Thursday, December 2, 2021, 12:12 PM
In celebration of National Special Education Day, Team Easterseals is in conversation with Erika Wat…
In celebration of National Special Education Day, Team Easterseals is in conversation with Erika Watson, the National Director Childhood Development, Education, and Equity at the Easterseals National Office.
What is National Special Education Day? Why is it critical that we observe it?
National Special Education Day was first celebrated in 2005, which was the 30th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It is important to acknowledge Special Education Day because nearly 14% of all public-school children—7.3 million children—receive special education services guaranteed to them by IDEA.
That is 7.3 million reasons to honor the hard work, the wins, and the possibilities of young people on their unique pathway toward fulfilling their potential. It is important that we observe this day to bring attention and awareness to the special education system to ensure that the most vulnerable students among us have access to everything that they need to be successful. It is important to highlight the children, people and families that are beneficiaries of this work.
What is The Black Child Fund at Easterseals?
The Black Child Fund was launched by Easterseals in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the BLM movement from summer 2020. The Black Child Fund is focused on the intersectionality of race and disability and aspires to disrupt systems of educational inequity and improve long term outcomes for BIPOC youth with disabilities.
Easterseals aspires to be a thought leader and convener of people, ideas, and resources aimed at mitigating disparities that exist for BIPOC youth with disabilities in educational outcomes and social indicators of health and wellbeing.
What are the disparities that Black students and Black students with disabilities face in education? How is The Black Child Fund working to end those disparities?
Black students are the largest population in the special education system, and the most underserved. About 14% of all public-school students receive special education services. Of that 14% the largest percentage of those students identify as Black/African American. Despite being over-represented in the special education system, outcomes for Black children receiving special education services lag behind those of every other group. For example, 72% of all special education students graduate high school with a regular diploma. However, only 65% of Black children who receive special education services graduate high school with a regular diploma.
While disability does not occur more frequently in the Black community, Black children are often over identified as having behavior problems or not being school ready thus creating a pipeline of Black students into the special education system that often does not serve them equitably.
The Black Child Fund seeks to elevate the cultural competence of special education advocates, teachers, and practitioners so that all professionals serving BIPOC students with disabilities are doing so through a culturally responsive lens.
Why is this work important to you?
This work is important to me because I fundamentally believe that education is the most powerful lever that we have to disrupt the effects of generational poverty within communities of color. Full Stop. Period.
If I can be even more pointed about it, it is the education of not all young people, but specifically the education of girl children because when we change the trajectory of our own lives, we then change the trajectory of our children’s lives. If you really want to disrupt the effects of generational poverty, educate young girls of color.
What is a milestone of special education that you are most excited about? Why?
The willingness of people and institutions to have a reckoning with the racial injustices of our current system. I believe that the soil is fertile and now is the time to have hard conversations about racial inequalities. People are open to hearing, taking action and wanting to be a part of the change that we want to see in our culture and in our communities.
Where must special education improve?
We must do a better job of educating BIPOC youth with special education needs. Culturally inclusive and culturally responsive pedagogy must become ubiquitous within the special education system.
What do you see next for the education system to ensure education is available and equitable to all children with disabilities?
My hope is that meaningful funding will follow all the goodwill and good intentions. Small ideas that are working well in pockets still need a larger platform. We need resources so that we can scale them to benefit all children.
How has the pandemic shaped the experience for children with disabilities and their education? What has changed for them, and what issues are most pressing as we continue through the pandemic?
There is no doubt that all students suffered academically as a result of COVID. Learning loss for all students is real. Access to services has been the prevailing challenge through the pandemic and this problem persists even though students are back to in-person learning.
The number one problem that we saw as a result of the pandemic was that 3-5 million K-12 students received no formal education at all starting in March of 2020 through the fall of this year when we went back to in-person schooling.
It has been nightmarishly hard for everyone to manage education through COVID, and special education populations have felt this more acutely then just about any other unique group. When general education gets a cold, special education gets pneumonia. And I would suggest that special education in poor and rural communities is where the pandemic has done its biggest damage.
It has been nightmarishly hard for educational growth and attainment. The learning deficits are tremendous. We are seeing catastrophic numbers in educational outcomes in the special education population during the pandemic because students have been fundamentally disconnected from education and services that are provided through the local education authority.
What if I’m a student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)? That means I am not getting any of the services that my IEP suggests that I have. So, not only am I not getting formal education, but I am also not getting my speech therapy, I am not getting my behavioral therapy, I am not getting all the educational services that my IEP suggests that I need.
Educators and administrators are working hard to try to figure out how to solve these problems for our children, and there are not a lot of easy solutions and pathways to success, and access to opportunities when you layer on issues of poverty,
We haven’t recovered. I can’t say what special education looks like coming out of COVID, because we’re not out. We’re still figuring it out.
What message do you have for parents? What do you suggest for resources via Easterseals and/or otherwise?
Find your tribe. I would love for Easterseals to be a part of everybody’s tribe. Our services are either free or pretty cost neutral even if you are uninsured or use Medicaid. These services are available to everyone.
Also, consider a special education advocate. You can reach out to Easterseals to find a Special Education Advocate in your community. These are people who know the system very well and who can be your ombudsperson in those conversations that you have with your school administrators about your students’ IEP or 504. Special Education Advocates are a fountain of knowledge and a wealth of resources, and they connect you to other resources in your community. If you do not have a Special Education Advocate, get one!
I also encourage parents to reach out to Easterseals or other organizations to find an affinity group for yourself so that you can learn to become the strongest, most effective advocate for your child possible. In doing so, you will also teach your child to become a strong and effective self-advocate.
Also, always remember that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Don’t be afraid of being a constant presence at your child’s school, and in your teacher’s email inbox. You are their partner, and no one knows your child better than you. You need to work with your education partners to make sure that your child is getting everything they need at school, and that you are doing everything at home to make sure that there is a consistent focus on education both at home and at school.
Your child should not feel that there is one set of expectations at home and another set of expectations at school. You want to have relationships with your educators and school administrators.
Learn to be an advocate for your child, and this will teach your child to be a self-advocate.
Anything else you would like to add?
I encourage more people to reach out to Easterseals. We are here to help. We want to bring more people into this tent. Right now, there is a big tent and there are not enough of us in it. The best way to make progress is to bring in more people and more resources into the tent. Let’s get to work!