Break the barriers of IEPs and test scores to bring music to the ears of ALL children

Editor's note: John Skelton shared with other parents and educators in The Opt Out of Tests New York group the actions he took to restore the ability of a student with an IEP to participate in music class. I'm sharing here in hopes that it will prove useful for others who want to do the same.

Guest post by John Skelton | Parent and Teacher

To put this story in the proper context, I must first tell you a few details. I teach orchestra at a public middle school about an hour north of New York City. Orchestra is a regularly-scheduled class during the school day, just as math, ELA, and other such subjects are.

Obviously, one difference about what I teach compared to something like math is that students choose to take my class. While that does mean that I don't need the compelling force of a governmental curriculum to motivate my students to learn, it also means that music, as a discipline, is treated as less important. You know..."just an elective" (as if choice were a bad thing).

This past year, I had a 6th grade violin player who was really quite advanced. I was expecting great things from him because he was easily one of the best players in the group. He studied privately. He performed conscientiously. He was eager to take part and show what he could do. However, he also had the misfortune of having an individual education plan (IEP) which required him to be in an academic intervention services (AIS) class for a specific number of hours. I first noticed this when, about two weeks into the school year, he stopped showing up at my class. When I asked him why, he showed me his schedule which had AIS where Orchestra used to be. He told me both he and his parents were none to happy about the change.

My first stop was to the guidance office. Surely, they could find a better alternative. Alas, they said they could not. There was no other period available for his 6th grade schedule. Furthermore, they were the first to inform me about "seat time" (the aspect of his IEP that said he had to have so many hours of services, etc.) Perhaps, they told me, I should talk to the teacher to see what steps I could take.

The teacher had no problem with a suggestion for compromise that I brought to her. (I told her that perhaps he could come to my class and her class alternately.) However, she said I should check with her lead teacher just to be sure. I happen to be on very good terms with this lead teacher (the head of our special education department in my building).

When I explained the situation, she got very upset that he was being put in this position. She told me something very valuable, which I am now paraphrasing:
An IEP is not supposed to deprive a student of opportunities. By federal law, all students are to have the ability to get an equal education. (It is possible that the school could have been sued for this, but I think it goes without saying that less severe measures should be explored first.)
The special education lead teacher told me to take three very important actions:
1) IEP ReviewTalk to the parents and tell them to call our school psychologist (who runs the CSE meetings) and request a review of the IEP. Parents have the most power to determine what services are provided and they need to exercise it when their children are being disenfranchised.

2) Inform relevant parties
Talk to the school psychologist and give her a heads up about a call from the parents. The school psychologist in this case wasn't doing anything wrong, so this was just as a courtesy. (She had no responsibility for the ineptness of the guidance department.)

3) Follow up
Follow up, follow up, follow up. I must have presented my compromise (alternating days) about a dozen times and checked on the status of the situation at least twice that much.

The verdict
The end result was a very informal solution, and as it turned out he was given a different AIS teacher later in the year who had no problem letting him out of class whenever I wanted him.

It would've been very easy, on the other hand, to have let this all just fall through the cracks. It's not like I didn't have an orchestra without him. As a teacher of an "elective" course, though, it has always been imperative to recognize that subjects like mine are far more important in the lives of some children than even math or ELA might be.

A note to teachers...
If you find yourself in a similar situation as a teacher, I urge you to always advocate for what's best for the student.

A note to parents...
If you're a parent in this kind of scenario, you should never allow the institution to take your power away from you.
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