New Mission

New Mission


My idea is to explore how other countries around the world are dealing with education and special education issues. I’d like to see different successful schools, wherever they may be, up close. I’d like to sit down with directors and administrators. I’d like to speak with government officials who keep a pulse on the education affairs of their communities. I want to learn more about education around the globe through speaking with locals, seeing the schools, and shaking hands with the people responsible for implementing the systems. If you know of any outstanding (public or private) special needs schools in other parts of the world, I’d love to hear about them. If you know any education experts from around the world, I’d love to be introduced to them. Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts or ideas. Read more about my mission.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools

The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) recently decided the case of Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, which has important implications for families of children with disabilities and whether they have a duty to exhaust Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) administrative proceedings before pursuing a claim under other laws that protect individuals with disabilities such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504).

This case involved a young girl with a severe form of cerebral palsy who required the assistance of a service dog to assist her with various daily life activities.  The school district refused to allow the girl to bring her service dog to school because it believed that the 1:1 aid the district had recommended on her IEP obviated the need for a service dog.  The Frys believed that the school district had violated their daughter's rights under the ADA and Section 504, and they filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking declaratory relief and monetary damages for emotional distress under those statutes.  They did not include IDEA claims in their federal lawsuit.

Both the federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit held that the Frys had an obligation to pursue their claims through the IDEA administrative process before filing their ADA and Section 504 claims in federal court.  The 6th Circuit's reasoning was that a plaintiff must exhaust the IDEA's administrative procedures whenever a plaintiff's alleged harms are educational in nature.  That language sounds pretty broad...

In light of the above, a central question before SCOTUS on appeal was, When must a plaintiff exhaust the IDEA's administrative proceedings before bringing claims under other statutes?  

From our law firm's perspective and for others who practice in this field, the Court's consideration of this issue is very welcomed.  Requiring parents who are not challenging FAPE and cannot obtain the remedies they are seeking under the IDEA to exhaust their IDEA remedies before proceeding to federal court is a waste of time and resources.  Additionally, there has been a significant amount of uncertainty relating to what claims can or cannot be heard in IDEA administrative proceedings, how the pleading of non-IDEA claims affects the parties' respective burdens of proof, and how non-IDEA claims should be pled or handled in IDEA proceedings in order to preserve one's rights under the ADA and Section 504 for future litigation in federal court.  Fortunately, the Supreme Court has chimed in.  

SCOTUS held that exhaustion of the IDEA's administrative procedures is unnecessary where the gravamen of the plaintiff's suit is something other than the denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE), the core right under the IDEA.  

So how do you determine whether or not the core issue in a lawsuit is a denial of FAPE?  First, pursuant to the Supreme Court's ruling in Fry, courts will need to look carefully at the substance of a party's legal papers to determine what the case is about.  A party, for example, would not be able to escape the exhaustion rule simply by omitting the term "IDEA" from its legal papers (a technique referred to as "artful pleading").  But if, for instance, a plaintiff is seeking something other than relief for the denial of a FAPE, such as damages as a result of having been denied equal access to a public facility or having been otherwise discriminated against, then the exhaustion rule may not apply.  Courts will also look at the history of the proceedings to inform their determination.  That is, if a party has pursued administrative procedures under the IDEA in the past, that could be an indication that the substance of the party's claims relates to the IDEA.

It is interesting to note that the Court specifically did not answer the question of whether exhaustion is required when he plaintiff complains of the denial of a FAPE but the specific remedy requested is not one that an IDEA hearing officer may award.  

Justice Kagan wrote the Court's opinion, 5 other justices joined in, and 2 justices concurred in part; there were no dissenters.  SCOTUS remanded the case to the 6th Circuit for further consideration as to whether the gravamen of the Frys' complaint relates to a denial of FAPE, and whether the Frys previously availed themselves of the IDEA's administrative procedures.  

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

COPAA 2017

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates' 2017 conference in Dallas, Texas (my eighth COPAA conference).

Some of the highlights of this year's conference included:

  • General session and town hall with an esteemed panel that discussed shaping COPAA's mission, maximizing its impact, and humanizing the idea of disability.  
  • Selena Almazan and Denise Marshall's session titled School Vouchers and Students with Disabilities: Examining Impact in the Name of Choice.  This topic is particularly relevant now in light of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos's school choice movement.  During the session, data was presented and questions were raised concerning the effectiveness of school choice programs.  The group debated whether students with disabilities will benefit or be harmed by school vouchers.  And we considered some of the challenges that threaten the success of school voucher programs and how those challenges might be addressed.  
  • Judith Gran's Analysis of Educational Benefit Standards, which addressed what level of educational benefit is required under current case law for a student with a disability in order for the student's program to be considered appropriate.  This topic is very timely in light of the Endrew F. litigation pending before the U.S. Supreme Court (see 10/1 blog post for a discussion of the case).
  • Keynote presentation by Gary Guller, a disabled man who defied his physical limitations by climbing to the top of Mount Everest and, during the course of his journey, led Team Everest, a group of disabled individuals on an expedition to basecamp. 

COPAA is a wonderful organization with an important mission.  To learn more about its work or about how you can become involved, visit the website at www.copaa.org.

