[nfbwatlk] Oregon's largest charter school miseducated blind student for years, graduated her unable to read or write, Oregon Live, February 20 2013

Mary ellen gabias at telus.net
Fri Feb 22 21:55:32 UTC 2013

I wish this were an unusual story.  In this case the charter school was the
problem.  We all know to our sorrow that public schools can be just as bad,
except that they follow the rules and create the appropriate paperwork.

Miseducated is the correct term for what happens to so many blind students
across North America.  How many perfectly capable blind students have a full
time aide?  How many blind students with some vision are discouraged from
learning Braille?  The latest version of "vision think" is to teach students
with some vision the Braille code.  They're taught Braille as a separate
class, but most of their reading, math, social studies, etc. is done in
print.  But they're being provided Braille instruction, so what if it's
never made a practical part of their education.  A teacher of the blind
stated at a meeting of the CFB that it is her job to teach students the
Braille code, but it's the job of the classroom teacher to teach that child
how to read.  What absurd nonsense!  

I never attended a school for the blind.  I did attend a resource room where
I was integrated into classes as my blindness skills grew strong enough for
me to be able genuinely to succeed.  Yes, I missed going to a neighborhood
school, but I got an education where the expectation was that I could
compete.  The system failed totally when it came to physical education,
science,, home economics, and industrial arts.  Clearly far from perfect,
but apparently better than what's happening now.

-----Original Message-----
From: nfbwatlk [mailto:nfbwatlk-bounces at nfbnet.org] On Behalf Of
Nightingale, Noel
Sent: Friday, February 22, 2013 9:35 AM
To: nfbwatlk at nfbnet.org
Subject: [nfbwatlk] Oregon's largest charter school miseducated blind
student for years, graduated her unable to read or write, Oregon Live,
February 20 2013


Oregon's largest charter school miseducated student for years, graduated her
unable to read or write By Betsy Hammond, The Oregonian February 20, 2013

Katherine Brafford is a young woman of sparkling intellect whose interests
span from genetics to Gregorian chant. She also has a rare vision impairment
that has worsened to the point that she needs the same services as someone
who is blind.

Last year, Oregon Connections Academy, an online charter school with more
students than any other Oregon public school, graduated her -- despite
failing to teach her to read or write independently.

The way the school and its sponsoring school district treated Brafford,
knowing she could not see to read or write, offers a nightmarish example of
what advocates for disabled students have long feared: Charter schools can
be reluctant or unable to serve special education students as required by

When given early, effective help, young people with disabilities can grow up
to become contributing members of society. Since 1975, federal law has
required all public schools to offer that support. In Oregon, that applies
to more than 70,000 students.

But charter schools don't appear to be doing their share. The U.S.
Government Accountability Office reported last year that charter schools
enroll a disproportionately low share of students with disabilities. Another
2012 report, by the Center for Law and Education, said that when charter
schools do serve such students, they tend to be those with common,
less-intense conditions such as learning disabilities.

Oregon changed its charter school law effective July 1, 2011, to try to
secure better treatment. It now requires the district that authorizes a
charter school -- not the district where a student lives, as was true before
-- to ensure students' special education needs are met.

Photo by Robert Durrell / Special to The Oregonian:  Brafford picked up
Braille much more quickly than most adults are able to do. She says she
repeatedly asked Scio School District officials and Oregon Connections
Academy educators to help her learn the tactile alphabet, but they would

That meant the Scio School District, which oversees Connections Academy, was
in charge of meeting Brafford's needs during her senior year, her third at
the online school. A resident of rural Jackson County, Brafford enrolled in
2009 because debilitating vision-related episodes often left her unable to
attend school. The flexible schedule and ability to work from home appealed
to her.
On the first day of the 2011-12 school year, she emailed the district's
special education director, asking to be evaluated for services.

Instead of helping, however, Scio officials ignored her for months, then
dragged her through a protracted series of meetings and tests that by April
still had not led to an official evaluation, a state investigator found
after Bradford's mother filed a complaint.

Brafford's doctors at Berkeley School of Optometry wrote that she needed to
be taught using standard approaches used with the blind, including training
on the use of screen-reading software and other assistive technologies. An
expert the district hired to test her advised that Brafford needed to be
taught Braille and to use a cane, among other skills.

Yet leaders of the Scio district and Connections Academy chided Brafford to
finish two more credits, the minimum she needed to graduate, and be done.
They didn't train her to use text-to-speech software or Braille, but
acknowledged she could not read or write independently by testing her
orally, offering extra instruction over the phone and never requiring
written work.

Pushed from chemistry

Oregon Connections Academy is run by a nonprofit board that contracts with
the national Connections Academy company, Connections Education, which was
purchased for $400 million in 2011 by Pearson, the world's largest textbook
company. The company's software and online curriculum form the backbone of
how Connections students are taught and how teachers monitor and grade them.
It operates taxpayer-funded schools in Oregon and 23 other states.

Against Brafford's wishes, Oregon Connections Academy dropped her from
chemistry mid-course and barred her from taking the second semester of
senior English. She couldn't, for instance, see a standard periodic table or
write a required English paper, and the school couldn't figure out how to
help her master that content.

In place of the English course, school officials had her listen to "Pride
and Prejudice" on tape, then talk about the book with a teacher.

