Road Map to Special Needs Education

From identifying a disability to setting up your student's Individualized Education Program, here are five steps to get you started.

Being new to special needs education and trying to navigate the terrain may feel like a bumpy ride at first. But Detroit parents should know there are schools and organizations to help guide the way to quality services and education for students and their families.

This “road map” charts the route – from identifying a disability to setting up a student’s Individualized Education Program and transitioning into adulthood.

Step 1: Determining if your child has a special need or disability

How do you determine if your child has a special need or a disability? In some cases, a parent might know from birth – or may have the knowledge from a young age if the child has a severe physical or cognitive impairment.

One way to tell is if you notice your child is not meeting his or her major developmental milestones, says Tia’Von Moore-Patton, principal at Jerry L. White Center, a Detroit Public Schools offering for students ages 14-19.

Developmental milestones include smiling, walking and moving, play, babbling and talking and looking at faces, among others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes.

“The teacher might just have a general concern about the child not progressing at the rate they should be. And then that generally starts some of the conversations,” says Megan Clor, a director of clinical services at The Children’s Center, a Detroit-based organization that offers services for ADHD, ASD, behavioral and mental health services for kids.

Sometimes, it starts with parent advocacy. If you notice something about your child’s behavior that’s not making sense to you, bring it to the attention of a teacher or even your family doctor, says Deborah Love-Peel, special education specialist with Detroit Parent Network at DPS’ Charles R. Drew Transition Center’s Parent Resource Center. Love-Peel, whose daughter was born deaf, pushed to find out what was going on with her child.

“It is different for everybody, but it takes parents who are persistent. When you see something that you think is an issue, you have to really be the first person to bring it forward,” she says – even if that’s a behavioral issue your child is having at school.

Through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, schools also perform something called Child Find, through which they can identify students with disabilities or difficulties.

Step 2: Getting evaluations and testing

The next step is having your child evaluated. Parents have to make a request in writing to the school. The school then has 10 school days to notify the parent for consent, according to the Michigan Department of Education’s Michigan Administrative Rules for Special Education, or MARSE. As outlined by the state, upon receiving consent, the school must perform free testing.

“We can test for different things such as a learning disability, a cognitive impairment, autism spectrum disorder. We can look into various things depending on what the parent wants us to look into,” explains Ducre. Within the 30 school days allotted, the school will hold a meeting with the parents and the Multidisciplinary Evaluation Team (MET) to go over the evaluation results and all testing that was done.

“Then we would determine as a team if that child is eligible for special education services based on the results,” Ducre says. “If the child is found to be eligible and the parent agrees, then we can go into an (Individualized Education Program).” This is all done in the 30 school dates allotted.

The system for children under age 3 works a bit differently. The Michigan Department of Education has the Early On program for infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities – including physical, mental, communicative, social, emotional and adaptive.


Step 3: Creating an Individualized Education Program

The Individualized Education Program, or IEP, is a developed especially for your child to help with her special need.

“It focuses specifically on that student’s disability area,” Ducre says. “We have information from all the evaluations that were done, a thorough description of the student’s needs – we focus on accommodations and modifications that the student will need in the classroom and the school.”

So, if your child needs more breaks or occupational or speech and language therapy throughout the day, that is outlined with details about how much time and how often the services are needed, she explains. The IEP also lists goals in various areas for the student set by the IEP team, meaning the IEP meeting participants. It can also specify special testing conditions or alternative testing options.

The IEP must be revised once a year, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says, but can be reviewed/edited at any time and as many times per year as necessary.

“We always stress that to parents,” Ducre says. “Let’s say parents have new information; you can come to the team and we do the IEP. Let’s say the student is doing really great in the classroom and they don’t need to be pulled out as much – we can reconvene and do the IEP.”

Who is in the IEP meeting? If your child is attending a general education school, the general education teacher from their classroom would be there, the special education teacher, the parents or guardian, or any other person involved with the student. That means parents also could bring a therapist or somebody who knows the child well. Representatives from groups like Neighborhood Service Organization or The Children
9;s Center
can come along, too, to help advocate.