On a lighter note, Dallas is full of interesting things to see and do.  It is worth exploring the Dallas Museum of Art, the Katy Trail, and the city's excellent restaurants.  Dallas is also the city where JFK was shot so those wanting to learn more about that dark moment in American history can visit Dealey Plaza where a museum is now located.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cardozo Law School Symposium on Personhood and Civic Engagement by People with Disabilities

This is a follow-up to my previous post about Cardozo's Symposium on Personhood and Civic Engagement by People with Disabilities.  Those who attended the symposium were rewarded with a fantastic event consisting of thought-provoking panels and highly esteemed panel members.  Some of the biggest highlights for me included: 

1) Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's discussion about personhood and the roles that government, science, and culture play in defining it.  She spoke captivatingly about the study of eugenics and the role it has played in influencing society's views toward and treatment of people with disabilities throughout history.  I was surprised to learn of a quote from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes from Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (May 2, 1927), a case which is considered to have legitimized the eugenics movement in the U.S., in which Justice Holmes stated "three generations of imbeciles are enough" in supporting a Virginia statute providing for the sexual sterilization of those deemed to be unfit to bear children.  That led me to do some further research.  If you'd like to read more about this case and its role in the eugenics movement, check out Buck v. Bell and HuffPo.

The eugenics movement in the U.S. and the aftermath from World War II and the Holocaust led to a series of declarations, agreements, and laws regarding personhood, including the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA or EHA), which later evolved into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).      

2) Eric Rosenthal's talk about his organization Disability Rights International (DRI), which is dedicated to the protection and full inclusion of children and adults with disabilities under international human rights law.  Learning about and fighting for the rights of people with disabilities on an international level is something that interests me deeply.  One of the points from Eric's talk that stayed with me was the importance of directing foreign aid in an appropriate manner so as to bring about positive and meaningful results instead of perpetuating organizations that may be harmful.  More information about the organization and its work can be found on DRI's website at http://www.driadvocacy.org/.

3) Judge Kristin Booth Glen'sRobert Dinerstein's, and Leslie Salzman's lectures about exercising legal capacity.  Specifically, they addressed some of the problems with guardianship and the extent to which guardianship takes away decision-making power from the individual and deprives the individual of opportunities to interact meaningfully with others. They also explained the concept of Supported Decision Making, meant to provide individuals with disabilities more decision-making power through a series of contracts to make and communicate their decisions for various situations.  This raised a number of questions for me, such as: how would these agreements be written, what kinds of decisions would they address, how would they be implemented and enforced, what costs would be involved for the individual's family, and what kind of legislation would be necessary to make this possible. 

Other highlights from the symposium included watching a powerful video performance of "Gimp" by the Heidi Latsky Dance group, an organization dedicated to broadening exposure to disability and dance, and hearing from Bernard Carabello, a former inmate at the infamous Willowbrook State School in New York, who collaborated with Geraldo Rivera to expose Willowbrook's abuses, which led to the shuttering of the institution and the start of a movement to end institutionalization and promote inclusion. 

Cardozo will be publishing scholarly articles written by some of the panelists on some of these topics in an upcoming law review journal.  I will be looking out for it.   

I also want to note that it's been almost 9 years since I graduated from Cardozo.  Union Square is still young and cool.  The New School still dominates the corner of 14th Street and 5th Avenue albeit in its new honeycomb form.  NYU's presence continues to be felt (even more so now that they have taken over the old Forbes building directly across from Cardozo).  And as much as the area has stayed the same, I know I have not, and it was interesting to reflect upon that as I walked from the subway station to the school.   

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cardozo Law School Symposium on Personhood and Civic Engagement by People with Disabilities

I am excited to be returning tomorrow to Cardozo Law School, my alma mater, for a symposium on personhood and civic engagement by people with disabilities.  I hope to write a post later with some highlights from the event.  In the meantime, here is an overview of the program:

Personhood and Civic Engagement 
by People with Disabilities: 
A Conference to Explore the Legal Underpinnings of Personhood and the Barriers to Participation by Persons with Disabilities in Civic and Social Life

A Cardozo Law Review Annual Symposium 
The Symposium will feature Professor Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, as the Keynote Presenter, and Professor Samuel Bagenstos, as the Featured Lunchtime Speaker. Panels will focus on the topics of Personhood in Popular Culture, Exercising Legal Capacity, and the Uses of "Disability," as well as Strategies for Promoting Inclusion.
Thursday, February 23, 2017
9:00 a.m - 7:15 p.m.

8:30 am - 9:00 am - Registration and Breakfast (Lobby)

9:00 am - 10:00 am - Keynote Presentation by Professor Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (Moot Court Room)

10:00 am - 11:15 am - The Interplay Between Notions of Personhood in Popular Culture and Developments in the Law (Moot Court Room)
Moderated by David Ferleger, Esq. 
Panelists:
  • Elizabeth Francis Emens, Columbia Law School
  • Faye Ginsburg & Rayna Rapp, New York University 
  • Jerron Herman, Heidi Latsky Dance
  • Ruth Lowenkron, New York Lawyers for the Public INterest

11:30 am - 1:00 pm - Exercising Legal Capacity: Legal Barriers to the Actualization of Personhood (Moot Court Room)
Moderated by Robert Fleischner, Center for Public Representation 
Panelists:
  • Robert Dinerstein, American University Washington College of Law 
  • The Honorable Kristin Booth Glen, City University of New York School of Law
  • Arlene S. Kanter, Syracuse University College of Law
  • Danielle Lazzara, Quality Services for the Autism Community (QSAC)
  • Leslie Salzman, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

1:00 pm - 1:30 pm - Lunch (Lobby)

1:30 pm - 2:30 pm - Featured Lunchtime Presentation by Professor Samuel Bagenstos (Moot Court Room)

2:45 pm - 4:15 pm - On the Uses of "Disability" in Pursuing and Realizing Rights (Moot Court Room)
Moderated by Professor Mark Weber, DePaul University College of Law 
Panelists:
  • Kevin Cremin, MFY Legal Services, Inc. 
  • Rebekah Diller, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law
  • Leslie Francis, University of Utah, & Anita Silvers, San Francisco State University
  • Shira Grabelsky, New Mexico School for the Deaf
  • The Honorable Robert M. Levy, Eastern District of New York

