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.

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 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 included opening the second greenhouse and creating a stronger brand image.  Long-term expansion plans are still taking shape.  On the 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.  

Monday, May 26, 2014

Infant / Toddler Development Through The Lens of Reggio Emilia

There is a phenomenon we have all experienced when we hear a new word, phrase, or concept for the first time and then start to notice it everywhere…and I’ve been experiencing that phenomenon with regard to the Reggio Emilia schools.  I learned about Reggio Emilia a few weeks ago when I attended Brooklyn College’s Universal Preschool In Sweden event.  I quickly learned that the Reggio Emilia model is well-known throughout the education world.  A few days later, I learned about an upcoming event about infant and toddler development through the lens of Reggio Emilia, presented by Explore + Discover and My Learning Springboard.

I attended the event on Thursday and truly enjoyed the evening.  The event was hosted in a beautiful space in Tribeca.  Arriving guests were greeted warmly with music playing in the background and snacks and drinks awaiting consumption.  The crowd was intimate and diverse, with various professionals from different backgrounds in the audience.  Although a power point presentation and video clip guided the presentation, the conversation was informal and interactive, with audience members sharing their perspectives and personal experiences.

The presentation consisted of many of the same points as were presented at the Brooklyn College event: child-centered approach (letting the child’s interests guide instruction, rather than following a predetermined agenda set by the teacher), teacher/parent as researcher (understanding the child’s interests through observation of the child’s individual movements and patterns), and materials conducive to learning (easily accessible, natural, etc.). The overall message, to put it succinctly: encourage the child to explore and discover!

A point I hadn’t considered prior to this evening was the importance of recording children’s thoughts and comments as they explore and discover, which can help to track and understand the development of a child’s interests and his/her overall personal growth.  I developed an appreciation for the importance of exposing children to sensory stimuli early on.  Children also need to learn the consequences of their actions through guided exploration, rather than to fear the unknown because of overprotective teachers.  To conclude the evening, we explored the similarities and difference among the Reggio Emilia model, the Montessori approach, and Dr. Stanley Greenspan’s DIR/Floortime methodology.

Workforce Bill To Help Students Leaving Special Education

I read this week that the federal government is trying to renew a workforce bill (“Workforce Investment Act”) that would address the issue of individuals with special needs transitioning out of school settings and into the workforce.  The bill recognizes that some individuals with special needs are relegated to isolated jobs involving menial tasks, when they should instead be working side by side with nondisabled peers in as typical a work setting as possible.  The idea behind the bill is right on point.  For a long time I’ve been wondering about, and for the last several months I’ve been vigorously advocating for, assisting individuals with disabilities to transition into a workplace setting.  We spend all this money on resources to provide disabled students with an education that is individually tailored to meet their needs, but then abruptly terminate those supports when that individual ages out of school.  We have the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but where is the Individuals with Disabilities Supportive Employment Act?  If supportive employment can be implemented by a small private school in Peru (see http://blog.dayanlawfirm.com/2013/12/reflections-on-peru.html), where the government cares little about funding the needs of children with special needs, why can’t we in the U.S., where the government, rightly or wrongly, plays such a significant role in education, implement it as well?

It’s unclear to me, however, whether this Workforce Bill is the right approach for addressing this issue.  According to Education Week (see http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2014/05/bipartisan_bicameral_workforce.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+CampaignK-12+(Education+Week+Blog%3A+Politics+K-12), the primary purpose of the bill is not K-12 education but rather workforce training issues, including adult education.  But the bill continues to fund a number of K-12 programs, which I imagine would leave less money for supportive employment for individuals with special needs.  If the part of the bill that focuses on youths concerns itself not only with individuals with special needs but also high-school dropouts and disadvantaged youth who are pursuing GED’s or vocational training, which seems to be the case, how much of the funds would be applied toward special needs individuals?

I haven’t read the existing version of the bill, but I’d be curious to know if it addresses the following points.  What kinds of supports would these individuals receive to assist with transitioning to the workforce?  For instance, would there be daily support in the form of an on-site job coach or shadow, or perhaps a once a month group training session with some tips on how to act around the office?  What kinds of jobs would these individuals be transitioned to?  Who would qualify for this program?  That is, would more intensive supports be provided for individuals with more severe needs, or would those with more severe impairments be excluded?  What employers are participating or will participate in this program, and what training do they/will they receive?  How will compensation for disabled individuals compare to the compensation of their nondisabled peers performing the same job?

While this approach to legislation may be politically convenient for the reasons that Education Week identifies, I’m not convinced it represents the kind of broad reform that I think we need to help individuals with disabilities become independent and productive adults.  I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts on this, and would be interested in learning more about what other efforts are being made to address this important issue.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

New Civil Rights Guidance for Charter Schools

I received the following announcement from the Council Of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA). The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has provided new guidance concerning charter schools' obligations to admit, and accommodate the needs of, students with disabilities. A link to the full memorandum is included below.

Dear Colleague:

The U.S. Department of Education supports charter schools’ efforts to provide students, including those in some of the nation’s highest-need communities, with additional meaningful opportunities to receive a high-quality public education. Today, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights has released new guidance (versión en español) providing a reminder that our federal civil rights laws apply to charter schools just as they apply to other public schools.

The guidance explains that the federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in education on the basis of race, color, and national origin; sex; and disability extend to all operations of a charter school, including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology.

