On March 18th, the Valley Voice published an article titled, “Tulare Parent’s Lawsuit Seeks Justice for Disabled Son.” The article told the story of a local family’s struggle with and legal battles against the Tulare City School District; specifically concerning the district’s role in educating their special needs son.
As I read the article, I started to get emotional in two very distinct, seemingly conflicting ways. First, I can appreciate what it means, as a parent, to stand up and advocate for your children. Having a special needs child is certainly not for the faint of heart, even on the “good days.” Add in a legal battle with the local school district, and I know the “good days” would become fewer and farther between. I don’t know the details of the McWilliams family story (beyond what was published), so there’s no judgement coming from me. Every special needs family is on a journey they did not choose, and no two journeys are the same. Which brings me to the second reason this article stirred my emotions:
Right after our son Jacob’s second birthday, my wife and I took him to the Central Valley Regional Center to have him assessed. We were concerned; Jacob was non-verbal and had trouble performing many basic, age-appropriate tasks. He was well behind his peers in nearly every way; he even had trouble walking. The result of the assessment was the validation of our concerns, and we were instantly thrust into the world of having a child with special needs. Jacob was assigned a case manager and we were quickly introduced to a team of social workers, teachers and therapists through a wonderful County program called Bright Start. This amazing team quickly became like our extended family, and helped us navigate through a very emotional, frustrating, and overwhelming season as we adjusted to our new way of life.
As Jacob approached his third birthday, his case manager called a meeting and informed us about an upcoming transition. On a child’s third birthday, she told us, they are transferred out of the care of the County program and into the care of their local school district. Since we lived in Tulare, this transition would be into the Tulare City School District (TCSD). She warned us that things were about to change; that school districts limit services to the educational needs of a child instead of taking the “whole-child” approach that we’d experienced in the Bright Start program.
When we made the leap to TCSD, we quickly discovered that things were, in fact, different. While the teachers and staff were great, we could tell that the system was different. The services offered by the district seemed much more limited than we’d gotten used to. This concerned us, so we decided to enlist the help of a parent liaison offered freely through the Tulare County Office of Education. We quickly developed a strong relationship with her and met several other local advocates for special needs children and parents. My wife even attended “Wrightslaw” seminars with them to learn about parental rights and how to partner with our local school district to achieve an outcome that was both desirable and realistic. We were determined to stand firm in our advocacy for Jacob, but equally determined to partner with TCSD to achieve the best outcome possible.
Our first couple of years in the district presented us with several opportunities to abandon our commitment to partnership. We had disagreements over the type and extent of services Jacob should receive, how much he would be “mainstreamed” with his typical developing peers, whether he should be ‘held back’ in the first grade and so on. We developed a reputation for being firm and holding the district accountable, but in a respectful and honoring way.
We regularly asked his teachers and therapists for strategies and tools we could use at home to reinforce what they worked on at school. When we had meetings with school principals and administrators, we made it a point to praise Jacob’s teachers, aides, and psychologists for the good work they’d done. It wasn’t long before the disagreements became much less frequent, and we started getting nearly everything we asked for.
Our son is now an 8th grader at Live Oak Middle School and has been in TCSD’s “special day classes” for the last 10 years. These are classes designed for kids like Jacob, who benefit from smaller class sizes and teachers specially trained to work with children with special needs. We’ve watched him thrive in these classrooms with teachers, therapists, psychologists, and administrators that we will cherish forever.
Over the past decade, we’ve watched a very positive shift take place in the district’s commitment to developing the special education program. I don’t have the space to properly do justice to things like the “Cookies & Conversation” classes put on by district teachers and staff, which help parents navigate the confusing world of special education and offer a connection to community resources for their families. Or the inclusion and focus on our kids during the lead up to the Special Olympics, and how meaningful it is to have the entire school celebrating our kids’ accomplishments. My wife and I have often said that when it comes to special education, you couldn’t pay us to move Jacob out of the district.
The reason I’m writing this piece is not to discredit the McWilliams family’s experience, but simply to offer a contrasting point of view. When I read the March 18th article and saw statements like, “it is absolutely a shit show,” and “they do this to every single family,” I knew I had to speak up and share our experience. While TCSD is certainly not perfect, it’s unfair to make generalized statements that make it seem like everyone’s experience is the same.
12 years ago, when we took our two-year-old little boy into that very first assessment, I never dreamed he would be where he is today. Although not performing at grade level, he can read and write, do basic math, speak in complete sentences and fully participate in PE. Much of Jacob’s success is due to the great work of the special education team at TCSD, and I am eternally grateful to his teachers, teacher’s aides, therapists, school psychologists and administrators for it.