LIFE Project teaches parents how to advocate for kids’ educational needs

By the time he’d finished the third grade, my eldest son, Claude, had attended a public school, a parochial school, a Quaker school, a Waldorf school and a Montessori school.

The following year, when he was in the fourth grade, he attended the Lawrence School, a private school in Broadview Heights that specializes in remediating learning disabilities.

Of all those schools, Claude only switched once because of a long-distance move — from Centre County, Pa., to Cleveland. Why so many schools? Because I was desperate.

As a little guy, Claude was obviously bright. He had a vivid imagination, creating a flower kingdom with his toddler brother, Hugo, under the thicket of forsythia that grew in our backyard in Pennsylvania. He often wore a handmade, felt Batman mask in public and when asked his name, he’d reply, “I’m Claude, the masked-rider boy.”

When interested in something, Claude went deep. Around age 5, he was our resident expert on beavers and their muddy constructs.

However, after his first three years of school, he remained unable to distinguish numbers from letters.

I first became concerned when Claude was in kindergarten. Though it was a wonderful school with two teachers in each class and plenty of play time, Claude soon became anxious about attending. I eventually learned, as is common, he was aware other students were easily understanding the academic lessons, while he was not.

And so began my questioning. Teachers at all his schools told me not to worry. “Boys mature more slowly,” they’d say. But I knew something was wrong. I grew obsessively concerned as more time passed, routinely reminding myself to focus on my other two little boys, too.

Then, in the summer Claude was a rising third-grader, one short conversation changed everything.

While at the Buddhist family camp in Vermont that we went to every year, a woman who’d also been attending for a few years mentioned she was a pediatric occupational therapist. I told her Claude held his pencils like violin bows. She asked me several questions and then declared, “You need to have him evaluated for learning disabilities.”

Such a simple thing, really, and one every educator I’d questioned should have offered to do. Why didn’t they? I believe because Claude wasn’t a behavior problem, the public schools prioritized their more difficult students over him. Private schools often do not have access to the substantive interventions found in public schools, and having him diagnosed might have resulted in his withdrawal from those schools.

That fall, Claude’s evaluation revealed he is severely dyslexic.

Firstborns bear the burden of rookie parents. Even though I was college-educated and very invested in my children’s educations, I did not know Evaluation Team Reports (ETRs, then called Multi-Factored Evaluations, or MFEs) existed, much less that I had the right to request one.

Nor did I know there are attorneys who specialize in education law and help families receive the services their children need. Though, even if I had, I likely would not have pursued retaining a lawyer because of the expense.

This is why I am truly thrilled about the LIFE (Learning Is For Everyone) Project, a pilot program launched by Community Legal Aid in Akron. In workshops held across the city, parents can learn what educational services are available and how to ask for them.

The materials Community Legal Aid created for this program are invaluable. A workbook with 11 pages of questions and information helps determine what problems a child is having in school.

Depending on the results of the first workbook, there is a workbook for an ETR, which is the first step in establishing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for a student. There is also a workbook for 504 plans, which are for students who do not meet the qualifications of an IEP, but who still need accommodations and supports to succeed.

Also included in the packet of materials is a glossary of terms and definitions. Educational jargon and acronyms are intimidating. As the current principal of Firestone High School knows, until very recently, I was unable to remember 504 plans, sometimes referring to them as “524s” or “those 500-things.”

Finally, to empower parents to advocate for their children, there is a template containing sample letters, general forms, as well as a copy of each of the four different types of intervention plans. Also found in this section is a seven-page list of community resources for concerns ranging from addiction to school transportation.

Parents who attend the workshops are walked through the first workbook, identifying their children’s needs. Then, either in small groups or one-on-one, staff from Community Legal Aid discuss with parents how to initiate and proceed with requesting interventions from the schools for their children.

To be clear, Community Legal Aid finds Akron Public Schools very responsive to the children in the district who need additional support. This has also been my personal experience. But there are children, like my Claude, who can fall through the cracks simply because their parents cannot ask for things they don’t know exist.

At this time, Community Legal Aid intends to hold a few workshops each grading period in different parts of the city. If successful, the program could be expanded to the other large school districts Community Legal Aid serves in its eight-county region, including Canton, Warren and Youngstown.

Once properly diagnosed, Claude began appropriate interventions. By the end of the third grade, he was reading chapter books. He went on to get a degree in English literature from the University of Michigan and writes for The Devil Strip, an Akron arts and culture publication.

Claude has done well, but I’ll always wish he’d been properly diagnosed in kindergarten, which is why I also wish the LIFE Project had existed 20 years ago.

LIFE Workshops

Community Legal Aid LIFE (Learning Is For Everyone) workshops will be offered Nov. 27 at the REACH Opportunity Center, 390 W. Crosier St., Akron; and Dec. 13 at Findley Community Learning Center, 65 W. Tallmadge Ave., Akron.