We hope that the guidance issued today will help enhance the role charter schools can play in advancing equal opportunity for all students. Our office stands ready to provide technical assistance should you or your colleagues need it.

Thank you,

The Office for Civil Rights

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Recap of Universal Preschool In Sweden Event

Monday night's Universal Preschool In Sweden event at Brooklyn College was a standing room only affair, with lots of wallflowers along the back wall of the room for lack of a place to sit.  The focus of the evening's discussion was EDUCARE, Sweden's version of universal preschool.  Educare combines the two words which are the underpinnings of the program - education and care - in order to emphasize the importance of providing a caring and nurturing environment for preschoolers to promote learning (contrast with an accountability- and results-driven approach).  Educare serves students aged 1-7 years old, which was remarkable because in New York we are still trying to figure out how to scale pre-K just for 4 years olds.  Sweden starts from infancy.

Attendance is not compulsory but almost everyone attends.  The cost to families is reasonable: while the program is not entirely funded at public expense, parents pay, on average, approximately $2,000-3,000 per child per year...but that can vary depending on income.  Student-teacher ratio is approximately 5 kids per teacher, with approximately 17 children in a group.  Most Educare schools are publicly funded, but there are some that are privately funded as well.

Because Educare deemphasizes a rigid adherence to goals and outcomes, there are no formal goals that must be met at the end of the year.  There are only informal guidelines that can be utilized to inform the curriculum.  There does seem to be a national curriculum, however, and the extent to which individual schools feel compelled to follow that curriculum was not entirely clear to me.  When the Swedish presenters emphasized "evaluating the quality of the preschool program," I wondered to what extent that might be at odds with the notion of "no accountability."

Another point I found interesting was that Educare came about as a result of the work force expansion in Sweden in the 1970's.  When more women started working, someone had to look after their children.  For a while the program was run under the auspices of the social welfare system.  In 1998, Educare officially became part of the educational system.  

Educare takes a child-centered approach, letting the child's interests and curiosities guide the teacher's instruction.  Those who are familiar with the DIR Model of instructing children with autism may be familiar with this approach.  Those who know of the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy may be familiar with it as well.  The Swedish panelists cited Reggio Emilia as one of the inspirations behind Educare.  This was the first time I had heard of Reggio Emilia.  But I quickly learned that it is well-known within the education field for being a child-centered, creative approach with an emphasis on natural materials and documentation.   

Other thought-provoking points that were mentioned

Trusting the children and viewing them as competent individuals 

Structuring tasks in a way that relies on the children to figure out what's necessary to complete a task (rather than simply depositing pre-determined information into the children's minds). 

Some issues that were not adequately addressed

Diversity - no discussion about how to transport the Swedish model to a more diverse demographic such as in the U.S.  There was a brief discussion about "segregated areas" in Sweden where immigrant children can be educated in their native tongue.  However there is an ongoing debate about whether to educate them in a segregated manner, or in an integrated manner with Swedish children to promote mastery of the Swedish language.  

Poverty - no discussion at all.

Special needs children - not mentioned at all.    

Federal government's role - not clear what is the federal government's role and how Sweden establishes consistency among its various Educare schools and programs.  

Assessing quality of preschool program and student progress - there was some discussion about the "pedagogical documentation" that is maintained and analyzed to assess the quality of a preschool program, but it was vague.

Overall an interesting event that got the wheels in my mind turning!    

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Universal Preschool In Sweden: Inspiration For Progressive Early Childhood Education

With all of the current hype surrounding universal preschool lately, particularly in New York City, what lessons can we learn from Sweden? That question will be the focus of an interesting event called Universal Preschool In Sweden: Inspiration For Progressive Early Childhood Education, which will be happening this Monday night at Brooklyn College. If you are interested in education on an international level (like I am), or just want to be part of a novel discussion about our early childhood educational system, check out the information below:

Sweden is internationally lauded for its public, comprehensive, accessible and affordable Educare system, which provides all Swedish young children with some of the very best care and education. New York City is embarking on a massive expansion of pre-K programs. What can we learn from Sweden's experience?

What: Discussion: "Universal Preschool in Sweden: Inspiration for Progressive Early Childhood Education"
Who: The Brooklyn College Department of Early Childhood and Art Education and the Brooklyn College School of Education
Where: Gold Room, 6th Floor, Brooklyn College Student Center, Campus Road and East 27th Street
When: Monday, May 5th at 6pm
For Information: Contact bferholt@brooklyn.cuny.edu



Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Restoring Hope During Adolescent Crises" Panel Event at the Robert Louis Stevenson School on Thursday, April 3

The Robert Louis Stevenson School will be presenting an event on Thursday, April 3 called Restoring Hope During Adolescent Crises.  Please find the relevant information below.  Tickets are $22.09 a piece after fees. 

Parents and Professionals, Please Join Us at Stevenson for
Restoring Hope during Adolescent Crises
an evening of networking and panel discussion

Date: April 3, 2014
Time: 6:30-8:00 PM


Adolescence features major developmental tensions physically, socially, emotionally and academically. As a parent of an adolescent, you may feel hard pressed to know how to help your child with complex problems. Our panel of experts will provide you with key pointers for recognizing problems when they start and offer specific ways to help your child engage in a meaningful, well-balanced life. 

