Dear Extra Credit Readers:
Today's column is a departure from the usual questions and answers. Briggs Chaney Middle School parent Ricki Sabia, who also is associate director of the National Down Syndrome Society's National Policy Center, has had a lengthy exchange of e-mails with me over the last year about the federal No Child Left Behind law that I recently turned into a column for washingtonpost.com. Here is a shortened version of that column, which can be found in its entirety at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2003/11/11/AR2005032304288_pf.html.
Sabia began volunteering to help children with disabilities when she was in high school on Long Island. She went to college at Georgetown University and law school at the University of Maryland. When her second son, Stephen, was born in 1992 with Down syndrome, her youthful interest became a major focus of her life. She tried to do what she could to improve services for children with disabilities in Montgomery County, where she lived with Stephen; her older son, David; and her husband, Peter, a cardiologist.
It often was a struggle and led her to appreciate an unexpected ally, the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The law is not very popular with educators, particularly those whose schools are threatened with unattractive labels if their special education students do not reach the annual achievement targets under the law. But for Sabia, the law is an effective tool precisely because it pushes educators to try to do difficult things that, before the law, they could easily let slide. No Child Left Behind slaps a "needs improvement" label on a school and forces it to let students transfer and get them special tutoring if any of its student subgroups, including low-income children or children with disabilities, do not improve at the rate prescribed by the law and state authorities.
Sabia said her first experience dealing with the Montgomery County public schools came when she enrolled Stephen in a special program for infants and toddlers when he was 7 months old. "It became immediately apparent that MCPS was a bureaucratic maze that would challenge all my skills and take up much of my time and energy to navigate," she said.
"Our biggest battles with MCPS came when we wanted to have Stephen included in regular education classes at his neighborhood school," Sabia said. She and her husband ultimately succeeded without having to resort to the administrative appeals or lawsuits that ensnare other parents, "but it was a struggle to convince the school to take him and get MCPS to provide the aide support he needed, both of which he had a legal right to under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA]," she said.
Once Stephen started at Cloverly Elementary School in Silver Spring, she said, "his considerable charm, as well as appropriate aide support, won over the hearts and minds of the staff and students. He has always had a teacher request to have him in his or her class." The transition to Briggs Chaney, where Stephen is a seventh-grader, also went well, she said.
When No Child Left Behind took effect, it had little impact on Sabia or her son because he already had access to regular classes and highly qualified teachers with high expectations. "However," Sabia said, "I recognized that NCLB would institutionalize a process that would promote all these things for students with disabilities, whether or not their parents were in the position to advocate for them through IDEA.
"This is critically important," she said. "People always treated Stephen's academic success as evidence that he is extraordinary for a child with DS instead of recognizing that he is an ordinary child with DS -- except in our eyes -- who has had extraordinary opportunities to maximize his potential. The opportunities he has had will hopefully become commonplace under NCLB, and then people will see that many kids with DS and other significant disabilities can learn and achieve much more than previously believed.
"At national conferences I have seen that some teachers and administrators are beginning to see that segregating students with disabilities in classes without access to the general education curriculum or highly qualified -- content trained -- teachers is partly to blame for the achievement gap," she said. "Unfortunately other teachers and administrators are spending more time fighting NCLB than they are spending on narrowing this gap.
"The biggest impact of NCLB may be a revolution in the way we talk about education for students with disabilities," she said. "The standard has always been an appropriate education which provides some minimal benefit or progress on [Individualized Education Program] goals. We only heard 'world class' or 'state of the art' applied to general education. With NCLB, school systems will have to start applying those terms to students with disabilities if they are not to be left behind."
One administrator in Montgomery County told Sabia that it was fine if she wanted to put her child through all the stress of standardized tests but that other parents did not want that forced on them. She replied that "the assessments aren't nearly as stressful for students as it will be to graduate without the skills they need to go on to employment or post-secondary education. Students with disabilities face a lot of well meaning paternalism, but they are being protected from the wrong things."
It is a messy process, trying to improve schools with a federal law, and there are parts of No Child Left Behind that do not make much sense. But when parents who have struggled to find the right teachers for their children say the law has helped them do that, it is worth listening to them and making certain that when Congress and the bureaucracy try to adjust the law, they don't remove those pieces that work best.