A Teacher’s Voice: IEPs, Self-Advocacy and My Teenage Students

Written by Mark Fusco, Guest Writer | 7 years ago

Recently a senior at our high school in the Bronx, who we’ll call Maria, realized that there will be some huge changes when she starts college. The consistent attention, specialized instruction, and accommodations she is currently guaranteed by her Individualized Education Plan (IEP) will not simply be given to her. There is no streamlined system that mails her IEP to the institution of her choice—in fact, the services she qualifies for under IDEA will stop when she graduates.

Our 12th grade Special Education teacher won’t be packing her bags for the college towns of Oneonta or Old Westbury. Maria will have to become a self-advocate, a young woman poised to register with the Office of Disability Services and courageous enough to disclose to her professors that she learns differently than the average student. Her revelation came three months before graduating.

As a general education English teacher who has known her for three years, I am pleased to see how far she’s come. Until last year, she had no IEP or 504 plan, though everyone, including her, knew she needed the extra help. It took abysmal state test scores for Maria, her family, and our school to move toward getting the official support offered by an IEP. Once she received the help she needed, the change in the quality of her work was dramatic—on the state English test alone, her score increased by 30 points. Participating in the process of official evaluation and IEP creation helped Maria become more open to help and willing to talk to adults about what she needs to learn. (Which goes to show that although early intervention is best, it’s never too late to pursue the formal supports an IEP can offer.)

Maria’s growth in the past year makes me confident that she will be able to speak up and receive accommodations she is entitled to when she leaves high school. But what about those who are too embarrassed to speak up? What will become of those kids who are fallaciously dreaming of the day when no one will ever know that they have LD? What happens when there is no more familiar presence to remind them to slow down, organize their thoughts, and reinforce that they are in fact brilliant? My guess is that they will have an extremely difficult freshman year. In a country where over seventy percent of our young people drop out of four-year colleges (and the number is even higher for students with LD), we should be thinking of new ways to ensure that we help create a culture of self-advocacy at the high school level, especially for students with disabilities.

In no way am I relieving high school general education teachers of their legal and ethical obligations to educate all students. Teachers like myself must intimately understand and follow the provisions of students’ IEPs and 504s. However, I believe the student, by age 17 or 18, should know what he/she needs as well or better than the general education instructor.

Quite often, unless a parent or student explicitly shares it, most teachers won’t see a new student’s IEP or 504 until a few weeks into a given school year. And that’s when everything goes right. When I taught summer school last year, I was given no information about individual students’ needs even though many of my students—who were placed in summer school because they had failed academic-year English—had LD. When I finally inquired about this with school leadership, I was told that the IEPs were locked and the only person with access to them was on vacation. While such fundamental school-level problems need to be corrected, some challenges could have been ameliorated if my students had been taught to ensure they get their services and had practiced articulating what exactly helped them learn best. It takes a partnership between teacher, family, and student.

As a young teacher who honestly did not know about the LD information gap between high school and college, I have had my own realization: I need to do a better job of ensuring that our upperclassmen know their strengths and weaknesses and understand how to explain them to new teachers and supervisors they will encounter in colleges and workplaces across the country. Tools like checklists for transitioning to college are very helpful to use with students and should be a standard part of transition planning. Most importantly, as a high school teacher, it is my job not only to teach students with LD in ways that they can learn, but to help them build self-advocacy skills so that they have the fortitude to stand up for their rights.

Mark Fusco is in his third year teaching English and Film to 11th and 12th grade students at a public charter school in the Bronx. His passion in teaching is helping all students discover their unique talents. He holds an M.A. in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.