4:30 pm - 5:45 pm - Strategies for Promoting Inclusion (Moot Court Room)
Moderated by Professor William Brooks, Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center 
Panelists:
  • Ruth Colker, Mortiz College of Law
  • Anne Emerman, Social Worker, Disability Rights Activist 
  • Sagit Mor, University of Haifa
  • Eric Rosenthal, Disability Rights International

5:45 pm - 7:15 pm - Reception & Dinner to honor the Keynote Presenter, Featured Lunchtime Presenter, Panelists and Moderators (Lobby)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Betsy DeVos Confirmed As U.S. Education Secretary

Betsy DeVos was confirmed as education secretary today by Vice President Mike Pence as a result of a 50-50 tie in the senate.

The nomination, and now confirmation, of Ms. DeVos has been extremely controversial.

Critics of Ms. DeVos have pointed out that she is unaware of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the expansive federal law governing the rights of students with disabilities; that she has no experience with public school education and does not understand how the public education system works; and that her efforts relating to charter schools and voucher systems have not been effective.

Supporters of Ms. DeVos believe that an emphasis on charters and vouchers will give low-income families more choices as to where to send their children to school and force public schools to become more competitive.

Some other questions and concerns to note about DeVos's educational agenda:

  • Where will the funding for charter schools/voucher programs come from? 
  • What level of oversight/accountability will be imposed? 
  • Will vouchers be available to all or means-based? 
  • Can vouchers work with programs that follow a for-profit model? 

My personal thoughts will follow in a separate or updated post soon.

In the meantime here are some recent articles on the subject:

NY Times: Betsy DeVos Confirmed as Education Secretary; Pence Breaks Tie

The Atlantic: 5 Things to Know About Betsy DeVos, Trump's Pick for Education Secretary

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

UPDATE: Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District

In October, I posted about the Endrew F. case, which is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court concerning what level of educational benefit is required for a student with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Since then there have been some important developments.

The federal government filed a brief in support of the child and his family, arguing that school districts should offer a program aimed at significant educational progress in light of the child's circumstances.  A number of groups submitted amicus briefs.  For instance, a group of 118 former and current members of Congress filed an amicus brief arguing that the IDEA intended to provide meaningful and material educational benefits so that students with disabilities could reach their potential and live independently:

Oral arguments happened last week on Wednesday, January 11.  The transcript of the oral arguments follows in the link below, as well as an article that provides a thorough analysis:

https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2016/15-827_gfbh.pdf

http://www.scotusblog.com/2017/01/argument-analysis-justices-grapple-proper-standard-measuring-educational-benefits-children-disabilities/

From what I have gathered so far, the justices seem to be of the mind that students with disabilities are entitled to greater educational benefit than the bare minimum.  However, they seem to be grappling with how to articulate a clear standard capable of implementation.

Some justices have expressed concerns about what additional costs this would impose on school districts; whether it is appropriate for the justices, who lack expertise in education, to be the ones creating this standard; how to deal with students who, because of their disabilities, are unable to follow the general education curriculum at grade level; and whether articulating a new standard would create a flood of litigation and lead to the Supreme Court becoming involved in other education-related decisions in the future.

SCOTUS is expected to issue a decision by the end of June 2017.  Stay tuned.  

A.M. v. New York City Department of Education

I am excited to write about an important case that was just decided by the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals -- A.M. v. New York City Department of Education (DOE).

This case involved a child with autism for whom there seemed to be a consensus that 1:1 ABA services were necessary based on private evaluative materials.  The school district had not conducted its own evaluations and did not have any materials suggesting that some other methodology should be used for this student.  The school district's IEP team, however, while it may have relied on the parent's private evaluations and professionals to better understand the child's needs, did not follow their recommendations.  This scenario may sound familiar to parents who have gone through the special education process expecting their team to follow the recommendations from the private professionals they have consulted.

One question presented in this case is, To what extent does an IEP team have to follow the recommendations of private evaluators and professionals with respect to the program and services that a child requires?  A related and broader question is, To what extent is a school district obligated to consider "methodology" in making recommendations for a child with special needs?  For example, in this case, where the child at issue was a child with autism for whom 1:1 ABA services were recommended, to what extent is a school district required to recommend the specific methodology of Applied Behavior Analysis, as opposed to a more eclectic instructional approach or a different one entirely?

A three-judge panel consisting of Judges Kearse, Wesley, and Droney agreed with the parent's argument that the IEP team's 6:1:1 classroom recommendation and its failure to guarantee any 1:1 ABA therapy in the IEP "went against the consensus of the evaluative materials present at the CSE meeting," which demonstrated that the child required ABA and a significant amount of 1:1 instruction.  The Court articulated the following principle:
[W]hen the reports and evaluative materials present at the CSE meeting yield a clear consensus, an IEP formulated for the child that fails to provide services consistent with that consensus is not "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits," and the state's determination to the contrary is thus entitled to no deference because it is unsupported by a preponderance of the evidence. . . .  This remains true whether the issue relates to the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction in a child's IEP. 
This is great language and parents should rely on this principle when advocating for specific programs and methodologies that have been recommended by private professionals.

Lots of good nuggets in this decision.  I want to highlight one more.

