Champions for Children with Disabilities
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excerpt from Point of Departure, Vol. 4, No. 2...PACER Center...Winter 1999
At the TATRA Project's 1998 annual conference, four poised and confident J.E.B. Stuart high school students addressed an audience of parent trainers on the topic of Student-Led IEPs. Silvia Arevalo, Elizabeth Simpson, Rita Anne Middleton and Freddy Martinez have all led their own IEP meetings and talked about how students at their school prepare themselves to take on this role.
J.E.B. Stuart high school has a diverse student body that includes 46 nationalities and 32 languages. High school senior Arevalo shared the school's impressive record of both student and parent participation in IEP meetings: 95.4 % of the 110 students who have IEPs have led their own IEPs; 89% of students with transition plans have led their meetings; there is 100% parent participation in IEP meetings. Bilingual IEPs have been written in Spanish, Vietnamese and Farsi. These impressive statistics are a result of the leadership of Marcy McGahee-Kovac, Learning Disabilities Chairperson at J.E.B. Stuart, who joined the students to answer questions at the end of their presentation.
High school junior Simpson explained that there are three steps in self-advocacy: "accepting your disability; understanding what you need; and getting help." She told the audience that elementary school students should "learn how you learn best - know your strengths and weaknesses." In intermediate school, they should learn "what goes into an IEP." In high school students read their IEPs and put into practice what they know by taking a greater and greater role in their meetings. Students learn about the laws that require Individual Education Programs for students with disabilities, read their IEPs, learn about their own strengths and weaknesses, and practice asking for the reasonable accommodations they need. Says McGahee-Kovac, "They stay after school if necessary."
Students write down strengths and weaknesses for each class. Being able to list what they like about themselves, and also what they think they need to improve, helps prepare students for the give and take of the IEP meeting. Juniors Middleton and Martinez outlined the step by step process students go through to prepare for their IEP meeting. Students review their previous IEP, write goals, send invitations, review the laws, state their strengths and weaknesses, list accommodations and write a new transition plan with their teacher.
Students and teachers also role-play situations that might come up in an IEP meeting. "You need to be prepared that people might say things that hurt your feelings," said McGahee-Kovac. "If something happens in the IEP meeting and you're very uncomfortable with it, you need to express that, . 'I hear what you're saying, but at this time, these are the goals that I would like to work on.'"
At the IEP meeting, students introduce everyone, review their IEP, and explain their disability. Martinez explained that students initially may only feel comfortable reading from their transition plan. However, at the next meeting they will explain their disability, strengths, weaknesses, and accommodation needs before finally leading the IEP meeting.
The benefits? Students learn more about their disability, including how to talk about and explain the nature of their disability to others; learn what kinds of accommodations are available and what types of accommodations might help them succeed in the classroom; learn how to speak for themselves and become more involved in their own education.
Once students are 18 they are legally adults and the process helps prepare them to take adult responsibilities and make decisions on their own. Arevalo says the skills she learned and the process she went through helped her decide to pursue a career in hotel management and to feel comfortable asking for reasonable accommodations in the workplace.
Obviously, there are high expectations for students with disabilities at J.E.B. Stuart. But, said Liz DeMik, mother of a J.E.B. Stuart graduate currently attending Valparaiso University, "Don't assume these students all start out as high achievers." Students with a great variety of disabilities including mild retardation, traumatic brain injury as well as physical, emotional, sensory and learning disabilities have led their IEP meetings. Students are taught the necessary skills over time, and have to work hard to prepare to lead their IEP meeting. Also, said DeMik, "Students learn through mistakes. You have to let kids fail."
The successful program at J.E.B. Stuart is featured in an audiotape and two booklets produced by the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY). On the tape several students talk about their experience as active participants in their IEP. Step-by-step guidelines are given for students, parents and educators. The NICHCY audio tape also addresses how students with significant cognitive disabilities can participate in their IEPs. A Student's Guide to the IEP, Helping Students Develop Their IEPs, and an accompanying audio tape are available for $5.00 from NICHCY. P.O. Box 1492, Washington, DC 20013, (800)695-0285 (Voice/TTY); (202) 884-8200 (Voice/TTY); E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Both publications as well as the script from the audio tape can be downloaded from the NICHCY web site: www.nichcy.org