Questions to be addressed: When is intervention needed?
Does your adolescent need an alternative school environment? Will your adolescent ever go back into mainstream education? What are reasonable parenting expectations? What supports should you make sure exist on a college campus?  Professionals working with adolescents and their parents may also find this event quite helpful.

Our panel:
Sherri Maxman, owner of College Maven, LLC, has a specialty in providing college counseling for high school students with learning differences. Ms. Maxman is a graduate of the Independent Educational Consultants Association’s Summer Training Institute and is a member of NYSACAC.

• Matthew Mandelbaum, PhD, is the Director of Outreach at the Robert Louis Stevenson School, a college preparatory day school in Manhattan that offers a high-quality education designed to help students succeed. Dr. Mandelbaum is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Fordham University and holds a MA in Education and a MA in Psychology.

• Erika Nagy, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst specializing in helping parents who have children with learning issues, ADD and anxiety.  Ms. Nagy also holds a MA in Education and post-graduate certificates in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

• Victor Schwartz is the Medical Director of The Jed Foundation, the nation’s leading organization working to prevent suicide among American college students. Dr. Schwartz is recognized nationally as a college mental health leader.

• Sharon Thomas, MSC, MSED, Director of MAIAA Parent Resource Center and Educational Consultant at the Brearley School. Ms. Thomas is a learning disabilities expert and works closely with families to develop comprehensive individualized educational plans. 

Seats Still Available.  Kindly Invite Your Friends, Clients, and Colleagues.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Speaking Engagement at the Rebecca School on Thursday, March 27


I have been invited to speak at the Rebecca School on Thursday, March 27 regarding the special education process and the right to funding.  I am providing the relevant information below for all who may wish to attend.  Please feel free to forward this information to anyone else who might be interested:


What Every Parent Must Know
About The Special Education Process 

Presented by:

Michelle Siegel, Esq. 
Adam Dayan, Esq. 

Join us: 

March 27, 2014 
6:30 PM

Rebecca School
40 East 30th Street
New York, NY
212.810.4120

RSVP
Elizabeth O'Shea

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

COPAA Conference 2014


This weekend I had the pleasure of attending the annual Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) conference in Baltimore, Maryland, a short and immensely enjoyable 3-hour Amtrak train ride from NY Penn Station.  This year's conference boasted the largest attendance ever, attracting approximately 550 attendees from all over the country.

This was my 5th COPAA conference.  As I contemplated this while roaming the corridors of the Waterfront Marriott where the conference was held, moving from one session to the next, this felt like a significant milestone for me.  As usual, the conference gave me an opportunity to reflect on where I’ve been over the last year.  It was also nice to look around and recognize a significant number of the attendees.

Sessions

The conference offered the usual assortment of trainings and workshops.  Some highlights for me included:

Cross Examination of Experts - Great full-day workshop with Frank Hickman and Tracey Walsh focusing on the art of cross examination.

Legal and Academic Perspectives on America's Public Education - Big-picture, policy-related session considering the roots of education from the 1600’s through the present, new movements including online education and school choice, and the usual hot-button issues of accountability, high-stakes testing, evaluations, and teacher performance.  The afternoon portion of the day (a bit harder to get through perhaps due to sleep deprivation kicking in) addressed the intricacies of the Common Core and Universal Design for Learning, and their implications for special needs students.

Keynote Speaker LeDerick Horne - This year's speaker, LeDerrick Horne, truly delivered.  He spoke about the difficulties he experienced as a child with a learning disability and the constant fear of public embarrassment that he endured on a daily basis.  When he was close to breaking down, he chose instead to break through.  He pushed through elementary and high school, attended college, and obtained his undergraduate degree.  He has become an entrepreneur and performance poet who has worked as an advocate on the national, state and local level.  While he continues to struggle with his learning difficulties, he has devised useful tools to help him cope.  His presentation also included a poem or two.  More information available at www.lederick.com.

General Session - Matthew Cohen delivered an impassioned speech, acknowledging the gains we have made in the areas of disability and civil rights law, but emphasizing the big steps we still need to take to move forward.  He spoke forcefully, peppering the audience with real-life examples of injustices he has seen in cases he has handled, and the energy in the room rose quickly.  That led to a group discussion with the audience, which led to several people speaking about the importance of embracing the concept of individuals with different abilities and focusing what unique skills people have rather than focusing on what they lack, which resonated with me and reminded me of my visit to the Ann Sullivan Center.   

Life Planning for Families of Loved Ones with Special Needs - An emphasis on special needs trusts and guardianships, and how those issues can be tied into due process hearings and/or settlement agreements.

Creating a Winning Stay Put Argument - An interesting session that highlighted some of the many permutations that one might encounter when dealing with the issue of "stay put" and the question of what should be considered a child's last agreed upon placement.

Retrospective Testimony/Monday Morning Quarterbacking - Unfortunately I did not attend this event, but after hearing everyone talk about it, I wished I had.  The session focused on the issue of retrospective testimony, and the implications of recent court decisions regarding this issue.  

A Case Study: An Effort To Grow Special Education Advocacy Awareness - Andy Cuddy presented on his recent media campaign to reach impoverished special needs parents in Rochester through the use of television commercial spots.  The campaign emphasized raising awareness in a tactful way.  While some may have dismissed the event off-hand, I was glad I attended.  I found the presentation to be professional, informative, and thought provoking.  

Redefining Functional Skills for the 21st Century - This workshop helped me to reconsider what it means for a child with special needs to be "functional" in the 21st century, with a focus on inclusion in a general education setting.