Workshops take place from 6 to 8 p.m. and include refreshments and children’s activities. The free workshops cover support available to students from kindergarten through 12th grade. To register, go to www.communitylegalaid.org/events or text SCHOOL to 77453.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 19, 2018.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Raising a family of voters

Put me in charge of everything and I’d immediately mandate compulsory voting. In the 26 countries with compulsory voting, not only is turnout high (even when enforcement is weak), but a wider demographic of the electorate is politically informed.

For better or worse, I am not in charge of everything. I am, however, in charge of my children’s upbringing. While there are many dedicated nonprofits working tirelessly to register and turn out eligible young voters, nothing has more power than what is modeled at home.

My own parents voted regularly — my mother and her husband casting votes to the right of the John Birch Society while my father, at least once, voted for Comrade Gus Hall for president. My stepmom remains politically active and is currently precinct captain for the Democrats in her county.

When my boys were little, I took them with me to my polling station so they could see voting in action and become familiarized with how it works. But I didn’t stop there.

In 2003, when we moved to Akron, I packed up the boys, then ages 9, 6 and 3, and drove to Columbus. We met with our then-state senator, Kimberly Zurz. We also met with the legislative aide of our congresswoman, Barbara Sykes.

Intimate with the positions of their bosses, legislative aides allow politicians to be responsive to their constituents in a way no single person could do. Never refer to them as “just legislative aides” because the work of these public servants is invaluable to good governance.

In the fall of 2004, the boys and I spent several Saturdays in multiple Akron neighborhoods dropping leaflets for the Democrats. We also housed volunteers who came to Ohio from other states, including Oliver Moles, a man in his 70s from D.C. Moles grew up on Rhodes Avenue in Akron and for weeks the boys listened to dinner conversations either about politics or midcentury Akron.

In 2008, Akron Public Schools were closed, as is often the case, on the day of the November election. At the time, 11-year-old Hugo was the only one of my children who had the day off. Claude was at Akron Early College High School, which follows the University of Akron’s schedule, and Jules was at a private school. I worked in Youngstown.

Home alone, what did Hugo do? He walked to the nearby Obama campaign headquarters and asked if he could volunteer. They gave him a stack of posters to roll up. When Hugo told me what he had done, I could not have been more proud.

When they were in high school, the boys helped me canvas, seeking out registered voters at their homes to get out the vote. First-time canvassers are understandably nervous about knocking on strangers’ doors.

The day of the 2012 presidential election, 17-year-old Hugo went with me for a few blocks before I gave him his own list. With 3-month-old Lyra strapped to my chest in a baby carrier, doors opened easily for me. “Get in here with that baby!” more than one woman told me.

But a young man all alone? Hugo was sure he’d be met with suspicion, but when we reconvened, he was bouncing on his toes with delight. He’d had several engaging conversations and felt he’d made a difference.

When my children turned 18, I make a big deal about voter registration. With Claude and Hugo, who have winter birthdays, I pulled them out of school to visit the Summit County Board of Elections. Once registered, we went out for lunch before returning to school.

The first year Claude attended the University of Michigan, he mailed in an absentee ballot. Then in 2015, Ohio Secretary of State John Husted threw out absentee ballots that were not postmarked, even though the U.S. Postal Service cannot guarantee all mail will receive a postmark. Almost 900 mail-in ballots in Summit County were thrown out in that year’s November election.

Not only do I want every adult citizen to vote, but I also expect their legally cast votes to be counted. Since the presidential election in 2000, voter suppression, which had lain mostly dormant since the Civil Rights Movement’s successes in the 1960s, has raised its reinvigorated head across the country.

Waiting for our ballots at the Summit Co. Board of Elections

Jules turned 18 last June and rather than make a fuss over his registration, his brothers and I waited until his first election. After a delayed bus trip from Rochester and an Uber ride from Cleveland, Hugo arrived in Akron at 2 a.m. on the second Friday of early voting. Claude, who has been a weekend canvassing captain this fall, took the afternoon off from work. At home, the four of us again reviewed the ballot issues before driving to the board of elections.

“You didn’t ask us if we would come home to vote, you ordered us to,” laughed Hugo when I told them I’d let my college students know about our family voting early and in person for several years now.

Hugo’s correct; after Husted purged so many absentee ballots, I did tell them we could not trust the system unless we showed up in person. I told them to come home from college to vote. But I also didn’t “ask” Hugo to power wash the garage, help Leif put up Halloween decorations and polish a pair of my boots while he was home. And from that list of things I told him to do, he did zero.

But Hugo went out of his way to vote in person. For my kids, it’s second nature, and I don’t doubt they will be active citizens their entire lives.

It’s never too late to start participating in our democracy. If you’ve never voted, I encourage you to register and to support measures that make voting easier, not harder. The Summit County Board of Elections is open daily for early voting, including from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday. Go vote!

Christensen Early Voter Brigade Oct. 19, 2018

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, November 4, 2018.