We’ve all heard advocacy groups say, “We urge you to reach out to your representatives.” How often do you do it? Maybe you think, “I can’t do that. I wouldn’t know what to say,” or “I’m only one person, I can’t make a difference.”
But one person can make a difference, as I found out firsthand. A few weeks ago, NCLD brought me to Washington, D.C. to have a conversation about the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with the representatives from my home state, Maine.
When Congress started working to rewrite ESEA (also known as No Child Left Behind), it became evident that the rewrites have the potential to have a negative impact on students with learning and attention issues.
As a parent to children with learning and attention issues, I know my children are capable of great things and should be held to the same academic expectations as other kids their age. As an educator, I know we need good data to keep track of their progress and to ensure they continue on the path to a high school diploma. As a parent advocate, I know that making sure that all happens requires a commitment to continued conversations about these issues.
I thought the conversation I needed to have with the Senators was a run-down of my concerns.
But it wasn’t.
Instead, I needed them to hear the story of my son. This is the story I told:
My oldest son, Jacob, is in seventh grade. When I told him I was going to Washington, D.C., he sent a message with me, “Tell them I should be held to the same expectations as everybody else. I want to take the regular tests.”
Jacob is a bright kid who also struggles with some aspects of learning. He spent his early elementary school years without the supports he needed to be successful in the classroom and with teachers who didn’t have the support they needed to recognize and work with his learning issues.
At the beginning of fourth grade, he was in a self-contained classroom. In some ways it was what he needed, but academically it wasn’t. That year we were given the choice to “opt-out” of grade-level testing, but we refused. The tests gave us the data we needed to see where he needed support. It also showed that he was working at or above grade-level in many areas.
By the end of fourth grade, he was partially included in a general education classroom. By fifth grade, he spent the majority of his day in the general education classroom. By sixth grade, he was fully included in the general education classroom with minimal supports in place. Today, he’s well on his way to graduating on track with the rest of his class.
That story—the story of a real child who could be affected by changes to ESEA—gave me a way to frame my concerns in a very real way. He’s what I was able to impart:
- I think it’s important to limit the number of students with disabilities who can take alternative assessments. Our kids don’t need easier tests; they need the opportunity to meet the same standards as their peers. There is a population of students for whom easier tests is reasonable, but it’s not kids with learning and attention issues.
- I support annual testing. It may be an unusual perspective, but I want my kids assessed yearly. I want data to keep track of their progress, to make sure they’re working toward meeting their annual goals and to make sure they’re on the path to a regular diploma.
- I want ESEA to provide for training for teachers and for early screening. Teachers work hard and they care about their students. They cannot support students with learning and attention issues without having the training, support and information they need to use best practices in the classroom.
The impact my words had surprised me. They brought home the idea that this legislation isn’t about hypothetical kids in far-off places. It’s about real kids, like Jacob, kids who live in the state Senator Collins and Senator King represent.
The next time you hear to call to reach out to your representatives, know that one person can make a difference. And when you add your one voice to so many others, the impact is magnified.
To date, over 1000 parents have used the National Center for Learning Disabilities action center to tell Congress to set high expectations for our kids when they reauthorize ESEA. I urge you to join them so kids like Jacob—kids like your child—have the chance to shine.