By Sally Absher

Jack Anderson was born in Los Angeles in 2004. When he was 16 months old he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He was enrolled in an early intervention program in California for five hours/day, five days/week. His mom, Stephanie Anderson, said “this was a free, amazing place in L.A. that right away started implementing very effective services with him.”

Just 2 months shy of Jack’s third birthday, the family was transferred to Knoxville. Anderson was excited to be returning to her hometown and closer to family, but she and her husband were anxious about leaving all the great services Jack had in L.A.

Once in Knoxville, the Andersons contacted TEIS (Tennessee Early Intervention System) and were referred to Judy Miller, KCS’s Special Education Facilitator. When Ms. Miller and Jack’s school team first met to develop his Individualized Education Plan, ( IEP), KCS’s draft plan documented placement in a Comprehensive Developmental Classroom (CDC) at Fort Sanders Special Education Preschool.

There was never discussion during the initial IEP meeting regarding placement options for Jack other than this fully segregated educational setting. According to Federal (IDEA) law, the IEP team must first consider the general education setting with a full range of supports and services for educational placement.

Only if a student from age 3-21 with a disability cannot be “educated satisfactorily” – that is, progress in IEP goals and gain access to the general curriculum with supports, services, modification, and accommodations – is the student removed from the general education setting to a “more restrictive environment” such as a special education classroom setting.

While the Andersons now realize that Jack should have been afforded the consideration to be educated in a more inclusive setting than the fully segregated class at Fort Sanders, they were very pleased with the teaching staff and the progress Jack made while there.

In fact, when it came time to review Jack’s annual IEP, they were told that Jack had done so well, he’d outgrown Ft. Sanders. Jack was zoned for West Hills, but his IEP placement was in a CDC classroom, which West Hills didn’t have at the time. KCS placed him out of zone at Cedar Bluff preschool which did have a CDC. Again, the Andersons were never told about the available general education settings for Jack, which would have included the inclusive pre-K class at Cedar Bluff.

The following year, Jack was moved to West Hills for an extra year of preschool. Jack was assigned to Karns Elementary for Kindergarten because Ball Camp Elementary, his zoned school, did not have a CDC program. “We were being tossed around like a salad year after year because of Jack’s inappropriate educational placement on his IEP.” At the start of second grade, Ball Camp opened a CDC classroom, so Jack joined his two younger siblings at Ball Camp.

Jack is now in the fourth grade. Anderson confidently states that KCS teachers know that Jack is a very smart kid. She remembers, “There were several teachers throughout the years that would tell me Jack was ‘too smart’ for the CDC classroom. In fact, one teacher said that she knew he had autism, but she thought he also showed legitimate traits for Gifted and Talented.” When Jack was in the first grade, he was reading at the third grade level. Jack currently reads as high as 7th grade.

In every IEP meeting, the Andersons asked for more inclusion with supports. She said, “I was getting more and more frustrated and finally decided to get my master’s degree in Inclusive Curriculum and Instruction so I could figure out how to get Jack what we knew he needed and was entitled to receive.”

She told the Focus, “By spring semester of second grade, they were bringing the general ed classroom curriculum into CDC for Jack, because they started to see that he really was so capable of learning. He started learning about plants in Science, the basics of geometry in Math, and landforms in Social Studies, but from the CDC classroom instead of the general ed classroom. Why? This was the question I kept asking.”

In the process of getting her master’s degree, Anderson learned the laws and the language of Special Education. At the end of second grade, she called an administrative meeting, and told the attendees that she felt Jack was not accessing the general curriculum with his peers in general ed setting as was his right. “I said I felt he would be better off starting third grade in the general ed classroom. And they agreed!”

Although the change in placement was never written on his IEP (the official document still showed Jack placed for 7 hours per day in a CDC setting), Jack began third grade in the general ed class four hours a day.

When it became clear that Jack needed more support in this new environment to reach his learning potential and also support the classroom teacher, the Andersons, with the help of Kim Kredich, successfully advocated for an instructional assistant for Jack.

Anderson says, “Ball Camp did the right thing by including Jack in his proper educational setting, so there were already data to show he could be satisfactorily educated in the general education classroom. KCS Special Education Administration couldn’t deny Jack the supports he needed once he had proven success in this setting.”

In fourth grade, Jack is taught in the general ed classroom 5 hours a day with a full-time instructional assistant. He is thriving, but KCS will not let go of direct services delivered in CDC each day. Anderson says, “For some reason, they don’t want to let go of the CDC placement. Maybe they feel like if they do it for Jack, they will have to take an honest look at what all the other kids placed in CDC could and should get in terms of appropriate inclusion.”

Anderson said Jack’s IEP meeting this month was a relative success. “We finally got the IEP team and Central Office to recognize they have been holding Jack back because his math computation skills are not at grade level. They were trying to ignore his documented accommodation allowing use of a calculator. It’s absurd,” says Anderson. “It’s like taking kids’ eye glasses off and making them read until they can without their glasses. This is the meaning of accommodations. He has a calculator, move on.”

By taking Jack out of his grade core curriculum math class for direct services in CDC, he wasn’t learning the grade-level standards of math, which is what the TCAP tests.

It took seven IEP’s – over 20 hours of discussion – to finally get KCS top administration supervisors to realize and admit they were creating annual goals around having Jack NOT use a calculator. “No one is holding the department accountable for their decisions during the IEP process. Children in this district with pervasive disabilities don’t stand a chance at getting a truly appropriate education without their parents going up against the administration.”

This semester, Jack has grade level, core curriculum goals, modifications, and appropriate supports and services. He is set up to prove he can be included in Resource and/or more time in general ed instead of CDC for his direct services. This is all the Andersons have wanted since learning about their son’s lawful rights and witnessing his social and academic progress when included in the general education classroom.