Monday, February 11, 2008

Change Long Past Due

Systems Change – a phrase that I have heard over and over again for the past 10 years. Most often, the phrase has been used in conjunction with overhauling the education of children with disabilities. I’ve heard it from University-based grant projects, state departments of education, and advocacy groups of all sorts. I’ve heard great ideas and lofty goals put forth by people who really do believe that systems change can and will happen. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any systems change, and I find myself wondering why, especially when I am dealing with ‘systems’ that obviously need ‘change’.

I think one reason that systems change is slow to come, if it really does come at all, is that the organizations we are trying to change are each so very different from each other. I’ll use the example of school districts. There are dozens of different school districts in my state, and each one does things a little, and sometimes a lot, differently. Is hoping that they will all ‘be changed’ for the better, and once and for all start to do things the same way, a better way, just a pipe dream?

I’ll share one example from my school district – again, mine is just one of dozens across the state. The land mass of the county in which I live is shaped somewhat like an old telephone handset – a thin section in the middle and two lumps on the end. Residents refer to either the west end of the county or the east end of the county. As demographics have played out, the west end is home to more affluent citizens for the most part – citizens with access to the internet and the knowledge which comes from it, access to attorneys and other advocates, and most importantly, access to people like themselves who refuse to back down from a fight. The east end is home to less affluent citizens, many who farm or work blue collar jobs, people who often don’t have computers much less access to the internet, and people who have been conditioned through the years to believe that the county school district is all powerful. (I know these are generalizations and that not everyone fits the stereotype I have portrayed here – but overall, these are my impressions).

I’ve written previously about an IEP meeting held for my oldest daughter at one of the east end schools. Last week, yet another IEP meeting was held, and even though I did manage to get a couple of academic goals included in her IEP, the atmosphere was as I had written previously. However, this time I asked some specific questions about the disparities between the west end and the east end IEP process.

The day before my oldest daughter’s IEP meeting, I had an IEP meeting for my youngest daughter (they are 4 years apart in age). My youngest has more significant disabilities than my oldest, and has an IEP that major goals of math, reading, science and history. My oldest, on the other hand, has a few, very few, objectives relating to reading and the use of money, and that is it. When I suggested to the administration person at the meeting that I was confused given the IEP meeting just the previous day for my youngest daughter, she kept repeating the phrase the east end staff uses constantly – Jessica (my oldest) needs a functional curriculum not an academic one.

So here in just one county out of dozens, educational approaches are vastly different. Pool those dozens of counties together, and systems change does seem an unattainable goal. I’m not ready to give up on the idea of systems change, but I am leaning more strongly on the belief that systems change is only going to happen through legislation and/or litigation. The great ideas and lofty goals, I believe, will continue to flounder. I suggest that those people with the ideas and goals turn their attention to their lawmaking bodies. Convince a few powerful lawmakers, and systems change will happen in one lawmaking session.


MMC said...

I am a strong believer that in many cases change comes only through using litigation and political pressure at the same time. I've certainly seen it work in other contexts. Unfortunately, it seems like many parents are too afraid to put real pressure on or help others who are trying to change things. I think many are afraid of losing what they already have.

But I was also thinking, since you're from the West End, where parents know how to make things work and wouldn't put up with what goes on in the East End, is there any chance that you, personally, can be an agent of change for those kids and their families?

I know, you haven't got enough going on in your life to keep busy. ;-) But this is your daughter and if you are able to effect some change for her in that school you may just be helping others as well. Just a thought ...

Ashley's Mom said...

MMC, I am certainly going to try.

One other resource I didn't mention in the post was the power of the press. I have some contacts at our city's newspaper. I have seen a well-placed story about school district inequities have an effect.

My office is located on Capitol Square - the very place our state lawmakers convene each year for the General Assembly. I have always maintained a presence with lawmakers I believe are sympathetic to the issues of people with disabilities, and I will continue to do so.

Because, like you pointed out, I just don't have enough to fill my days...:)