Latest Top 40 Chart-Topping Decisions - The most entertaining case law review that I have ever attended (and it's no easy task to make this stuff exciting).  The presenters delivered their top 40 cases over the last several years in the format of a top 40 music countdown, highlighting fact scenarios that were particularly ridiculous and excerpts from decisions containing language that was particularly powerful.  
 
To Parents

COPAA is a great organization to join if you think you might benefit from a network of attorneys, advocates, parents, and others involved in the area of special needs.  Parent membership costs $50 per year and provides access to a wonderful community.  For more information, you can visit the COPAA website: http://www.copaa.org/.

COPAA 2015

Next year's conference is scheduled for March 5-8, 2015 at Paradise Point Resort & Spa in San Diego, California!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Center For Discovery

This past Friday I had the pleasure of visiting The Center For Discovery, a New York State-approved private school for children with various kinds of developmental disabilities.  I had been vaguely familiar with the program for some time but I became deeply interested in learning more about it after speaking with a colleague who had said that they were doing similar things as the Ann Sullivan Center was doing in Peru (see http://blog.dayanlawfirm.com/2013/12/reflections-on-peru.html).  So I contacted the school and set up a visit.

You may remember that Friday was the day of the fog.  For much of the close to two-hour-drive up to Monticello, I was looking out at a wall of whiteness.  I was surrounded by snowy mountains, snow on the ground, and an intense, consuming fog that all seemed to blend into one.  The road was quiet.  The visibility on the road was awful.  Many times the road disappeared, and I changed lanes to get behind a car that I could follow closely because I figured as long as I could see the car that meant there was still road.  Once I got over the initial shock of the daunting driving conditions, I began to appreciate the stark beauty.  The bright white and bare trees created a somewhat eerie but incredibly peaceful landscape which I said I would describe as "fantastical" if others asked.  I felt myself breathing in the beauty of my surroundings by inhaling them through the air vents on the dashboard.  My senses felt heightened and I kept myself from turning on the radio because I didn't want to ruin the moment.  Though my day had only barely started, I was feeling very glad to be making this trip.  

I arrived at The Center For Discovery around 10 a.m.  The school grounds cover 1,500 acres of land with various campuses, which are set up thoughtfully to meet the unique needs of the students housed at each campus.  For example, a campus intended for children with autism, was expertly designed by none other than Temple Grandin whose goal was to construct the campus in way that was sensitive to the sensory needs of its students, as children with autism can become easily overwhelmed by light, sound, and smell.  I also saw a kitchen that was tailor-made for individuals in wheelchairs such that all of the kitchen equipment could be adjusted higher or lower according to the student's height.  The school primarily serves individuals aged 5-21, who, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, may be entitled to funding for the cost of the program.  The Center also serves individuals above the age of 21, but as a general rule those individuals would need to obtain funding through Medicaid and the Office of People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD).  The oldest individual currently enrolled is 85 years old.

The Center began in the 1940's as an institution for the education of individuals with cerebral palsy, but gradually evolved to include students with a range of issues including autism and multiple physical handicaps.  The Center For Discovery, like the Ann Sullivan Center, emphasizes functional education, rather than rote learning of academics that may have limited practical application in the real world.  Students learn hands-on by participating in a panoply of activities including gardening, cooking, dancing, farming, and working in the Center's on-site restaurants and cafes that are designed to teach important skills.  During these activities, student receive ongoing support from school staff which focuses on teaching important skills necessary to function in the real world and aims to prepare students for an eventual transition to a less supportive educational setting or, where possible, an appropriate work environment tailored to the specific interests and abilities of the particular student.  The Center is primarily a full-time residential program, which means that the students live on campus 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with some exceptions for family visits and vacations.  To a lesser degree, the Center functions as a day program for students who are bussed from nearby districts.  There are currently about 500 total students in the two programs.  There are about 1,500 staff members including teachers, psychologists, social workers, related service providers, behavior specialists, and "integration specialists."  Classrooms typically consist of 6 students and approximately 3 staff members.  Students are grouped according to their needs and abilities.  Reverse inclusion provides mainstreaming opportunities for students to interact with typically developing peers from the community through sporting activities and other opportunities to socialize and mingle.

The Center For Discovery has a research arm in addition to the hands-on instructional program described above.  Partnering with different institutions around the country, the Center is actively pursuing answers to questions concerning effective approaches to the education and development of individuals with disabilities.  The Center is active internationally by participating in conferences around the world concerning various special education topics.  The Center also conducts assessments and evaluations to help families better understand what supports and interventions are necessary for their children to make meaningful gains.  The Center also works closely with local school districts through staff trainings and workshops, which has allowed the Center to extend its reach to help students outside of its own program.  The Center is working on plans for expansion in order to make its services available to a wider population.

I would like to thank the wonderful people at The Center For Discovery who welcomed me warmly and spent over three hours showing me around, discussing their amazing program, and sharing a glimpse of some of the very exciting things that they have planned for the near future.  Thank you for the fantastic work that you do, and good luck with your new endeavors!    

For more information about The Center For Discovery, visit the school's website:
http://www.thecenterfordiscovery.org/

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Special Autism-Friendly Performance of Wicked - Sunday, March 2, 2014

https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-tCGQnc4oniY/UtAH8jzRpsI/AAAAAAAAAD4/PBCGnlUh2Jw/s1600/wicked.png


Please save the date for

WICKED

Autism-Friendly Performance:

Sunday, March 2, 2014 @ 1pm



Gershwin Theatre, 222 West 51st Street

New York, NY 10036

  

TICKETS GO ON SALE TODAY!

