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.