After years of frustration with Houston ISD’s response to the needs of their son, a fifth-grader with Asperger’s syndrome, Robert and Bonney Wilkinson are a little more optimistic about the school system’s willingness to help students with special needs.
The good will kept coming Saturday when administrators and volunteers hosted a special education summit, connecting parents with resources across the district and community. The timing alone – on a weekend, rather than mid-week during work hours – was enough to draw praise from the Wilkinsons.
“From what little we’ve seen, it seems to be changing for the better,” said Robert Wilkinson, whose son attends River Oaks Academy, a private school focused on students with special needs, through an arrangement with Houston ISD. “We’ve got more people from the district showing up to our meetings and they’re able to answer our questions. Normally, it was ‘We’ll have to look into that.'”
Several hundred parents and caregivers filled the district’s headquarters Saturday for the summit, a well-received idea carried out after community feedback this spring. A survey found parents of children with special needs wanted more communication about individualized education plans, more information about camps and resources available to children and easier access to disability screenings, administrators said.
The district’s special education office has been under fire after a Houston Chronicle investigation found Houston ISD cut hundreds of positions from the department, dissuaded evaluators from diagnosing disabilities until the second grade and created a list of factors that disqualified students from service, among other tactics that landed the district with one of the lowest percentages of special education students in the state. The department’s director of special education resigned in March following backlash over the investigation, and an audit of the department is ongoing.
Administrators heralded the summit as one of several new special education services offerings under Superintendent Richard Carranza, who took over the district in August 2016. They pointed to new community liaisons who coordinate more with parents on special education issues, a reorganization of the district’s special education office and the school board’s commitment of $2.2 million in funding for staffing and an autism program at three high schools.
“For the most part, it’s been very positive (with parents),” said Joan Anderson, Houston ISD’s assistant superintendent of special education. “We do have some parents who are not as happy with us as we’d like them to be. We’re working on those relationships and working on behalf of the school district, and I think they’re beginning to change.”
Houston ISD board trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, who serves on an ad hoc special education committee created after the Chronicle’s investigation, said the district’s work on improving special education services is “still at the beginning phase.”
“Now we have to see how some of these things measure up,” Flynn Vilaseca said. “It’s important that we’re on top of that and we’re looking at it critically to make sure that we improve.”
The summit proved helpful for Shante Thorpe, whose brother, now in the second grade, has been diagnosed with autism and post-traumatic stress disorder. Thorpe said her brother hasn’t received many special education services, but she wants to be prepared if her family seeks them.
“”If you don’t know exactly what’s available for you, when you’re at the crossroads of dealing with some kind of issue, you don’t know which way to go,” said Thorpe, 37. “If you find out what’s going on and what’s available, then when you see those signs, you know what to do.”