Book Review: Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work
Recently, my family and I spent a week camping on the coast of Maine. We spent part of the week at a beautiful new campground in the town of Brooklin, right near Blue Hill and Deer Isle. As luck would have it, we wound up adjacent to another family with children close to my daughter’s age. As luck would also have it, one of the children was a 7 year old boy with ADHD. His mom is in the process of negotiating a contentious divorce, keeping her head above water in a demanding job, and managing her introduction to the not-always-friendly world of special education. Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn inextricably into a conversation with her about medication, social skills, behavior charts, and, that old standby…Individualized Education Plans or IEP’s.
Like many parents who receive a sudden introduction to the world of special education, this mom felt like a lone astronaut who crash landed on an alien planet, forced to survive and adapt when everything around her is unfamiliar. Towards the end of our conversation, I gave her a few recommendations. Among other suggestions, I strongly recommended a book that I just read called Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work: An Insider Guide, by Judy Canty Graves and Carson Graves. I have a feeling that I’ll be recommending it a lot over the coming years.
If the introduction to the world of special ed. can be likened to crash landing on an alien world, then this book is the Fodor’s Travel Guide for that planet. The authors lived on that planet for a long time and in their book they share their wisdom, experience, and advice on the customs, culture, logistics, and potential bumps in the road involved in such a journey.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve known Judy and Carson for a long time and I like them a lot. They are a married couple whose son, now 26 and a college graduate, negotiated the special education maze from pre-school all the way through high school. When I heard that they had written a book about special education, I was excited to read it.
Like a Fodor’s Travel Guide, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work includes a lot of information that parents need but bypasses a lot of the more abstract, background information that they don’t. The book begins with a chapter on IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and other important legal underpinnings of our special education system. It provides valuable context for the rest of the book but after that chapter, it’s devoted exclusively to the nuts and bolts of the system. There are chapters on school personnel and their roles, the evaluation process, Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s), the legal process, and others. The authors also describe the dynamics and pitfalls in the system from a parent’s perspective. Each chapter ends with a section entitled What Parents Can Do that neatly and concisely summarizes the action steps presented in that chapter. For a parent just getting involved in this process, those sections alone are worth the price of the book.
Carson Graves and Judy Canty Graves, authors of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work: An Insider Guide
If the book has any shortcomings, I’d point to a few instances in which the authors could, for want of a better phrase, cut school systems a little slack. I agree that it’s important to provide some cautionary tales designed to alert parents to the shortcomings in the system, along with ways to deal with them effectively. There are families whose experience with special education has been marred by school professionals who turn a deaf ear to parental concerns, ignore the dictates of the law, and act in ways contrary to the interests of their students. On the other hand, for all the horror stories I hear about special education, I hear a similar number of stories from parents who feel that the system has treated them and their children very well. And while, from a parent’s perspective, battles over funding and services can be maddening, there are some valid reasons for school districts to be cautious about the way they distribute their resources. They have to balance out the mandate to provide a free and appropriate public education with the expectation that they’ll be judicious in the way they allocate services and funds. The overwhelming majority of parents seek out services for their children in a scrupulous and responsible way. School systems need to protect themselves from the occasional parents who don’t. More importantly, even though parents remain the best advocates and the most knowledgable sources of information when it comes to their own children, school systems must address the needs of all the students in their districts, which necessitates a “big picture” approach that can conflict with individual parents’ goals. Special ed. departments have many different constituencies with agendas that don’t always coincide. I’ve written about this topic before. There’s a reason there is so much turnover among special education directors.
Despite my quibbling, the authors make a point to remind parents to work collaboratively with their school systems. And they make that point on more than one occasion. In the end, counselors like me are not the book’s main intended audience. Parents are. Parents just entering the world of special education need to know what to watch out for and, despite my picky objections to some parts of it, this book presents a valuable, and largely balanced picture of that world. It will be a vital resource for many parents and I will recommend it again and again.
By the way, Judy and Carson will be discussing their book at a free parent workshop at Academy MetroWest. They’ll have copies of their book available for purchase and signing. It takes place on Wednesday evening, October 1, from 7:15pm to 8:45pm. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to RSVP.