Solution journalism: Schools can do better for students with disabilities

Editor’s Note: It’s officially March, so we are marching into solutions. Yes, we’re aware of how lame that pun is! We also think it’s lame that a lot of journalism likes to describe everything that’s wrong with the world without showing data-driven examples of solutions that work! We don’t accept that, so this month we are marching (oof, there it is again) into solutions. We’ll be taking issues/problems from the Nola community and doing the research to find solutions that have proven to work! It’s solution journalism, and we’re looking at educational changes! 

 

We can teach everyone; we’re choosing not to. (Photo: Mikhail Nilov, Pexels)

Part I: The Issue

In Louisiana today, there is a lack of support and awareness for students with disabilities in the education system. There is evidence that this lack of support directly affects these students’ ability to graduate at a typical rate, “of the Louisiana students with learning and attention disabilities who left public school in 2014-15, 30 percent did not earn a diploma.” Regardless of the graduation rate, students throughout the entire city have faced the repercussions of a faulty, under-served system that has declined even more so in recent years post Hurricane-Katrina. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, 65,000 students were enrolled in the New Orleans public schools system.
 
This number was cut by more than half to 25,000 students a year after the reopening of schools after the storm. Alone, these numbers depict the struggle the city has faced to create a concrete education system that can properly provide for the students who have experienced their city ripped out from under them. Additionally, in New Orleans public schools received a C letter grade in 2019, a reflection of the average student’s test scoring. Grades this low across the board are far below than the state average, a B but ten points higher. Before the impacts of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Legislature created the Recovery School District (RSD) to oversee the schools as there was an increasingly low academic performance rate within the public schools.
 
Within this district, 70% of students are enrolled in RSD charter schools, with an overall 92% of students enrolled in charter schools across New Orleans since 2014. Even though that percentage is quite high, students are constantly denied access to charter schools based on their disability. A New Orlean’s parent reported that her son who is blind and autistic was not welcomed to a number of schools before finding one who would take on his special needs. Although RSD has devoted its services to rebuilding a school system, within the RSD charter schools, only 6% of students are enrolled in the special education system. There may be more students who have yet to be detected with learning disabilities, but with a low percentage given, there should be an expectation for a greater quality of attention placed on these students’ needs without fail.
 
Within the charter system, there is a lack of awareness of an educator’s legal duties to serve a child with a disability. This falls under The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEIA), a law that makes a widely available, free, and appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation. This law also ensures special education and related services to those students who need them. Within the IDEIA, a foundation is laid out for a school to follow in order to best serve the student through a legal contract known as a student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). Within this contract, there are specific guidelines the school must follow in order to best support a student’s academic needs. Here lies the first problem in the New Orleans charter system: a lack of awareness regarding the school’s legal duties and how best to implement student’s IEPs. Although charter schools are privately managed, they are publicly funded and are still held to the responsibility to uphold student’s needs in terms of special education.
 
In a case study comparing how New Orleans charter versus public schools handle disability services, parents were interviewed in order to understand first-hand how their child is not receiving their needed support. “The school did not know how to evaluate the student’s level of performance. They did not know how to provide or access supports for this student.
 
They said that they could not afford a special education teacher and didn’t know how they could provide services at that school,” said a parent from an independent charter in New Orleans. Disability services need to be in place as a core system as they are present within public schools around the nation, but in New Orleans where the school system is already crumbling, there is a much more pressing need for intervention. With a privately managed school, such as a charter school, they base their disability plans on need, resulting in no system being in place until a student enrolls and inquires. By operating on a need basis, it puts a setback on the student’s ability to excel with the chaos of sourcing out help and deters the school from seeking a sturdy special education program. Specifically, the financial strain of hiring special education professionals and aids discourages schools from implementing a permanent program. Unlike a large scale public school, charter schools do not always have the economic bandwidth to hire special education administrators nor the education themselves on what is required for an individual student’s needs.
 
