Parents say they left CSD because they couldn’t get help for their childrenEmily Beard with her son Magill at their Decatur home on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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By Dan Whisenhunt and Zoe Seiler
Decatur, GA – For the last decade, the rapid growth of City Schools of Decatur drove discussions about the school district’s future.
One projection from 2015 anticipated the school district would have almost 6,700 students by 2021, enough to justify the passage of a bond to fund school construction.
But that was before birth rates slowed and before COVID-19 upended education in 2020 and 2021, sidelining students to sitting in front of a computer instead of a chalkboard.
Today, the district’s total enrollment is 5,793 students. That’s about 1,000 fewer students than the district anticipated having in 2021. District officials attributed the declining enrollment to including COVID-19 and a decrease in birthrates, as well as other trends the district may not be aware of.
One trend they are aware of is the parents who left the district because they couldn’t get help for their children with learning differences.
Decaturish spoke to several families who pulled their kids out of the district, and most of them told the same story.
Parents felt they were obstructed from getting 504 or Individualized Education Program plans because their kids, most of them diagnosed with dyslexia, were still considered on grade level. Some families decided to bolt because virtual school made the problems worse.
“We ended up pulling her out because of virtual learning,” parent Pam Sussin said of her decision to remove her daughter from the district. “Went to Howard School, which was truly a remarkable life-changing experience.”
District officials acknowledge they could do a better job of communicating with these parents, but said they are limited by state rules on when they can provide accommodations and services to students.
“We have very specific guidelines from the state and federal government for when students can and cannot get an individualized education plan or a 504,” Superintendent Maggie Fehrman said. “We have to follow those guidelines 100%. We cannot deviate from those. It’s a long process.”
The International Dyslexia Association estimates that 15% to 20% of people have some symptoms of dyslexia. Many parents who left said their child’s dyslexia wasn’t severe enough to qualify for services.
Sussin said her daughter struggled in a traditional school setting and was diagnosed with dyslexia. Sussin had tried to make it work. She hired an independent educational advocate to help her make her case to district officials, another common story among parents who left CSD.
“The consensus was, that we’d have to let her hit rock bottom before we could really help her,” Sussin said.
School officials relented and gave her daughter a 504 plan, but it wasn’t enough. Sussin believes CSD resists helping families because of limited funds for these accommodations.
“I think part of it is they’re a business, like any other business, and of course, it boils down to money, how to allot money to each student,” Sussin said.
Sussin hired Richard Kaplan as an advocate to represent her family in meetings with the district. He’s worked with numerous Decatur families. Kaplan said hiring special education teachers is expensive, and they’re also hard to find.
School districts will avoid providing services except in the most severe cases, Kaplan said. He said that in Decatur, school officials know they are dealing with families who have greater financial means. The median household income in Decatur is $114,615. The median household income in DeKalb County is $65,116.
“They’re shifting [the cost] on to the parents, and parents by and large are going to do the best they can for their child,” Kaplan said.
He has clients where one parent’s whole salary is being used for private school tuition.
‘Too much progress’
Like many parents Decaturish spoke to, Emily Beard has one child who is thriving in CSD and one who struggled.
She said her 11-year-old daughter is still a student, but her son – a second-grader – was diagnosed as dyslexic, and she’s sending him to the Schenck School.
Her son had speech delays and was being served by Babies Can’t Wait, a program offered through the state Department of Public Health. But the staff at College Heights early learning center evaluated her son and said he didn’t qualify for services.
“Basically, they said he doesn’t qualify because he’s made too much progress, which at the time I was like that’s great. Isn’t that the point? That’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” Beard said. “What I know now is that he should have continued to qualify, but because we were agreeing to pay to continue with speech therapy, he didn’t meet the necessity.”
She kept him in a private school. When it came time to go to Kindergarten, she wanted to hold him back a year and send him to College Heights with special services to meet his needs. But district officials encouraged her to enroll her son in kindergarten, when Beard felt he wasn’t ready.
“Their suggestion was that he not be retained, that he would be bored, that he should go on to kindergarten, that he was ready,” Beard said. “We’re like, that’s insane. That’s not on the table.”
Private school staff quickly identified that her son needed more support. When she felt her son was ready for kindergarten, she enrolled him in CSD again. But the school had turned to virtual learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it didn’t go well. She asked the district for a 504 plan, but they declined.
Her daughter briefly went to private school as well during virtual learning to address and remediate problems she faced. Her teacher at CSD has worked with her on her learning differences and the family is pleased with her progress. Likewise, her son is catching up in a private school setting. Beard doesn’t know if CSD will be able to help him if she decides to re-enroll him in the district.
Beard spent money on a private tutor to make up for services she couldn’t get from the district. She knows over 20 families that have pulled their kids out of the district due to dyslexia.
“The ones that haven’t left are supplementing with tutoring and maybe their kids can stay, but to the tune of $12,000-$15,000 a year of extra [cost],” Beard said.