Parents familiar with the special education process who have had their children enrolled in private placements may have been told by their IEP team, "Well, your child is progressing so nicely at his/her private placement, it's time to transition him/her to a less restrictive setting."  The A.M. decision pointed out the flaws in this reasoning.  The Court stated that the logical inference that a child has made gains while attending a private placement "would suggest that the more restrictive academic setting in which he was learning adequately addressed his needs and should thus be continued; not that the program should be discontinued and that he should be transitioned to a less restrictive learning environment. . . ."

A great decision for parents of children with special needs.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Winston Transitions

Since visiting the Ann Sullivan Center (CASP) in 2013, I have been searching for programs in NYC that offer support to students transitioning from high school to the real world.  I had the opportunity this week to attend a presentation about the Winston Transitions program in Manhattan.  Winston Transitions is a new program for students with learning difficulties particularly in the areas of language, attention, processing, executive functioning, and social/emotional skills.  The presentation was given by John Civita, Director of Winston Transitions, and Elizabeth Mendelsohn, COO at Winston Prep and Director of the Winston Innovation Lab.

I found the Winston Transitions presentation to be extremely informative with respect to addressing the needs of students who are transitioning out of high school but not yet ready to move on to college or work.  The school offers a full-time program as well as a part-time option for those students who may be otherwise engaged with college or work.  The full-time program occurs five days per week roughly from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.  Through constant assessment, the school identifies the needs, abilities, and interests of each student, and customizes each student's program accordingly.  The school's academic curriculum focuses primarily on reading, writing, and math.  Classroom instruction occurs in small groups and is highly individualized.  Through the FOCUS program, students have the opportunity to receive 1:1 instruction in areas of need.  Much of the workload is project-based, affording students an opportunity to work independently and seek out assistance as needed.  There is also a heavy emphasis on social and interpersonal skills.

One of the aspects of the school that impressed me the most was the internship program.  Internships occur two days per week for roughly ten hours per week, and are tailored to the students' particular interests and strengths.  In order to foster independence and self-advocacy, students do not receive the support of job coaches.  Instead, constant collaboration occurs between Winston Transitions and the students' internship supervisors.  Students also receive training and feedback at the center, which provides an opportunity to reflect on the students' internship experiences, discuss how to handle internship-related situations, and practice the skills necessary to succeed in a work environment.  This practical piece, in my opinion, is crucial to the learning process, and I was amazed by the manner in which the school has been dealing with it.

Winston Transitions is affiliated with Winston Prep, a highly-regarded special education private school for students with language-based learning disabilities, but students need not have attended Winston Prep in order to be admitted into Winston Transitions.  It is also worth noting that the school building is conveniently located at 240 Madison Avenue not far from Grand Central station.  The floor includes a living room space, an activities room, classrooms, a kitchen, and a recording room (used to create podcasts), and offers a warm learning environment for its students.

A substantial number of the families enrolled at Winston Transitions receive government funding pursuant to remedies available under federal and state law for students with disabilities who have been denied an appropriate education by their local school districts.  Students who have received a high school diploma may not be eligible for such funding.  Parents should be mindful of this and consult an attorney for advice regarding how to approach this issue.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Transition Planning Event at the Rebecca School on November 8

Helping students transition from school to work and adult life is an important part of the special education progress that can be confusing and daunting for parents and is oftentimes overlooked by school districts.

If you would like to learn more about transition planning, the Rebecca School is presenting a panel event on this subject on November 8:

Transitions Panel 
Tuesday, November 8th, 11am – 1pm 

Rebecca School 
40 East 30th Street
New York, NY 10016
(212) 810-4120

Hear from & meet leaders in various post-21 capacities: Supportive Employment, Residential, Supportive Housing, Self-Direction, Parent and Consumer Perspectives, Entitlements, Financing, Higher Ed. 

Confirmed Speakers: Gil Tippy (Rebecca School), Kathy Kelly (AHRC), Amy O’Hara (Littman Krooks, LLP), Nelson Castro, Gina & Don Barone (Parents of RS alumni), Sam Wilkinson (RS alumni) Amel Whiteside (YAI), Meg Henderson & Martin Gitt (Camphill Triform), Frank Bresnick & Allison Sanchez (Jespy House), Nadine Daley (Center for Family Support), Samantha Fineman & Raul Jimenez (New Frontiers in Learning), Katrina Roberts (Job Path), Joseph Campagna (Home Connect) 

Panel: 11am – 12:30 pm 
Lunch & Networking: 12:30 – 1pm 

FREE. Open to RS parents, family members, & the public. 
Overlaps with the 3rd Annual Rebecca School Sibling Day. 
Space is limited. 

RSVP or for more info: Josh Noble, RS Transitions Coordinator. jnoble@rebeccaschool.org, 212-810-4120 x294

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District

The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, 798 F.3d 1329 (10th Cir., 2015), to consider what level of educational benefit is required for a student with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Every child with a disability has a right under federal and state education have to receive a free appropriate public education from his/her local school district. What constitutes an "appropriate education" for a student with a disability, however, is the source of much litigation.

Courts have generally held that a school district need not maximize a student's potential.  However, in considering what affirmative obligation a school district does have, different courts around the country have been applying different standards.  Some courts have held that an appropriate education is one designed to allow a student with a disability to achieve more than trivial advancement while other courts have held that an appropriate education must be reasonably calculated to result in meaningful or substantial educational benefit.