Friday, January 10, 2014 @ 10:00 AM



Theatre Development Fund (TDF), the nation's largest not-for-profit service organization for the performing arts, is proud to continue serving the autism community with our Autism Theatre Initiative, making theatre accessible to children and adults who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or other sensitivity issues, and their families.
TDF is delighted to offer an autism-friendly performance of the musical WICKED on Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 1pm.

 For this special performance, accommodations will be made including a supportive audience environment, designated activity and quiet areas, adjustments to lights and sound, and online resource materials.  This performance is not recommended for children under 8 years old.  For more information regarding the performance and modifications that are being made, please go to www.tdf.org/wicked.

IMPORTANT: There are scenes in this show that depict bullying. Flying monkeys do fly over the audience twice and may be frightening. They DO NOT land in the audience. When purchasing tickets please be aware that some set pieces and props are within arm's reach of the seats in the first 3 rows. In addition some fog may be felt in the first 3 rows as well.


Tickets are being offered through TDF at the following prices:
Orchestra: $79
Orchestra Partial View: $43
Front Mezzanine: $79
Middle Mezzanine: $58
Rear Mezzanine: $43

Limit 6 tickets per order. For larger groups and wheelchair seating please email autism@tdf.org

Tickets for the special performance are only available for purchase at www.tdf.org/wicked

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reflections On Peru

Over Thanksgiving this year, family members asked about my recent mission to Peru. What did I do there, what did I gain from the trip, and how does it relate to my work? I had wanted to reflect on these questions for weeks but had put it off. I think I needed to let it soak in.

It's hard to sum up the trip in just a few short words but I have some thoughts…

The government

The government in Peru does very little in the way of providing supports for individuals with special needs. At first I found myself asking about concepts that are foreign to people in Peru: government funding, residential schools, group homes, autism research groups. For the most part these things do not exist there. I realized that I needed to leave behind some of the assumptions and biases that I brought from my experiences back home.

In Peru, there is a tremendous gap between what the government provides to special needs students compared to general education students. Some of the problems that people described to me include a dearth of laws protecting individuals with different abilities, corruption in politics, lack of awareness, lack of media attention, lack of special education programs, lack of funds, and lack of a structured legal system by which to enforce existing rights. These negatives forces have created a maelstrom that helps to explain the awful situation in which parents of special needs children finds themselves. For example, during one school visit, I observed special needs kids in complete squalor in a makeshift “school” in a dirt field surrounded by filth, rats, and infestation. I was told that under no circumstances would the government allow such circumstances to continue for general education students.

Do special needs students have any rights? On paper, they do have some rights. But even in cases where legislation has been enacted, the accompanying regulations have not been passed, so no one has any idea of how that law is supposed to be implemented. The government has not spelled out a process by which parents can enforce those rights when they are being denied. When I mentioned that in the U.S. we have federal legislation that both protects children with special needs and creates a mechanism for enforcement, I was met with a smile that to me communicated a deep sense of longing for more of that in their own country, and a sense of how far off they felt it was.

In some instances, where the government has failed, private schools have stepped in as discussed below.

Role of the family

The importance of the role of the family in the education and development of a child with special needs may seem like an obvious point, but at the Ann Sullivan Center (Centro Ann Sullivan del Peru, or CASP, in Spanish), a private special education school in Lima that educates children with severe developmental impairments, family involvement and collaboration is practiced day in and day out and it permeates everything the school does. The school's mantra says that the school is 30% responsible for a child's education and development, and the child's family is 70% responsible. Parents understand this idea and embrace it.

First impressions

The kids at CASP only attend school for approximately 4-5 hours per day, 4 days per week. And the school does not provide every therapy under the sun. At first, I was skeptical of such a model. However, I quickly came to appreciate the tremendous impact of the program. Given their limited financial resources, CASP has created a system where learning and development occur around the clock, not merely within the confines of the school walls.

Teaching functional skills

At CASP, children are taught functional skills that they will need for real life based on the school’s Functional/Natural Curriculum. This approach was developed by a U.S. behavioral expert but rejected by U.S. institutions. The idea behind the curriculum is to focus on skills that children will actually use, rather than to teach rigid academic skills that may have no practical value for them later on.

Job training

Students at the Ann Sullivan Center are prepared for employment through regular job training exercises, which are supported by CASP as part of CASP’s overall mission to prepare students for gainful employment. I observed kids receiving their job training at a real life restaurant, re-arranging the chairs, setting the tables, handling the silverware, and cleaning the room in preparation for the expected customers. These students, for example, might continue to be trained at the restaurant for another year or two, and then transition to a full-time restaurant job if they have learned the necessary skills. It was interesting for me to see kids who had seemed to struggle with significant functioning difficulties be able to apply themselves in a focused, attentive, careful, diligent way in the work setting.

I wondered if we were doing enough of this in the U.S. . . . 

Lifetime relationship

Families maintain a connection to CASP well beyond their children’s turning 18 or 21. CASP is a continuing and constant presence in the individual’s life. Parents understand that they, and not the school, need to be doing the heavy lifting with respect to the education, development, and growth of their children, but also know that CASP is there to continue providing support across all environments including work and home life.