However, in 2007 Bush Administration gave $24 million to charter schools which caused New Orleans parents to think charters are using this money in a profiting way. Given that, a third party advocacy program should be involved and funded by the schools to oversee the transition and challenges students face.
 
Part II: The Solution
If a given school district does not have the capacity to build a support platform for students with disabilities, then it is something that needs to be sourced from an outside provider. There are many examples that prove using an additional advocacy support role can solve a problem. A role like this is held by someone with specific knowledge on the area, and the capacity for direct focus on one issue. Charter school administration has to consider and manage every variable that goes into running a school. An outside advocacy role whose main focus is to oversee the students with disability needs would eliminate part of this factor that the administration has neglected to address.
 
An example of a system that has implemented a third party advocate is within the business world. In most business transactions, there are multiple parties involved. Whether that is a consumer buying an item or a corporate company making a pitch, there will always be numerous factors that go into a smooth transaction. Similarly, for these transactions to take place, everyone must be on the same level of communication. Without the ability to understand one another, a transaction would not be feasible, nor fair. Though this concept strays a bit from a typical school environment, general communications are necessary in order to implement any form of learning or education. In an environment with a lack of general communication, students with learning disabilities are left at a steep disadvantage because oftentimes they communicate in ways different from a typical student.
 
In the case of a language barrier in a business meeting, an advocate or third party is a necessity. For this circumstance, the advocate specializes in foreign language to properly translate between the dialects of the individuals present. As this allows for ultimate communication that would otherwise be impossible, the advocate serves as a crucial support that if not present, the meeting would ultimately fail. Universe Language Solutions has excelled in just that. This company has provided live, hybrid, and remote translations for over 400 in person and remote events every year with their professionally trained and certified linguists. Universe Language employs people covering 250+ languages, servicing companies all over the world. Not only do the employees specialize in languages, but there are also qualifications in place to be present in specific types of meetings, in order to thoroughly understand the content to communicate and produce the best results by presenting all parties.
 
The companies that have used Universe Language are among a wide spread of big name brands, such as Coca-Cola, Facebook, Harvard University, CDC, etc. To show the company’s credibility and success rate, there are multiple case studies showing how their closed caption technology, another form of their services, has successfully worked and completed the job as an advocate through a variety of scenarios. Furthermore, these scenarios consist of remote language interpretation and platforms, onsite/live conference interpretation, written translations, and closed captioning remote and onsite. Not only do these services act as a tool for translation in a traditional professional capacity, services are also implemented to directly aid hearing impared individuals to have access to a visual form in a live event.
 
Universe Language operates on a free quote basis. In general, this means that depending on the service required, a price would be set by the company, which would depend directly on the service requested and the duration of time required to complete the service. A limitation within this option would revolve around a company’s financial flexibility and willingness to work with members outside of their organization. Similarly, this limitation would be present in regards to implementing a solution within the education system that mimics the advocacy support of Universe Language. During a phone call with founder Carlos Solis, he elaborated on the price quoting process. For example, a one hour event with remote translation technology implemented would cost $200. In the case of a recurring event or package price deal, that would be negotiated to best fit both parties’ needs. The final limitation that could come up with this program is necessity for technology access and working with a variety of schedules to make the most of the service. In the case of a remote service, internet access and smooth functioning is required, without this the program simply can’t operate.
 
Part III: Implementation Although this proposed solution seems irrelevant to the lack of disability support within the New Orleans education system, the structure of the company’s services could be mimicked to achieve a different goal. In 2007, New Orleans charter schools secured $10,000 to $25,000 in additional funding through private donations and foundation grants. With these funds and other potential grants that are regularly allocated to charter schools, a system to aid students with disabilities could be set in place as a third party advocate. Similar to Universe Language, trained and certified special education professionals would be required for this system to work. These professionals would be responsible for the student’s IEP criteria, working with administration to oversee the requirements that are being met, and educate charter school administration on IDEIA legislation. The lack of awareness regarding a school’s legal obligations appears to be one of the main reasons students do not receive assistance in the first place. It is not uncommon for a student to switch between charter schools as charters can typically fail nor meet their goals and ultimately shut down.
 
