A group of trailblazing parents addressed the importance of meaningful inclusion in special education at the Leander Independent School District board meeting Thursday. Several parents spoke about their own experiences with special education in LISD, and how those experiences will shape their children’s lives in the future.
Parent Anna Smith spoke first about her concern for the future of special education in the district, stating that in April 2019 she came before the board to ask for help in creating an inclusive community with LISD.
“Our story and struggles of obtaining services for special education inspired me to speak out in an attempt to work with our district in hopes that another family will not endure the same struggles that our family went through,” she said.
Smith said she met other families along the way who have also struggled to have their voices heard. After the meeting in April, she formed a group with other parents who have children with disabilities. They have since met up regularly to ensure the district is listening to parents’ concerns.
The group presented quick ideas on how to improve morale among the special education staff, how to support parents and students and how to make LISD more inclusive to all. Those ideas included a soft opening at open house for students like Smith’s child who are easily overstimulated by crowds and noise, SpEd Training 2.0, a special education survey and an inclusion culture committee.
Smith said the inclusion culture committee would continue to seek ways to improve practices and opportunities for students with disabilities and develop a mission statement that celebrates diversity and builds empathy and understanding.
“The goal is to make sure that all students feel encouraged to participate in academics, social and extracurricular activities and feel included and valued,” Smith said.
Other parents like Kori Delapena and Teana Ross spoke about how their children were lucky enough to be part of an inclusion program in LISD.
Delapena said her daughter showed successful growth in academics through inclusion.
“Our experience has been positive due to meaningful inclusion, but we do know that there are many families that continue to face significant barriers to accessing inclusive, high-quality education and collaboration in the district,” Delapena said.
Delapena’s daughter passed away, however, she said said it is her passion to continue to support and advocate for inclusion for all in the district.
Ross said her daughter was one of a lucky few in the district who has received an inclusive education since kindergarten. Ross said her daughter, Presley, is in seventh grade and a cheerleader.
“She is an exception, not the norm,” Ross said. “If she had been segregated in the ICAP [Individual Career and Academic Plan] classroom, I have no doubt that she would not have the confidence, skills and acceptance by her peers to go out for cheer and be as successful as she is.”
Ross said some families who are not receiving the same inclusive education are moving out of LISD or securing attorneys in order to get their child into a more inclusive setting.
“The good news in all of this is that we want to partner with you,” Ross said to the board. “We want to form a collaborative task force comprised of administrators, teachers and parents to identify gaps and devise a plan for improvement to ensure equal opportunity for all.”
LISD parent and co-founder of Ruby’s Rainbow, a nonprofit dedicated to providing college scholarships to students with down syndrome, Liz Plachtz said the goal should be for all students to receive higher education. She said inclusion is a necessary part of helping students to achieve those goals.
“What I have learned with Ruby’s Rainbow is that people with intellectual disabilities have the same wants and desires to continue to grow and learn after high school just like any other student,” Plachtz said. “The bottom line here is that we need to prepare our students for these opportunities, and that starts with inclusion beginning in pre-k and elementary school and keeping the expectations high.”
LISD parent Jeanette Holohan, who also has a daughter with down syndrome, addressed inclusion in major tech and Fortune 500 companies. Holohan said these companies have neurodiverse hiring programs that intentionally-recruit individuals with disabilities.
“The workforce is becoming more inclusive day by day,” Holohan said. “Inclusion starts in the beginning. We go to school to become educated people, to get into the workforce. Starting meaningful and real inclusion in school is the key to building skills academically and life-skills socially for people with disabilities.”
Representatives from Dell, HEB and Arc of Capital also addressed the board about the importance of inclusion in schools and how that translates to the workplace.
Alicia Hawley, a representative from Dell’s neurodiversity hiring program, said inclusion is important and individuals with disabilities are an important part of their workforce. Elizabeth Kendell, a representative for HEB’s Bridges progam --- a hiring initiative to hire people with disabilities, said they believe that people with disabilities have important skill sets and are encouraged to apply for any job with any disability they may have. However, Kendell said there are no training programs if an individual does not already have the skills that are learned in an inclusive learning environment.
“I fully support inclusion at the earliest level because we don’t have training programs for people with disabilities,” Kendell said. “We do expect them to come into the role with those skill sets already.”
Allison Abramo, director of supportive employment for Arc of Capital, said she worked as a special education teacher prior to her current position. She said has witnessed first hand the negative impact of limited-inclusion programs for students with disabilities.
“I saw talented, hardworking students being unnecessarily separated from their neurotypical peers,” she said. “Working with adults, I now see how that impact is compounded over the years for people who continually have limited inclusion opportunities throughout their school careers. I implore the Leander ISD school board to seriously consider the vast benefits of inclusion both for students with and without disabilities and more deeply ingrain that culture into its policies.”
Later in the meeting during a discussion about teaching and learning development, LISD board members commented on the parents’ concerns regarding meaningful inclusion.
LISD board member Jim MacKay said he has spoken with the special education staff and feels that LISD is doing much better than it was three years ago regarding special education.
“Our entire system is broken because parents often times feel that the only way they are being heard is when they take it to a legal proceeding more often than any of us would like,” MacKay said. “In my heart, I truly believe we are doing great things. We have a very talented and dedicated special education program. We also have a room full of parents that are screaming for inclusion. I’m just trying to get my head around the disconnect between what we think we’re doing and what some of the community thinks we’re not doing.”
Chief Academic Office Matt Bentz said he appreciates parents that are already working closely with the district to bridge the gap and improve special education.
“I think the people that spoke tonight would be a vital part of that team as well,” Bentz said.