Generalizing skills to the home

A parent applies the training he/she has received at CASP in the home. Examples that a parent shared with me during a home visit included speaking to the child in a way that allows the child to understand the rationale for doing something, maintaining consistency between what the parent does in the home with what the other teachers work on in school, and presenting a situation to the child so that the child must solve the problem by considering what needs to happen next to fix a particular situation (rather than just giving the child a direct instruction).

Parent support system

Parents believe that they are in it together, and they support each other along the way through regular parent support group sessions. They understand that they are part of a community of parents, children, staff members, and specialists who are joining together to ensure that each child is given an opportunity to succeed in the real world, in whatever way feasible for that individual, in order to become a contributing member to society. CASP is as ready to learn from the insights of a child's parents, as the parents are ready to learn from the teachers and staff. I think this validates the parents' concerns, and helps the school learn more about the child to better meet his/her needs.

The corporate side of supportive employment

Children who are considered individuals with disabilities in the U.S. are thought of as “children with different abilities” at CASP. The school devotes itself to identifying each child’s unique skills, abilities, and interests so that the school can cultivate them throughout the child’s attendance at CASP. And when that child is ready to start working, the school matches up the child’s skills, abilities, and interests with a job that fits. Both the individual and the employer receive ongoing support from CASP once that individual begins working. This form of "supportive employment" is a critical feature of the CASP program, and I believe it is also an essential component of preparing individuals with disabilities to become independent, self-sufficient, contributing members of society.

To understand this better, I met with corporate agents from Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Central Bank of Peru, two companies in Peru that employ individuals with disabilities. Both companies are happy to work with CASP because of the support and training that CASP provides. CASP teaches its students how to manage work-related situations and provides job coaches for on-site guidance throughout the day. For the corporations, this has resulted in tangible benefits to hiring people with different abilities.

What are we doing in the U.S. to transition our children with special needs to an employment setting?

Cusco

After finishing up at CASP in Lima, I traveled to a city called Cusco, which gave me an opportunity to examine Peruvian education in a more rural setting. I also got a closer look at real poverty. While in Cusco, I learned from staff members about the various forces that a school might have to contend with such as parents who don’t want to be involved in their children's education, unhealthy environmental conditions of the schools, and kids being hidden from sight and not exposed to any form of education because of parents who are either uninformed or in denial. The corruption of past presidents whose actions have harmed local citizens, including accusing the teachers’ union of being terrorists and killing individuals who were studying to become teachers, has not helped matters.

Where the government fails, the private sector sometimes steps up to the plate. The same way this became obvious at CASP, it was also observable at Manos Unidas, a private special education school in Cusco for children with severe developmental disabilities. Manos Unidas, was started around 2007 in a small house as a result of the terrible special education conditions in Peru in general and Cusco in particular. The government does not provide any funding. Nevertheless, the school, located in a very quiet rural community overlooking the mountains, educates approximately 30-40 students. The classrooms are small. Children receive individualized attention (usually 2 teachers per classroom of 4-6 kids). Teachers use autism-specific methodologies, personalized daily schedules, and specialized communication systems. Approximately 20 students are currently enrolled in inclusion programs with the continued support of the Manos Unidas staff by their sides within the mainstream setting.

Reaching far-flung impoverished communities

On the subject of special education in rural Peru, I met the director of a project whose mission is to bring special education to children in distant rural communities. The organization behind the project deals with various areas of concern for individuals with disabilities of all ages including health, work, family life, and rehabilitation. The idea is to get these kids the additional supports that they need to become independent and productive citizens. She too spoke about how difficult it is to get money from the government. It's great that these types of schools and organizations exist, but it’s unfortunate that their work cannot reach more of the population due to their limited resources.

A global issue

These are global issues. CASP, for example, is influencing special education on a global scale through its research projects, its international conferences, and its efforts to spread awareness and to share the CASP model with other countries. Every country, even a world superpower like the U.S., could benefit from learning from Peru. On the one hand, the United States is so incredibly ahead of Peru in terms of civil rights, wealth and resources, government involvement, and availability of information. But still, schools in our country could learn a great deal from a school like CASP. The CASP model was recently adopted in Panama, where it is being implemented as part of a state-sponsored program. Representatives of the Dominican Republic were on site during my visit to learn more about how they could apply the model in their country. The CASP program was recently highlighted by the Chinese media (unfortunately my comprehension of the news segment was limited since it was in Chinese and without subtitles; the only words I could make out were “Ann Sullivan”). CASP has plans to expand to Africa.

Final thought

This trip was a heady experience for me. Since returning home, my mind has been racing with thoughts and ideas about education and special needs. I hope to have the opportunity to arrange more trips of this kind in the future.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Speaking Engagement at Robert Louis Stevenson School

I have been invited to speak at the Robert Louis Stevenson School on Thursday, November 21 regarding the special education process and the right to funding.  I am providing the relevant information below for all who may wish to attend.  Please feel free to forward this information to anyone else who might be interested:



Navigating the Special Education Process and the Right to Funding

Want an inside look into education funding for your child or client?

Robert Louis Stevenson School welcomes parents and professionals to an evening of understanding the mechanisms of tuition reimbursement, featuring
expert special education attorneys Adam Dayan and Michelle Siegel.

Get an overview of the law and the steps needed to secure funding for
an appropriate educational setting.

