With a new school year started, I wanted to take some time to talk about an issue in Special Ed (in fact all of public education) that is growing, and troubling. If you work in a large urban school district, you will nod often as you read this article. This scenario is happening all too often, and we need to turn a high intensity spotlight on it.
We'll call her Sarah. Sarah is currently in a regular education setting in a large neighborhood elementary school in an East Coast city. It could be Boston, Philadelphia, New York, it doesn't matter. Actually what I'm going to describe is happening everywhere.
Sarah is now in third grade, she's shy, quiet, and causes no problems in the classroom. Her teacher has noticed she rarely responds to questions, never contributes in class and has been absent for every large-scale reading evaluation your school has administered. You have no idea what her reading scores are. In fact, you went to the office this week to look at her school records, to learn more about her. There are no school records on Sarah. You learn from the Principal that Sarah first appeared "on our doorstep" in the middle of second grade. Efforts to contact her parents for regular communication have failed; there is no address on record. Notes put in her book bag; more of a paper sack really, are never returned or acknowledged by a parent or guardian.
Her quiet demeanor has consistently pushed her to the back of the classroom. Teachers have so much more to deal with than to be responsible for tracking a student. Lately though, you've noticed when she is coming to school, her clothes are dirty. A smudge on her arm may be dirt, but you suspect it's a bruise. Today's the day you're going to get to the bottom of the "Sarah issue", right? However, other things get in the way, a boy from a neighboring classroom threw a tantrum that has disrupted every class on the floor and the Principal is holding a special meeting to come up with an RTI plan.
Truth is, you're not even sure if this is a case for a SPED referral, you don't have any data to support a referral. Here's the point at which you can turn this around. Someone needs to start collecting hard data on this student. Just when you're ready to walk Sarah home from school to speak to Sarah's Mom, she fails to come to school at all. She has vanished off the radar, and you have no idea where she went.
If you're saying this could never happen in your school, think again. Some of the problems lie with the transferability of student records. As a student moves through schools, there is a law called FERPA that monitors the confidentiality of all student records. The law that is intended to protect family privacy sometimes causes records to be lost in a mess of red tape. If there are no parents in attendance to be proactive on behalf of their children, it's even hard to know who they are. Immigration policies and loopholes are adding to the problems. In the U.S., if a student shows up at school, we are required to admit and serve them. When there are language issues, and parents are one step ahead of the landlord, the problem is further exacerbated.
So Sarah is gone now, out of your reach, and you have so much to do with the kids that are on your radar, she will be in someone else's back yard. Large school districts with "Pupil Personnel" offices are understaffed and underfunded. A kind of lethargy has grown in other social service agencies that are charged with tracking the kids in foster care. So, if you don't even know where Sarah is, how do you know if she has parents in her life, or if she can be tracked through social services? The Pupil Personnel office has no idea, because they never received transfer records for Sarah in the first place.
It's conceivable that children are wandering from school to school and are receiving essentially no education from a public system that has been created to serve their needs. I have no answers; I'm just continually puzzled and angry that this situation continues unabated. It seems that with the advent of the Internet, there should be better solutions. Fingerprinting on the first day of school, or retinal scans or some other indelible ID could be set up that reach into a central database of demographic information on children. Plastic ID cards with barcodes are one idea, but they become lost. But here comes FERPA, privacy rights.......
Here are some great discussions on this subject. Academic CracksNo Records Into AdulthoodPPRA - Protection of Pupil RightsHomeless Children EducationMcKinney-VentoEducation of Undocumented ImmigrantsEqual Protection for Undocumented Immigrants - Plyler vs. Doe
Let's talk about this, leave a message below.
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