especially those who learn differently—such as universal design for learning and personalized learning. These two approaches are new to most schools, and principals interested in implementing them will need a lot of support from the community. Some of your best advocates can and will be parents! NCLD has created resources that are easy for parents to understand, available at www.ncld.org/personalized-learning/national-landscape. Using these resources, parents can learn how to ask the right questions about how their own kids are learning, and then determine what additional practices could be promoted to maximize each child’s education. Share these types of resources with parents and help them get involved.
Principals are often in the best spot to unite the school and community for advocacy on behalf of our kids with learning and attention issues. With their leadership and collaboration from parents, school doors won’t just be open to all children; all schools will be places where children like Jade succeed.
Lindsay E. Jones, JD, is the vice president, chief policy and advocacy officer at the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Washington, D.C.