Gain insight as you hear from their broad experience
through a presentation that includes a Q&A.

See how a school like Stevenson can provide an appropriate education for the overall development of your child or client.

Join us: 

November 21, 2013
6:30 PM
Robert Louis Stevenson School
24 West 74th Street
New York, NY 10023

RSVP
Matthew G. Mandelbaum, PhD
Director of Outreach
Robert Louis Stevenson School

Friday, October 11, 2013

Education Mission # 1: Peru

As a follow-up to my 7/17/13 blog post, I am excited to say that my education mission is on! I will be visiting Peru in November to learn more about what is happening down there. I was asked to write a paragraph explaining the purpose of my visit, and I summarized it as follows:

En mi experiencia como abogado de educación y "educación especial," he tenido la oportunidad de luchar por individuos con habilidades diferentes para assistirlos obtener los programas y servicios que necesitan para avanzar y transformarse en miembros independientes y productivos en la sociedad. En los Estados Unidos, tenemos leyes extensas y generosas para proteger a los estudiantes que tienen varias discapacidades psíquicas y desórdenes del desarollo. Ya sė que países diferentes tienen leyes diferentes; algunas les dan mas servicios, y algunos menos. Recientemente, he desarollado un interės en lo que otras paises en el mundo están haciendo en el campo de educación, en general, y "educación especial," en particular. Me gustaría reunirse con personas del gobierno, del sector de las empresas, y del sector privado para aprender más. Si el gobierno tiene planes para mejorar o ampliar acceso a la educacion para individuos con habilidades diferentes, me gustaría comprender que acciones está tomando. Si hay empresas que se han hecho esfuerzos extraordinarios para emplear e incluir a individuos con habilidades diferentes en sus empresas, me gustaría saber cómo nació el programa, cómo se opera, quiėn tiene los requisitos para el empleo, y quė planes hay para crecerlo. Naturalmente, tambiėn estoy interesado en observar programas de "educacion especial" en las escuelas de Peru. Verdaderamente, esa es una de las razones principales de mi visita. Me gustaría comprender quė son los metodos filosóficos y pedagógicos que están utilizando, cómo los estudiantes están progresando, cómo se los integran con la sociedad convencional, y dónde hay espacio para mejora según las escuelas.

Here is the basic English translation: 

As an education and special needs attorney in the United States, I have had the opportunity to advocate on behalf of individuals with different abilities to help them secure the special programs and supports that they require to achieve progress and become independent, productive members of society. In the United States, we have broad and generous laws to protect students with various kinds of learning and developmental difficulties. I realize that different countries have different laws; some provide more services, others less. Recently I have become very interested to learn about what other countries around the world are doing in the area of education, in general, and special education, in particular. I would like to meet with individuals from the government sector, corporate sector, and private sector to learn more. If the government has plans to improve or expand educational access for individuals with different abilities, I would like to know what actions are being taken. If there are companies that have made extraordinary efforts to employ and include individuals with different abilities in their companies, I would like to know how that program came into existence, how it functions, who is eligible, and what if any plans there are to expand. I am also interested in observing special education programs in Peru. Indeed, that is one of the main purposes for my visit. I would like to understand what philosophical and pedagogical approaches are being utilized, how children are progressing, how they are being integrated into mainstream society, and where the schools believe there is room for improvement.

Looking forward to an interesting and meaningful adventure!

Friday, October 4, 2013

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


I saw the documentary Salinger recently so, as I'm writing this blog post, J.D. Salinger is fresh in my mind. There's something about that last scene in The Catcher In The Rye depicting children being saved just before falling off the edge of a cliff that has had a deep, visceral, and lasting impact on me. I think that profound scene can be related to the practice of special education law, which at times involves saving children with special needs from falling toward academic failure and developmental stagnation when they have been neglected by their local school districts. I think families who are the most needy - those who have children with special needs AND lack necessary financial means - require the most help because school districts can be especially difficult in these kinds of cases. The recent case of A.R. v. New York City Department of Education, 12 Civ. 4493 (PAC), is one example of our legal system upholding a child's rights in the face of a school district that would have preferred to let the child fall off the cliff.

On appeal, the Southern District of New York (SDNY) in A.R. considered a parent's claim for private school funding as a result of the district's conceded failure to provide an appropriate public school education. The school district admitted it didn't do its job, but still didn't want to pay for the kid's services. The Court addressed a number of issues, including whether a parent's financial need and inability to fund the cost of a private placement should bar an award of funding for the private program. Those familiar with this area of the law may recall the case of Mr. and Mrs. A. v. NYC Department of Education, where the SDNY considered this issue and determined that, where parents lack the financial resources to front the costs of private school tuition, parents who satisfy all other factors have a right to retroactive direct tuition payment relief.

