Want to Find a Special Education Program That Meets Your Child’s Needs Before You Move?
By Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Schuchs-Gopaul, USAF
How do you move across the country when you have a child with a disability? As a military family, this is not an idle question, but a real issue that we must confront every two to four years. So, when we received the call to move this summer, we knew we had to be pro-active.
If you are facing a move, the strategies we used will help you find a special education program that meets your child’s needs -- before you move.
While the Air Force focused on whether medical resources would be available for our son at a new duty location, we knew that moving involves a lot more than new doctors. Moving involves a new school that may or may not have the resources and programs he needs.
For this move, we decided to take matters into our own hands. We would turn moving into an advantage. We cannot pick when we move, or the installation. We can pick the school system we move into.
Why not go shopping?
First, we researched the new community and found four school districts. We learned everything we could off the Internet – which wasn’t much – about the types of services and programs available for young kids with autism in the area schools.
We discovered that a bond to improve schools had just been passed in two of the four school districts. The other districts were discussing big budget cuts.
Next, we joined several list-serves and email groups in the new community. As parents talked about services, activities, and schools, they gave us a window into what schools were really like. We contacted parents who spoke candidly about their schools – and gave us an insider’s view of these schools.
We initiated contact with the military installation’s School Liaison and with the Exceptional Family Member Program coordinator. (See links at the end of this article)
We did not stop there.
Contacting Special Education Offices
We called the Special Education Department in each school district and interviewed them by phone. In these interviews, we did not talk about our son. Instead, we asked about the services that were available in their school district. Since our child is in pre-school, we asked questions like this:
We felt we needed more information about available special education programs before we could make an informed decision.
Going Shopping: Observing Programs & Interviewing School Staff
When my husband was traveling near our new duty location, we took this opportunity to really send him shopping.
He made appointments to meet with the Directors of Special Education in each school district. He talked with them about the scope of their services, and he visited the schools. Programs that sounded great in phone conversations and through our Internet research turned out to be very different when he observed them.
One inclusive preschool included 90% of children with IEPs and only 10% of typically developing children. One school had no indoor plumbing, so pre-school children had to go to another building to use the bathroom.
One school district acknowledged that it could not provide more than 9 hours of IEP-based inclusive preschool a week, but offered to let us pay for more hours. Another district told us that IEPs were “optional” -- and that our child would have to go on a waiting list before he could receive any services.
My husband smiled through it all. He made no comment as he learned what the school districts really offered. After all, we were just shopping – and teachers and administrators often talk more freely when you listen, nod, and smile.
Making a Decision
We didn’t want every move to be a battle. We knew we would be happier in a school district that was a good fit for our son. To avoid a battle, we searched for a district that provided the services our son needs.
If a district had a real inclusive pre-school program, it was likely that he would be placed in that program. If a district did not offer an inclusive pre-school program, we would be asking the school to create a program just for him. That was not going to happen.
In the end, we made our decision as if we were buying a car. We did our research, got reviews and references, and personally interviewed school personnel each school district. When we found the school district that offered a program that was the closest match to our son’s needs, we rented a home in that district.
My advice to the parents of a child with a disability who are preparing to move is “Go shopping!”
Recommended Resources for Parents who are Moving
Recommended Resources for Military Families Who are Moving
Support For Special-Needs Families During A Move by Robert L. Gordon III, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Military Community and Family Policy)
MilitaryHOMEFRONT’s Special Needs/EFMP section includes our DoD Special Needs Parent Toolkit. The toolkit navigates you through the maze of medical and special education services, community support, benefits and entitlements. Download it or order a free hard copy by calling Military OneSource at 800-342-9647.