The Supreme Court is expected to chime in.  The outcome of this case could significantly affect the landscape of IDEA litigation and, more importantly, have broad implications for the rights of students with disabilities.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Book Talk Event with David Denby and Samuel Abrams

I am excited to pass along the following information for what promises to be a very interesting book talk event on Tuesday, June 28th at 7pm with David Denby, author of Lit Up, and Samuel E. Abrams, author of Education and the Commercial Mindset.​  

http://www.bookculture.com/event/columbus-david-denby-sam-abrams

Samuel E. Abrams is the Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College.
David Denby is the author of Great Books, "an acclaimed account of returning to college and reading the Western classics during the curriculum wars"; American SuckerSnark, and Do the Movies Have a Future?  He is a staff writer and former film critic for The New Yorker,  and his reviews and essays have appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, and New York magazine, among other places. He lives in New York City with his wife, writer Susan Rieger.

 
Event address: 
450 Columbus Ave
New YorkNY 10024

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Facing History And Ourselves

Throughout school I hated History. I dreaded going to class, doing the homework, and studying for my History exams. I complained that it was "boring" but what that really meant was that I found it challenging to process and understand what I was learning because I had difficulty imagining myself in the shoes of the people I was learning about -- people of different cultures from my own, who were from far-flung countries that I knew little about, and who lived in distant times in the past. Because I was a diligent student who cared deeply about succeeding academically, my difficulty with History was a big blow to my confidence. I developed a strong aversion toward it and avoided it as much as possible. Over the years, this weakness nagged at me. At some point I decided to do something about it and began brushing up on my own through books, movies, travel, and other forms of learning. Today I am fascinated by History.

When I recently became acquainted with an organization called Facing History And Ourselves, I was immediately intrigued. Facing History is a non-profit international educational and professional development organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism and prejudice in order to help students make the connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives. I have had the opportunity to learn more about the organization by familiarizing myself with its pedagogical principles, observing a classroom lesson, attending a teacher training workshop, and interacting with instructors and program directors. For example, during the class I observed, I listened to students discussing a piece of art depicting the Holocaust and considering what the artist may have been thinking or feeling while creating it. During the teacher training workshop, I listened to a room full of educators debating Indian Residential Schools (schools that were set up to re-educate Native American children by stripping them of their Native American heritage in order to get them to assimilate European customs) and considering what activities and exercises they might use in the classroom to teach this lesson to their students. The workshop sparked debate about identity, morality, racism, and religious/cultural intolerance. I have also found the reading materials to be well-organized, manageable in size, and thought-provoking.

I am amazed by how the program forces individuals to examine history through a critical lens -- considering difficult issues such as racism, discrimination, and genocide -- and asking important questions about what led to these events, how they could have been prevented, and what lessons can be derived for the future. Facing History emphasizes that the atrocities of the past didn't happen in an instant but, rather, in many cases they were the result of years of cultural and societal tensions.  

What I find most impressive about the program is how it connects the past to the present. I think Facing History has the power to help young students understand what I could not -- that history is intertwined with and relevant to our daily lives because we have the ability to draw from the lessons of the past to positively influence the present and future.

For more about Facing History, you can visit https://www.facinghistory.org/.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Michael Moore's Where To Invade Next

I liked Michael Moore’s new documentary, Where To Invade Next. What stayed with me most were his ruminations on education, society, and shared responsibility. The film highlighted various inequities in the U.S. such as our failing public education system, unfair drug laws, harsh prison system, and broken healthcare system. He posed the question, Why don’t we take better care of our own?

I’ll focus on education. In the U.S., our education system is broken in many ways. Moore travels to Finland, France, and Germany to glean important insights regarding education. In Finland, Moore learns about educating the whole child. Finnish schools assign little, if any, homework and have few, if any, standardized tests. Students are encouraged to play and socialize, think critically, be creative, and become independent. There is also equity in Finland, which means that most schools are of high quality, so children can attend their zoned schools instead of parents having to shop around. In France, school lunch programs are taken seriously. They boast a level of culinary excellence that does not exist in the U.S. They also have an instructional component, and students are taught how to maintain a balanced and healthy diet. In Germany, schools are exploring ways of teaching about the Holocaust. Their emphasis is on owning their country’s history (good and bad), recognizing where moral failures occurred, making amends for those failures, and improving their society as a result. We should be striving for these things in the U.S. American children would benefit from receiving a more well-rounded education, and learning how to live a healthier lifestyle. There should be a greater emphasis on recognizing our country’s moral failures, discussing them openly in a constructive manner, and grappling with how to learn from those experiences in order to improve as a society. I think there should be a greater push for this in our schools.

An Icelandic woman in the film remarked that, in the U.S., there is no shared responsibility and we don’t care about our neighbors. That our focus is more on “me” and less so on “we.” I reflected on that for a while. While I don’t fully agree with her, I do think we could do a better job of taking care of our own. Our country would be stronger for it. And taking care of our children by providing every child with a quality public school education would be a great place to start.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Celebrating Six Years

I started my law firm six years ago today.  I moved in to 100 Church Street by myself with a pad and a pen and nothing else on December 3, 2009.  I took a short-term lease to test out the waters; I wasn't sure what the future would hold.  "Okay, what do I do now...?" is a thought that ran through my mind a lot during those early days.  Of course I felt both excited and nervous, like the feeling of your first day of school.  But if I had to pinpoint the feeling, I'd compare it to being out at sea.  Sitting on a boat, in the middle of a vast ocean, surrounded by water as far as your eyes can see.  You have a destination, and you know it's right there, straight ahead, but you can't see it yet, and you are in awe of the vastness of what's in front of you.

So much to be done, but where to begin?  

I started with to-do lists.  Lots and lots of to-do lists to organize myself and keep focused.  I stayed busy and positive.  Build a website, place ads, print business cards, network, speak with parents, meet with schools, and find clients!