In A.R., the school district argued that the parent obviously couldn't afford to front the cost of the tuition, that the parent never made any payments to the private placement, that the private school never demanded payment, that the private school waived its right to payment by failing to enforce the terms of the enrollment contract, and that the enrollment contract was a sham. The SDNY rejected all of these arguments. The SDNY affirmed the decision in Mr. and Mrs. A., quoting from that case and saying that "it would be a grave error to conclude from the fact that [the parent] did not have the means to pay for a private placement that her daughter is precluded from receiving the free appropriate public education that the IDEA is intended to guarantee." In A.R., the SDNY said that "[t]he fact that [the parent] ultimately expected to prevail in her claims against the DOE does not indicate that she believed that she had no obligation to pay under the contract." Therefore, the contract was not a sham. With respect to the district's assertion that the parent never intended to send her child to a public placement, the Court observed somewhat mockingly that "[t]he DOE pretends to have peered into the [the parent's] mind and ascertained that she 'never seriously considered sending the Student to a public placement," and pointed out that there is a difference between (1) wanting a private school and, at the same time, being open to public school recommendations if they are appropriate, and (2) not being open to public school recommendations at all. With respect to scenario (1), "[s]uch a view is entirely consistent with a permissible desire to keep the Student enrolled at the same school she had been attending . . . , but a willingness to consider other forthcoming proposals from the DOE," said the Court.

As a result, the parent's claim was upheld and the school district was ordered to fund the cost of the child's private placement.

So, although a child's IDEA-mandated rights are not always respected and enforced by local school districts, there is a legal system to which parents can appeal in order to ensure that their children receive the programs and services that they require to continue progressing and growing, and staying far away from the edge of that cliff.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Fixing The System And Improving The Quality Of Our Teachers

Anyone will tell you that a qualified, well-trained, and prepared teachers corps is the linchpin of a successful education system.  Yet in the United States, teaching programs have proliferated, anyone can get in somewhere, and teachers oftentimes are thrown into the classroom with one instruction - "teach" - without the kind of experience, training, supervision, and ongoing professional development and constructive feedback that one would expect (especially for a world leader and superpower like the United States).  An article I read over the weekend by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/28/opinion/three-sisters-not-chekhovs.html?_r=0) cited a recent study (which I haven't yet read) finding that 75% of our country's teaching programs are considered just "mediocre."  The study also found that "the field of teacher preparation has rejected any notion that its role is to train the next generation of teachers."  The article suggests that the burden of training teachers has shifted to the new teacher's employer.  From what I have gathered, this training and professional development does not seem to be happening in adequate doses at the school level.  If all the above is true, it would mean that not only are teachers expected to become prepared to teach while on the job, but also that they are expected to become prepared on the job on their own.       

Amanda Ripely, the subject of my 8/23/13 blog post, provides an interesting perspective concerning this issue in her new book, The Smartest Kids In The World.  In other countries considered world leaders in education, being admitted to teaching school is a competitive and selective process.  Graduating from such programs is rigorous.  Intensive practical training is also required and involves constant constructive feedback from an experienced supervisor.  Teachers are expected to become prepared before stepping into the classroom, not after.  Only then are teachers told to "go teach" and given the professional autonomy to run their classrooms as they see fit.  

Our system is broken in this respect.  What are we doing to fix it?  

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Smartest Kids In The World And How They Got That Way




I just finished reading the The Smartest Kids In The World And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. It’s a great read and I truly enjoyed every minute of it. Ripley mainly examines the education systems in Finland, South Korea, and Poland (other countries are mentioned but not discussed as thoroughly) to consider what we can learn from different models around the world. When she described the culture of the hagwons in S. Korea, I felt the tension coursing through my veins as I flipped through the pages. Ripley describes the unique S. Korean culture so vividly, allowing the reader to form colorful images of young Korean students hunkered at their desks during after-school hours gripping their pencils tightly with sweat dripping down their foreheads as they review their lessons feverishly with instructors pacing the aisles and watching over them. The icing on the cake was the author’s raid with the hagwon curfew police who traveled from street to street searching for illegal studying establishments to bust!

Ripley’s descriptions of Finland and Poland were interesting too. The description of those cultures didn’t pop as much as S. Korea’s. There was an interesting bit about Poland’s history and the country’s efforts to revamp itself. With respect to Finland, which is considered the top education model in the world, it was interesting to read about the predominant, maybe even universal, understanding among children and adults about the importance of education as well as the freedom that Finnish students are afforded by their parents and teachers.

Throughout the book there is a big emphasis on quality of teachers, quality of curriculum, and level of expectations for students. Ripley talks at length about making teachers’ colleges more competitive, increasing the prestige of the teaching profession, etc. These are insightful and important points. However, I would have also liked to read more about other subjects – like the dynamics of teachers unions and local government, poverty, race and diversity. For instance, the teachers’ unions, which are mentioned but not really explored, are a huge issue in the U.S. right now. I’m curious as to Ripley’s thoughts about how powerful unions can exist abroad without getting in the way of positive education reform. The book is only 199 pages (excluding appendices, author’s notes, etc.), but I would have enjoyed reading more.

Some other interesting takeaway messages: the importance of failing (contrast with “the self-esteem culture” in which everyone gets a trophy, everyone’s a winner), the relative unimportance of sports in a school setting (i.e., as opposed to participating in sports outside of school with private organizations), quality parental involvement at home on academic skills vs. frequent involvement in extra-curriculuar school events and PTA meetings, economic imperatives leading to consensus about rigor (do we need to hit rock bottom first?), and PISA.

At the end of the day, The Smartest Kids In The World is a highly enjoyable read. Even though the personal details about the lives of the exchange students can, at times, feel fluffy, they enhance the reader’s interest and quicken the pace of the book. Ripley also includes a great appendix dealing with the subject of “how to spot a world-class education system,” which, among other things, cautions to “ignore the shiny things” that are not always tied to academic progress.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Congratulations Amanda on your wonderful accomplishment and best of luck with your next endeavor.