District officials say they are trying to improve the services provided to children who are struggling.
School Board Chair Jana Johnson-Davis said, “It is always disappointing” to hear a family has left CSD.
“As a former special education teacher, I empathize with the challenges that students who are diagnosed with dyslexia face,” Johnson-Davis said. “CSD has acknowledged that in the past, our reading programs have not been as consistent as we would have liked. Consequently, CSD has redesigned our reading programs to align with current research and best practices, while monitoring to ensure that the programs are being implemented with fidelity.”
Johnson-Davis said the district has strengthened its universal screening to identify students with dyslexia and said CSD is one of six districts in Georgia’s Dyslexia Pilot program.
“Reading is a priority for the board, and we have made that expectation clear to the administration,” Johnson-Davis said.
Some parents who left CSD had a different problem: the district didn’t sufficiently challenge their gifted children.
Rachel Gervin said CSD identified her oldest daughter as gifted. She began taking gifted classes when she was in first grade. In sixth grade, the school district didn’t provide standardized testing due to the pandemic, and she couldn’t get into advanced math for seventh grade, Gervin said. .
Gervin, who is Black, urged officials to put her daughter in advanced math and if she failed, they could move her back to a regular class.
She asked the district, “How many Black kids do you have in accelerated math?”
Her daughter was miserable during virtual learning and became depressed.
“She was just bored to tears, and it was impacting her socially and emotionally and I’ve never seen that in her,” Gervin said.
When the school district decided to continue virtual learning in the spring of 2021, Gervin enrolled her child in a private school.
“She went one day at Greater Atlanta Christian, they moved her from regular math to honors math,” Gervin said.
She isn’t the only parent whose gifted child has struggled in CSD, particularly if they are children of color.
“I do think that they struggle with kids that are exceptional on either end,” Gervin said. “I’ve heard that story several times … I think they make assumptions about Black and brown kids.”
Her youngest daughter was identified as gifted, too. While her oldest returned to CSD after a short stint at Greater Atlanta Christian, her youngest is still enrolled in the private school.
The difficulty of getting services at CSD, combined with the challenges of the pandemic, forced parents to make hard choices, she said.
“I felt like a traitor,” Gervin said. “I love this community. I love my school system. I was very frustrated. I was frustrated with my superintendent and school board. I felt like they were throwing our kids under the bus.”
Lauren Pelissier’s son is an exceptional student. Her family moved to Decatur from Los Angeles and assumed that Decatur would be a superior experience to the Los Angeles public schools.
“My son’s first year was a bit of a disaster,” Pelissier said.
Her son was bored in school. At first, she brushed it off, thinking he was just adjusting to school in a new town. She soon realized it wasn’t a culture shock. Her son wasn’t being challenged in school.
“Basically, he was drowning in this really kind of subpar educational experience,” Pelissier said.
COVID and virtual learning made the problem worse. Her son, who hadn’t shown signs of mental illness, began to suffer. District officials didn’t see a problem and her family was “brushed off,” Pelissier said.
“I was like, I’m done,” she said. “I can’t watch my kid be this miserable. There has to be something else.”
He’s now attending a private school in Dunwoody, and he’s happier there. She observed that CSD serves average children well, but doesn’t do as well with families with kids who are atypical learners.
“We all know the system is designed for a certain percentage of kids, the 75%,” Pelissier said. “Those 75% end up going out in the world and doing the standard jobs.”
She said students on the fringes suffer.
‘Our ultimate goal’
School Board members were not surprised by these stories.
James Herndon said when he taught in Fulton County Schools, there was always a “mass migration” of special education students into private schools when they reached middle school age. He said the state’s standards for providing special education services are “atrocious” and he doesn’t blame parents who decide to leave public schools.
“If you’re a parent with resources, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to spend every penny I can to get [my child] the best education I can,” Herndon said.
School Board member Hans Utz said CSD can do better if it’s willing to spend the extra money to make it happen.
“I firmly think that we have the resources and funding and ability to be better on this topic,” Utz said. “We should be the best in class. We should not be laggards. Decatur should be the best program in the state, if not the country on this.”
Fehrman, CSD’s superintendent, said parents need to realize that there’s a “good reason” that getting an IEP or 504 plan isn’t something that happens automatically.
“We’ve seen previously before a rigorous eligibility process was in place there were lots of students being put into special education classes because there were behavior issues or because they had difficulty learning how to read where they just needed some extra help in the classroom,” Fehrman said. “So then they can get the support services in the regular classroom instead of being pulled out and provided…services through an IEP. The goal is to provide students the best education and meet all their needs in the least restrictive environment.”
The district needs to provide better communication with parents who are seeking these services, Fehrman said.
“We very much want to provide interventions and support, so every student can be successful,” she said. “That’s our ultimate goal.”
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