From time to time, when I needed a distraction or an emotional boost, I would turn on an episode of The Office.  Yup, watching The Office in the office.  The show was a gift from my then-girlfriend now-wife who bought me the first couple of seasons on DVD when I told her I had never seen the show.  Something tells me, though, that she probably didn't intend for me to watch it in the office.

I pounded the pavement, and clients started to call.  I was eager to provide exceptional service, obtain outstanding results, and impress my clients.  I am proud of the results we have achieved.  At the same time, with every new client comes the responsibility of proving ourselves again.  That is a responsibility I continue to take seriously no matter how long we've been around, how expert we've become, or what results we've achieved in the past.

I remember a friend questioning my decision to start my own firm.  Something to the effect of "Are you for real?"  I might have brushed it off then if not for the fact that I was doubting myself the same way he was doubting me.  Six years later, though, I can say, yes - I am for real.  The firm has grown significantly, and I feel like I've come a long way.  Since starting out, I have hired a full-time associate and office administrator.  We've handled hundreds of cases, helped numerous children and families, successfully litigated and settled cases of substantial monetary value, and built a reputation for tenaciousness, dedication, honesty, and exceptional results.   I take great pride in that, and look forward to helping many more families navigate the special education legal process.  I continue to be deeply interested and invested in the practice of special education law, which has been both professionally and personally fulfilling, and I am excited to see what the future holds.

I am thankful to the parents who have trusted us to advocate for their children, and the various professionals from whom I have learned so much.  I am excited about developing the firm's global mission and sharing my experiences with you.

While I reflect on this very happy six-year anniversary, I also look forward to many more years of advocating for children, and being able to watch them grow, develop, and succeed.

I would also like to take this opportunity to wish you and your families happy holidays and a wonderful new year.

All the best in 2016.  

AD

Friday, May 22, 2015

Speaking Engagement - Wednesday, May 27

I will be speaking at the Sephardic Academy of Manhattan on Wednesday, May 27 regarding the special education process for preschool and school-age students. Please find the relevant information below, and feel free to forward to anyone else who might be interested.


Special Education Services from the Department of Education

Date: Wednesday, May 27th 1:15PM

Location: Sephardic Academy of Manhattan
1274 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10065




Educational Technology - The Nordic Way

I recently attended Education Technology - The Nordic Way, an event that was part of the Oppi Festival (http://2015.oppifestival.com/), which happened in New York earlier this month.  I like to think of as an ed-tech version of Shark Tank with a Nordic twist.  A panel of judges critiqued business pitches from education-minded entrepreneurs from Finland and Sweden.  The range of business ideas included exam taking software, an animation application, a cloud-based math curriculum, a platform for project-based learning, gamification, interactive three-dimensional teaching software, and a music learning application.  The presentations were interesting, and helped me think differently about how to utilize technology to improve education.

See also: https://storify.com/yangbodu/nordicedtech

Finland: Exceptional Programs

In this last blog post, I wanted to highlight three exceptional programs that I visited in Helsinki.


The Resonaari Music School is an amazing program that offers a variety of programs and opportunities for people of all ages and abilities. The directors of the program have incredible passion for their work, and the combination of their passion and the music thumping in the background entranced me. What struck me most about Resonaari was how the school supports people with special needs. While it is not exclusive to people with special needs, it provides a warm, nurturing environment in which they are able to discover abilities they never knew they had, connect with others through musical collaboration, and develop their sense of self-worth. Resonaari also provides extra support and modified instructional materials to those who require them. Observing one group of students, some of whom had special needs, while they practiced for an upcoming concert performance was one of the highlights of my visit.

I was also impressed by the program’s reach and influence. Resonaari has collaborated with the Finnish National Board of Education regarding the development of a national music curriculum. Resonaari is also engaged in ongoing music research, including how to adapt music for people with special needs. In addition, Resonaari has influenced the creation of similar music programs in other parts of the world, and is part of a global movement to connect people with music.

More information available at: http://www.resonaari.fi/


The Ruskis Center is a state-operated, publicly funded special education school for children with the most severe disabilities. The intensive level of support provided at this school includes very small classrooms, 1:1 instruction, and various related services. Additional resources include augmentative and alternative communication devices, wheelchairs and related equipment, a sensory gym, a state-of-the-art swimming pool for instructional aquatics, residential accommodations for students living away from home, and a trial apartment-living program for students transitioning to independent living. Students participate in non-academic activities such as music, cooking, and woodworking with specially designed equipment to meet their physical and developmental needs. Ruskis is well-known throughout Finland, and services students from all over the country. The staff is committed to the well-being of its students, and assists parents through the process of obtaining the supports and services that they require from the government.

More information available at: http://www.ruskis.fi/in-english.html


The Keskupuisto Vocational School is exclusive to students with special needs, whose issues range from attention to autism to severe psychiatric disorders. Keskupuisto offers a wide array of vocational programs including mechanics, photography, audio visual, technical design, music, dance, and cooking. Classrooms are small and structured, one-to-one support is available where necessary, and students are expected to complete a significant amount of on-the-job training in order to apply their in-classroom learning to real-life settings. The school offers both certificate and non-certificate programs, as well as unique opportunities for immigrant students. The facilities are immaculately clean and beautifully designed, and located just a few steps away from Helsinki’s Central Park. I toured some of the classrooms, and spoke with students and staff, and was impressed by the students' work.

More information available at: http://www.keskuspuisto.fi/en.php

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Finland: Public Schools

Part of me was expecting to visit Finland and immediately be blown away by a radically different approach to education. I visited several schools in Helsinki and Espoo, and that wasn't exactly what I found. What stood out to me was how well Finland is addressing the basic things that you would expect from a school.

