As another season of graduation winds down, our legislators are weighing decisions about next year’s state budget, including how much to spend on special education. It’s the season for considering the future.
Until about six months ago, I wasn’t sure what my eighteen-year-old son Michael’s future would be. Michael is a highly intelligent young man who has always done very well in academics, especially math and science. Michael is also blind. When he arrived at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown a year and a half ago, I wasn’t sure if Michael would go to college, live on his own or do many of the ordinary things that sighted people do. He graduated last week.
I am thankful every day that Michael had the chance to go to Perkins to complete his high school education, though the road getting there wasn’t perfectly smooth. Michael excelled academically at Lunenburg High School. Even so, like most students who are blind or visually impaired, he needed additional – and very specialized – courses. Kids who are blind need to learn basic living skills that their sighted peers learn incidentally, just by seeing how people do things. Think about how hard it would be to learn to organize your backpack, navigate in the gym locker room, or do a job in the cafeteria – if you had never seen it happen. These skills can be learned best in peer groups with a specialized curriculum, something really hard to do for the one blind student in a public school.
We saw how Michael began to flourish after he’d attended a number of three and five-week programs at Perkins. As a mother, I knew that the move was necessary to get him a ‘free and appropriate public education’ (FAPE) within the ‘least restrictive environment’ (LRE), to which every child in the Commonwealth has a legal right. A specialized placement at Perkins allowed Michael to learn alongside other visually impaired students who shared similar interests, obstacles and experiences, and used the same kinds of tools and learning strategies. And, they had common independent living and vocational training goals – all essential to succeed in high school and to have a chance to make it in college, in a career and in the world.
With the help I received from terrific education advocates, lawyers and the compassionate and committed team from Perkins, the school district agreed to have Michael attend Perkins to finish out his high school years.
The move to Perkins was life-changing for Michael. He was extremely shy. Now he is confident and outgoing. His physician is amazed with the positive changes: how mature and engaging Michael’s become, and how well he now advocates for himself. Michael has become his own person. It was hard work, and it was worth every challenging, exhausting and grueling moment. Michael has been accepted to – and will live independently at – Gordon College in Wenham this coming fall.
So, why do I share this story? Because it taught me the value of an education at a specialized school. Perkins, and all the schools that fall under Chapter 766, rely on a fund called the “Special Education Circuit Breaker” to adequately reimburse school districts when a highly specialized program is the best fit for a student with complex education needs. State funds cover only a portion of the cost. At Perkins, private donations make up the rest.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) estimates that $271.6 million is needed to fully fund the account for FY16, and I am thankful that the Senate has recommended that amount in its proposed budget. Funding at this level enables Chapter 766 schools to provide the children in this state who are most in need with access to the highly skilled teachers and technologies they need to learn.
I urge our lawmakers to do the right thing and adopt the Senate’s proposed funding to ensure that all public school students have access to an equal opportunity for education, including our most vulnerable. I’ve seen the difference these schools make for my child and other children with complex educational needs.
Parents and families of students at specialized schools have big dreams for their children’s futures. They do not ask for exceptional privileges for them, but they rightfully expect them to get an even chance to learn and realize their potentials. Chapter 766 schools provide just the kind of education these students need to grow into adults who contribute to society and to the economy. Isn’t that every parent’s hope? Isn’t that every person’s right?
Brenda Sciabarrasi, Michael’s mother, is a resident of Lunenburg, Massachusetts.