Therefore, students with disabilities can get lost within the system, needing to work with schools over and over again to receive their individualized support. An advocacy organization, mimicking the structure of Universe Language, would be responsible for overseeing the transition for these students.
 
As a student who had access to the best public schooling in the state of Connecticut, I have had the privilege to receive advocacy support on numerous occasions. During the process of outlining my special education needs in regards to being diagnosed with dyslexia, I was ableto privately hire a legal advocate to work with the school in making sure I would receive the needs listed from my diagnostic report. However I realize this is not the case for most students in New Orleans, but I have reaped the benefits of a structured advocacy program and have experienced the access it has provided for myself. In terms of limitations by implementing this in the New Orleans school district, the acceptance of an outside organization would come into question. There are, however, other areas of the charter system that use the programs from outside resources. For example, Lusher Charter School’s lunch program participates in the National School Lunch Program that is dedicated to providing free or low cost nutritional meals to public and nonprofit private schools. Students at Lusher are offered an opportunity to apply for a free and reduced meal plan, one that does not come from Lusher itself. Another limitation to consider with this solution is the cost a school is willing to pay to bring in specialized professionals on a steady plan, rather than a need based plan as students with disabilities enroll.
 
Universe Language operates on a quoted set price that is negotiable with the circumstance of a recurring need; the same price structure could be negotiated if advocates would be put into place on a recurring basis.
 
As I have experienced and through my research, professional support and advocacy is typically quite successful. However, that requires individuals who are qualified for the job to be present in the city of New Orleans. The proposed solution allows for remote assistance and technology-based support for students to form a relationship with an advocate and vice versa with the school administration. This alleviates the need for a limited professional search, expanding the program to employ staff from all over. Especially in times of the pandemic, virtual learning and advising has grown to be increasingly common. A plan such as this would build off of what young student’s have already become comfortable with in the realm of technology.
 
This piece was written as a part of the “Solution Journalism: Why Aren’t you Fixing This” series for Kelley Crawford’s Alternative Journalism course at Tulane University. 
 
 
Sources
Dreilinger, Danielle. “Louisiana’s Learning-Disabled Students Graduate at Low Rates, Report Says.” NOLA.com, 4 May 2017, www.nola.com/news/education/article_2e0ad799-ac32-5949-810a-7a8eee07b2b4.html.
IDEA. “About Idea.” Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA, 24 Nov. 2020, sites.ed.gov/idea/about-idea/. Jewson, Marta. “Compare 2019 New Orleans School Ratings.” The Lens, The Lens, 11 Nov. 2019, thelensnola.org/2019/11/06/compare-2019-new-orleans-school-ratings/.
Jewson, Marta. “Five Years after Settlement in Citywide Special Education Suit, Some New Orleans Families Still Struggle for Services.” The Lens, The Lens, 11 Dec. 2019, thelensnola.org/2019/12/10/five-years-after-settlement-in-citywide-special-education-suit-some-new-orleans-families-still-struggle-for-services/.
Universe language . “Onsite Interpreting and Live Conference Interpretation Services.” Onsite Interpreting and Live Conference Interpretation Services, UniVerse Language Solutions, 2005, www.universelanguage.com/onsite-live-conference-interpretation.
USDA. “National School Lunch Program.” National School Lunch Program | Food and Nutrition Service, USDA, www.fns.usda.gov/nslp.
 
Wolf, Nikki L. “A Case Study Comparison of Charter and Traditional Schools in New Orleans Recovery School District: Selection Criteria and Service Provision for Students With Disabilities.” Remedial and Special Education, vol. 32, no. 5, SAGE Publications, 2011, pp. 382–92, https://doi.org/10.1177/0741932510362220

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