The first thing that struck me was the physical appearance of the schools. The buildings were beautiful and new. Outside spaces were vast with lots of room for students to roam. Indoor spaces were filled with natural light. The classrooms were clean, organized, and colorful.

I was impressed by the teachers. The teachers I spoke with came across as intelligent, serious, committed, and engaging, and they were enthusiastic about their work. I was also impressed by the amount of independence that the teachers possessed. Teachers were in charge of their classrooms without being accountable to a higher school authority, which I think promotes ownership. Since principals do not spend time monitoring their teachers in class, they can focus on broader school issues such as budget and development, which benefits the school and, in turn, the students. Teachers still obtain professional development throughout the year, but when it comes to their classroom teaching, they are trusted and respected as professionals, and given substantial freedom.  

I was impressed by the level of attention to each child. Teachers and staff meet frequently to discuss the needs of all students in the school - both general and special education. Based on those meetings, the school staff can respond to each child's needs in whatever manner is appropriate. For example, schools may provide extra academic support for students who need it, or reach out to social service agencies when children need the kind of support that would extend beyond the school day. Schools have designated special education teachers who move from class to class, and since they do not have their own classrooms to teach, they can provide varying levels of support to students from different classrooms, as needed. This allows school to be flexible about meeting students' needs as issues arise, and does not require a formal diagnosis or a complicated administrative process.

I also got the feeling that schools in Finland focus on the whole child. All students receive a free lunch, irrespective of family income, which has the positive benefit of (1) making sure that no students go hungry, and (2) not singling out students who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford lunch. In addition to the regular academic curriculum, students must fulfill demanding language requirements, which require them to master Finnish, English, and Swedish. Students also benefit from non-academic specialties such as sewing and woodworking. In general, the schools were warm and nurturing environments, and the students seemed happy, well-behaved, and engaged.

I think it's also worth noting that I did not detect concerns about onerous accountability standards or compliance requirements.  

All in all, the schools I saw seemed like nice learning environments that were committed to their students' success.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Finland: University of Helsinki

I had the pleasure of meeting with several people from the University of Helsinki. First I want to note that, unlike the U.S. where teacher education programs abound, Finland has just a few teacher education programs, which are highly competitive and difficult to get into. I was impressed by the selectiveness of the schools, and the quality of the students who are admitted. It's no surprise that those students who gain admission and succeed in becoming teachers are highly respected in Finnish society.

Some of the points that stand out most in my mind from my conversations with people at the University have to do with inclusion, equity, high-stakes testing, and immigration.

Three-tier model – Finland’s three-tier inclusion model calls for escalating levels of support to meet the needs of those with special needs. Most students in Finland, at some point in their education, receive special education support, which could range from just a few hours of academic tutoring for a child with mild needs, to consistent academic interventions for a child with moderate needs, to a full-blown individualized learning plan for a child with severe needs. My impression was that these supports are implemented without a whole lot of red tape – i.e., it’s pretty easy for parents to access these supports. Teachers and administrators seemed to be laser-focused about helping the child, and less concerned about compliance and accountability. Resources are deployed to schools accordingly. In many schools, for example, part-time special education teachers who do not teach classrooms of their own are available to provide additional academic support on an ad hoc basis to any students in the school who require it.

Equity - Finland emphasizes equity a great deal. That’s not to say that every school is perfect, but the percentage of inferior schools in Finland is smaller than in most other countries around the world. Finland works hard to maintain a balance that allows parents to feel confident that their local school is as good as any other. In the U.S. there seems to be a much larger disparity between our good schools and our poor or mediocre schools. Our schools need to be more balanced.

High-stakes testing - High-stakes testing basically does not exist in Finland. There is only one high-stakes exam at the end of high school, and a number of low-stakes subject tests that students are required to take in certain subjects. These low-stakes subject tests are generally used to develop “best practices” for schools and teachers; they do not impact the students themselves. Since Finland doesn’t emphasize high-stakes testing, more time can be devoted to actual learning. In the U.S., there has been a lot of debate about the consequences of students losing out on classroom learning time because of test preparation. Maximizing in-class learning time makes sense, and I was impressed by Finland's emphasis on this.

Challenges - Finland has its share of challenges as well, including: (1) Budget - Even in a small country of 5 million people, resources are limited and decisions have to be made about where to give services and where to cut them, which can result in certain demographics being underserved; (2) Staff – Some teachers may have more traditional teaching styles and be less inclined to adopt new learning approaches; (3) Immigration - Immigration in Finland is increasing, and the government is grappling with questions about who to admit into the country and how to educate new immigrants. How the government addresses these issues in the future could have important implications for the Finnish education system.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Finland: National Board of Education

Having read that educational authority in Finland is vested in local municipalities, I was curious to understand the dynamics between federal and local government. I met with the Finnish National Board of Education (Board) to explore this further.

A little background about the Finnish education system may be helpful first. Compulsory school age in Finland begins at 7 years old. Preschool is available to children roughly between the age of 1 and 7 at no or little expense to the parents. Child care may be available to parents beyond the regular school day, on a sliding scale based on parent income. In general, students are not taught academic skills until they begin primary school. Instead, they focus on pre-academic skills such as play and social skills, concept formation, critical thinking, and problem solving. Most schools in Finland at the primary, secondary, university, master’s, and doctoral levels are free (though some private institutions and international schools do exist).  