If a parent disagrees with anything determined in the IEP meeting, know that you can speak up and have this noted in the IEP, per MARSE.

Once a year, the school must give parents their procedural safeguards, or notice of their rights and the rules, according to IDEA – but they also must be given at the time of request for evaluation, at the parent’s request and in a few other situations specified by law. This breaks down rights parents have when it comes to confidentiality, mediation, state complaint procedures and parental consent.

Knowing your rights and the laws of special needs education is critical for parents and guardians. Learn about them through your child’s school and searching online, or by asking a knowledgeable organization. Being informed is “the best way a parent can be an advocate for their child,” Clor says, adding that while the special needs education process can be intimating, it’s important to ask questions.

“Many times parents are afraid to ask. They just go along with everything rather than saying, ‘You know what man, I don’t get what you’re talking about,'” says Robert Avedisian, principal at DPS’ Drew Transition Center.

Step 4: Examining schooling options

With an IEP in hand, consider the options when it comes to your child’s schooling. Where will they go? Thanks to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, school districts receiving federal funding are required to provide a “free appropriate public education,” or FAPE, to your student with a disability. It also protects the rights of your child in any programs or activities receiving federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education.

Traditional and charter public schools can accommodate your child, and are required to by law. But there are aspects of charters to be aware of when enrolling your child.

“Many charters are new and smaller than local schools and do not actually have the comprehensive services available, but that does not really absolve them from their obligation,” says Mary Fayad, executive director of special education and early intervention services at Wayne RESA. “It presents parents with big challenges to work within the system, exercise their due process rights to obtain these services, or return to the public school district. We see this all of the time.”

But, she adds, that’s not true for all charters. Many have a setup that includes a resource room that supplements a students’ time in the general education classroom. Yet “staff are spread fairly thin,” she says. “Sometimes support staff are part time – so not available at all times. Even the smallest local school districts have a wider array of services within the district or they work out cooperative agreements with neighboring districts to share programming.”

Private schools, which don’t accept federal or state funding, do not have to provide special education services, Fayad adds.

She says that Detroit Public Schools works closely with Wayne RESA to make sure it’s providing families with services they need and that its teachers are trained.

According to the Michigan Alliance for Families, IDEA requires students be placed in the “least restrictive environment,” or LRE, based on their IEP. DPS has a Placement Center, where parents can take their child’s IEP to see what school their child should be attending in the district. Within DPS, there is a gamut of special education options for students with various disabilities from preschool through age 26.

Demand what’s in the law for your child, Montoya says. “It doesn’t stop with getting your IEP. It doesn’t stop with getting into the school. You really have to be an advocate every day.”

Step 5: Planning for transition into adulthood

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires the IEP team to start planning for your child’s next step in life no later than 16 years old. You, as well as your child, will be invited to this meeting where, as a team, you’ll decide goals for your child’s postsecondary future. The different areas outlined by IDEA include postsecondary or vocational education, integrated employment, continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living or community participation. The goals in these areas should be updated annually, according to Wayne RESA’s Transition IEP Review Checklist.

Neighborhood Service Organization, which is stationed at DPS’ six center-based schools, has somebody on staff who helps specifically with the guardianship process, says Renee Peters of NSO.

“Once a child turns 18, whether they can deal with themselves or not, they are their own guardian. So that is a very big piece,” she says.

Even if you don’t obtain total guardianship, it’s important to consider, says Deborah Love-Peel of the Drew Parent Resource Center. There may be certain things you still have to help your child do. Also, after a child is 18, when an IEP meeting is held, the school can’t invite the parents because it would violate the student’s privacy rights, says Robert Avedisian, principal at Drew.

Peters suggests families start preparing for this process at least six months before the child turns 18. There are steps and evaluations involved to determine if there’s a need for a guardian.

This content was originally sponsored by Excellent Schools Detroit.


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