Are Vocational Education Programs Failing Arizona Students With Special Needs?

Published: Thursday, January 24, 2019 - 11:59am
Updated: Thursday, January 24, 2019 - 12:47pm
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Amy Silverman
Amy Silverman and her daughter, Sophie.

MARK BRODIE: As state lawmakers and the governor debate funding and policies for education in the upcoming year, a local journalist has uncovered a disturbing trend in some vocational programs for students with disabilities in Arizona schools. Amy Silverman's piece in Phoenix Magazine is called "Food, Flowers and Filth" and she joins me. And Amy, what did you find is happening in these programs?

AMY SILVERMAN: The vocational education programs do not tend to be a student's entire day. So while that program might include busy work, there's an expectation that there's academic work going on at the same time. But when kids reach 16, according to federal law, they need to be in some sort of transition program, that's kids with an IEP who have special needs. And it's going to vary from kid to kid. You know, there's such a dramatic difference. So it's a challenge for sure. And that's why they call it an Individualized Education Plan because the idea is to come up with something that works for each individual kid, and what a lot of people don't know is that job training and voc rehab is required by law as part of the IEP.

BRODIE: So are the schools equipped to have the kids doing the kind of training that would be most helpful, most enjoyable, most instructive to them?

SILVERMAN: It's impossible to tell. I called the Arizona Department of Education after I had heard a few horror stories, and I said, “I'd like to know school by school what kind of programming our public schools are providing for kids with special needs who are in transition.” And they said, “Oh yeah, well we get federal money for that and I believe state money too,” but there is absolutely no requirement for schools to report to the Department of Education what they're doing or not doing.

BRODIE: So you mentioned that you'd heard a few horror stories, like what kinds of things are these students doing?

SILVERMAN: The main character in my story is Sophia Landay. She recently left a high school in Scottsdale, her senior year; I believe it was the first semester. Her mother checked in on her classes, and her schedule had been moved around a little bit. And Sophia, out of, I believe, seven class periods, was working at least three in the cafeteria, and most of what she was doing was counting and reorganizing bags of potato chips.

BRODIE: I imagine that's not exactly what Sophia or her mom wanted her to be doing during her school day.

SILVERMAN: No, Sophia wants to work with animals and that was expressed repeatedly to the school. But the only programming they had for her was in the cafeteria, which, and I interviewed both Sophia and her mother, and her mother mentioned that Sophia puts her fingers in her mouth quite a bit, and that probably working around food was the worst possible job choice. Certainly not something she aspires to do in any way.

BRODIE: So why is this happening? I mean, I know the schools don't always have a good sense and the state doesn't really have a good sense of what's going on. But were you able to find out why this sort of thing happens?

SILVERMAN: This is a national problem and it goes back decades. It's kind of one of those under-the-rug situations where we talk a lot about kids being included in the classroom and in schools. But when you take a deeper look to see what's actually going on, there are not being included in the right ways. So being asked to empty the recycling trash while your typical peers look on, cleaning the cafeteria table again while your peers look on, that is not any sort of meaningful inclusion and it's not meaningful job training and yet it's been going on for so long that I think that's all a lot of school personnel know to do.

BRODIE: So if you're a parent and you see this going on and Sofia's mom saw this was going on, like, what can you do about it?

SILVERMAN: Well, you can certainly talk to school officials and open up your kids IEP and try to get things changed, but it's not always that easy. And ultimately Sofia's mother, Sharon, did get Sofia's class schedule changed, and then she had her pulled from the school.

BRODIE: So we should mention that this is not just sort of an abstract concept to you. You have some personal experience in this area. Have you witnessed any of this sort of thing firsthand?

SILVERMAN: So I'm getting ready to have some personal experience. We just had the very first meeting for my own daughter, Sophie's, transition team. She is 15 and a half. And so when she turns 16, the school will start working on a vocation-related transition for her. Sophie told them at this meeting that she wants to attend community college and she wants to be a dance teacher. And we've been able to do in our family something a lot of families aren't able to do and that's hire a private lawyer and advocate who comes to the meetings.

BRODIE: And so what is that person's role exactly?

SILVERMAN: What's great about our advocate is that she understands the law better than anyone in the room including me, including Sophie, frankly including the school personnel and the district's lawyer, from what I can tell, and she's able to say, look, here are the opportunities, here are the things that could be done for Sophie and that legally should be done. The very first thing that needs to happen is that you have to ask the kid what it is they want to do and then you have to put together a plan that helps implement it.

BRODIE: How important are resources in this conversation? Because I would imagine that you know not every school has probably even a dance program. So if Sophie were at a school for example that didn't have a dance program even if the school wanted to help her and wanted to do right by her, I would imagine in some cases they just wouldn't physically be able to do it.

SILVERMAN: I believe there are a lot of creative ways that you can do it. Somebody could talk to a local dance school about Sophie coming over and helping in the afternoons. They have a childcare center on campus at Sophie's high school. They could come up with a plan where Sophie helped lead dance classes for those kids. There are a lot of different ways you can be creative about this, that's what I learned by talking to a lot of different lawyers and advocates.

BRODIE: Amy Silverman is a local journalist and author. Her piece called "Food, Flowers and Filth" appears in Phoenix Magazine.

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