Although the Finnish Board used to conduct school inspections to evaluate whether teachers were teaching effectively, teachers today are afforded a significant amount of autonomy. This frees up resources, which the Board can spend in other areas. The Board’s current role involves collecting information from schools (teachers and/or school administrators are expected to complete questionnaires), conducting research, and compiling statistics to inform conclusions about the school system as a whole. While some students may be expected to take standardized tests sometimes, high-stakes standardized tests generally do not exist in the Finnish system (with the exception of one standardized exit exam when a child graduates from high school). I was amazed by Finland's approach to oversight and accountability, which was strikingly different from the U.S.'s.   

The Board is involved with curriculum development to some extent, but the guidelines it develops are only loosely followed by the municipalities. The Board may dictate what skills should be worked on, but the local schools determine how those skills should be worked on. The Finnish curriculum sounded less onerous than the U.S.'s Common Core, but it would be interesting to take a closer look at how the two approaches compare.

How Finland is able to achieve and maintain equity among its different schools when the schools operate independently and without substantial federal involvement is a question that persisted in my mind throughout the trip. In Finland, schools and populations vary widely between regions of the country, so maintaining equity and ensuring that all school districts receive adequate resources doesn't come without challenges. I was impressed with the high level of quality among its schools despite those challenges, and I questioned whether federal involvement was important in order to achieve consistency.  

The idea of "special education lawyers" is foreign to people in Finland (not sure where that would leave me if I moved to Finland today). In Finland, the government usually provides the services that are required without legal proceedings being necessary. While there is a mechanism in place for parents who are dissatisfied with the supports being provided, those complaint procedures are rarely if ever used. When they are used, lawyers are typically not involved. I was impressed with the ease of accessing supports and services.   

Learning about Finland's education system at the national level piqued my interest in their education at the local level, which I plan to address in another segment.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Education Mission # 2: Finland

As you may know, I recently began a mission to explore how other countries around the world are dealing with education and special education issues. As part of that mission, I am excited to be in Finland right now. Finland is thought to have one of the best education systems in the world (see http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/06/opinion/sahlberg-finland-education/).

I have been visiting Finnish schools, meeting with educational experts, and exploring programs that are addressing education and special education in unique ways.

Over the next few days, I hope to report back about details from the trip and insights I have gained.   



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

White House Summit On Early Childhood Education

President Obama is hosting the White House Summit on Early Childhood Education today.  Presenters are speaking about the need for quality preschool programs, including topics such as the politics of establishing quality preschool programs and the research supporting the need for them.

Live stream available now through You Tube at :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtOogGU8_q0

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Five Year Anniversary

Five years ago today I started something special - a law firm focused on education law that has allowed me to work closely with families who have children with special needs.  I look back on these five years with pride and fondness, and I feel thankful to all of the families who have provided us with the opportunity to help them.  Our firm has grown in size, and it continues to grow.  The scope of our firm has grown as well.  We have taken on a global outlook for effecting positive change in education policy.  We are networking, brainstorming, and exploring.  I feel fortunate to continue to be passionate about the work that we do.  I look forward to the next 5 years of helping more families and achieving exciting milestones.  Thanks to all of our clients, colleagues, and supporters who make our work possible!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Roses For Autism

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Roses For Autism (http://www.rosesforautism.com/), a non-profit rose farm in Guilford, Connecticut whose overarching mission is to benefit individuals with autism.  I first became interested in Roses about a year ago, and I was immediately intrigued by their emphasis on supportive employment and transitioning special needs individuals to the real world.

It was a pleasant drive from New York to Connecticut on I-95 on an overcast and crisp, but not yet cold, fall afternoon.  Foliage lined the highway.  I arrived at the Pinchbeck rose farm at about two o'clock in the afternoon.  Cows grazed on the side of the road as we pulled up to the main entrance.  We were greeted warmly by Tom Pinchbeck and Michelle Ouimette.  I had hoped to observe the employees in action, but they had just left for the day.  Tom and Michelle showed me around the premises. On the lot, there were two greenhouses, one of which was currently in use.  The one greenhouse produces around 500,000 roses per year.  Lilies are grown and sold as well, but those make up a much smaller share of the business.  A high-powered boiler room provides a steady flow of steam to the greenhouse to maintain an optimal temperature.

The individuals with autism whom Roses employs are responsible for growing, monitoring, cutting, packaging, and shipping the roses, as well as for other aspects of the business.  They are paid employees, not interns or volunteers - a distinction that Roses emphasizes to encourage ownership.  Since Roses is an "inclusive" environment, most of the employees are "typically developing" people who serve as mentors to those with special needs.  Students from local mainstream public and private schools volunteer at the rose farm.  Profits from the sale of flowers are invested back into the business to cover employees' salaries, to fund scholarships and career training programs, and to ensure that the business can sustain itself in the future.

If Roses is the business part of the organization, Discover Learn Work is the training part.  Individuals with autism and related disorders can enroll in Discover Learn Work for business training that may include coursework at college campuses, internship opportunities at various training sites, coaching through the job interview process, or support through gainful employment.

What I found particularly interesting is that Discover Learn Work works with local public schools to meet the needs of transitioning students who require vocational training.  In New York, transition programs and vocational training are a huge unmet need.  Discover Learn Work participates in IEP meetings to aid in developing transition goals, and works with IEP students to implement their transition goals at one of the Discover Learn Work training sites.

Roses is part of a larger parent company called Ability Beyond (http://abilitybeyond.org/about-us/), which is run by CEO Tom Fanning (http://www.rosesforautism.com/tf/) and operates in Connecticut and New York.  Roses is a growing company with plans for expansion.  Short-term goals include opening the second greenhouse and creating a stronger brand image.  Long-term expansion plans are still taking shape.

On my way out, I purchased a few dozen short-stem roses and some lilies for the women in my family, who were enchanted by the scent and quality of the flowers.