Scio Superintendent Gary Temple and Special Education Director Barbara
Svensen both declined to discuss what happened, citing a confidentiality
clause in a legal agreement they reached with her family. Academy Principal
Todd Miller also declined to discuss Brafford's case, saying individual
student matters are confidential.
But Temple and Svensen acknowledged their small school district was
overwhelmed when it became responsible in 2011 for about 140 students on
special education plans at Connections Academy.

At first, Svensen was the lone special education official in the district,
responsible for overseeing all evaluations and individual plans. Scio has
since added four case managers and a clerk to her team, Temple said.

The school's special education enrollment has since grown to 365 students,
or 10.6 percent of its enrollment, Svensen said. Statewide, 13.3 percent of
students received special education services in 2011-12.

Scio's ability to identify and help special education students has improved
with experience, Temple said. "We certainly are better at it than we were a
year and a half ago. Our goal is that 10 years in, we're the experts in the

Formal complaint

Brafford said she finished the two remaining classes, government and
algebra, by using strategies she used to pass other classes: having her
mother or a family friend read her textbooks aloud and relying on a
privately paid tutor to explain math lessons and write her answers.

Brafford's mother, Carolyn, took those steps because a rare but expensive
opportunity arose: A private, nonprofit California center that helps blind
young adults gain skills to live and work independently had an opening for
her daughter. A diploma would be part of her ticket in.

The Scio School District had a different reason to move Katherine Brafford
along: State law says school districts may, but do not have to, educate
disabled students after they earn a regular diploma. In Brafford's case,
district officials never mentioned that they could help Brafford gain
blindness-coping skills after graduation.

After Scio and Connections Academy leaders ignored Carolyn Brafford's
frequent pleas on her daughter's behalf, she filed a formal complaint,
asking that the district be required to pay for Katherine Brafford to learn
the academic and blindness skills that she should have learned in high

The Oregon Department of Education found last July that Scio had failed to
evaluate Brafford within 60 days of her request -- or even within six months
-- and so had not delivered the free, appropriate public education promised
by federal law.

But, in a decision approved by Oregon's former assistant superintendent for
special education, Nancy Latini, the department backed Scio's position that,
because it issued Brafford a diploma, its obligations to her were over.
"When a district issues a diploma, that ends the responsibility," said Cindy
Hunt, the department's legal manager.

The state did require Scio to train employees on special education law and
submit paperwork showing it had improved its policies. It also had to give
the state copies of all parent requests for special education evaluations
from September 2012 through last month, along with the district's responses.

Last month, the Scio district paid Carolyn Brafford $19,000 to drop all
claims against it. Its attorney, Kelly Noor, wrote in an email that the
district did not violate the law but opted to settle to avoid costly

Katherine Brafford now attends the Hatlen Center for the Blind in San Pablo,
near San Francisco. Like the other students there, she lives in her own
apartment and pays her own bills while she learns skills to live and work on
her own. She has learned Braille and how to use an array of adaptive
technology such as text-to-speech software.

For the first time in years, she can read her own writing and do research on
the Internet. She's learned to take mass transit and handle money. "The
screen reader is really, really helpful, and I love the Braille display for
the computer. To be able to write and read something I wrote is absolutely

"I am having a great time reading books from the Talking Book and Braille
Library," she said. "I've been reading about the 1750s to 1810, the time of
the Revolutionary War and Catherine the Great and so many great thinkers. I
find it fascinating how connected the world was then. I'm also reading about
how genetics may or may not affect what we do -- how much is our own free
choice and experience?

"All I have done since coming to Hatlen is gain things," she said. "The
whole world is opening up."

-- Betsy Hammond

How to get help for a special education student with unmet needs Diane
Wiscarson, a prominent special education lawyer in Oregon, offers this
advice to families concerned that their child's special education needs are
not being met:
Talk to the student's case manager or other educators responsible for
helping the child.
If that doesn't work, meet with the district's special education director.
As part of a pilot project this spring, as many as 20 families can ask the
Oregon Department of Education to provide, at no cost, a professional
facilitator to help make their child's individual education plan-writing
meeting go well. Molly Hammans at 503-947-5705 helps parents complete the
request form.
ODE mediators help families and school districts agree on a student's
special education services. Contact Steve Woodcock at
steve.woodcock at state.or.us<mailto:steve.woodcock at state.or.us>. The vast
majority of complaints are settled, not decided by the state, Wiscarson
Families can send ODE a written, signed statement alleging that a school
district has violated federal special education law. The department will
assign an investigator, then issue a written decision.
Families can choose a more formal route and file a "due process" complaint
with ODE to contest a school district's identification, evaluation,
educational placement or related issues. That leads to a hearing in front of
an administrative law judge, resulting in a legal order that can be appealed
to the courts. If the family prevails, the school district may have to pay
the family's legal bills.
Wiscarson, who has practiced special education law for more than a decade,
says, "When parents call or come in, I tell them you don't need a lawyer.
Start working the right channels to get it worked out. Hiring a lawyer to
get your child's education worked out is not something to do lightly. But do
advocate for your child. Most parents trust the school district to do the
right thing, and it takes a long time before it enters people's minds that
things might not be right."
--Betsy Hammond
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