'We need to expand the narrative of success'

To keep able-bodied students with IEPs from falling through the cracks, celebrate all kids, say advocates

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By Michael Romain 'Say Connects'

Staff reporter

Throughout the Starz documentary series America to Me, Telicia Moore was a ubiquitous, determined presence in the halls, classrooms and offices of Oak Park and River Forest High School. She had to be. 

Her son, Terrance Moore, was a senior during the taping of the series. Terrance isn't physically handicapped or obviously disabled. It's only when the viewer more deeply evaluates the young man's mannerisms that it's possible to spot his challenges. 

Terrance went through OPRF on an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is a plan of assistance for students in special education. During a recent interview, Moore gave some advice to parents of OPRF students whose children may be in Terrance's shoes — that is, young people whose cognitive challenges may get obscured because they're able-bodied. 

"One of the main challenges I faced when Terrance first started high school was my ability to connect with the services and to know who to go to when I had a problem, and how to get immediate assistance when I had questions," Moore said. 

Moore is currently the vice president of African-American Parents for Purposeful Leadership and Education (APPLE) — an organization founded by OPRF parents 30 years ago.

"Through APPLE, I connected with some special education directors who attended APPLE meetings," Moore said. "I also got resources through APPLE that let me know how the school functions and allowed me to access additional services."

Moore said that it isn't enough to simply know your student's IEP team and case manager. 

"Not everyone is reliable," she said, adding that if parents are not constantly vigilant, some case managers at OPRF "treat you like paperwork." 

Something else that's vital, she said, is understanding your child's ability. That's especially true when it comes to raising a young person who appears capable of mainstream instruction, she said.

"Unfortunately, some of this comes down to parent pride," she said. "Everyone wants their kid to be brilliant and perfect. Everyone wants their child to succeed. That being said, it's also OK to have your kids try and if they fail, let it go. Don't always blame teachers for problems." 

Anthony Clark is a special ed teacher at OPRF and a community activist. He has taught many students like Terrance and said special education at OPRF has improved since he was a student there in the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

Clark said that when he attended OPRF, the school's TEAM program [Transitional Education with Access to the Mainstream] — which is designed to "maximize student independence by developing [their] unique potential" according to OPRF's website —wasn't "fully articulated and didn't have built-in supports like it does now." 

In addition, Clark said, programs like CITE (Community Integrated Transition Education), which provides students with IEP's with a real world skills-based curriculum designed to put them on the path to independent living, and Opportunity Knocks, which provides structured activities for TEAM students, didn't exist when he was at OPRF.

In addition, these programs provide increased opportunities for participants to develop friendships and mentoring relationships - all important components for developing a sense of belonging. 

Still, Clark said, there's a lot of room for improvement both within the high school and in the larger Oak Park community when it comes to embracing individuals who are able-bodied but cognitively disadvantaged.

"I have former students with cognitive delays who are 6-feet, 5-inches — men of color who are already perceived by society as dangerous," Clark said, adding that oftentimes, law enforcement officials aren't trained or equipped to recognize the social cues of the cognitively disadvantaged. 

When combined with structural racism and overly aggressive policing, that miscommunication can sometimes be fatal — one of Clark's greatest fears for some of his former students. 

To mitigate the local hazards that may accompany the cognitively delayed, particularly young black men, Clark emphasized the forging of partnerships between agencies like the Oak Park Police Department, local businesses and OPRF, particularly its TEAM program, so that police officers and business owners "understand what an IEP is, what a disability is and how it presents itself beyond the physical component." 

"We have to eliminate biases that exist like ableism by recognizing them first," Clark said. "We also have to be more holistic in our approach to instruction."

Clark and Moore also said that people in the high school and community need to change how they perceive people who don't fall within the mainstream perception of success.  

"Sometimes in high school, teachers can be dismissive of kids who are struggling," Moore said. 

"We need to really invest in expanding the narratives of what success looks like. TEAM kids ought to be celebrated in the same way that general track kids are." 

Often times, students who matriculate through the TEAM program end up working in jobs that may not be dazzling, but are nonetheless useful, Clark said. 

"If you have a job at Jewel, you are a hard-working citizen, you're paying taxes," Clark said. "That needs to be celebrated as well. Let's celebrate a multitude of successful narratives outside of four-year university."

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).  

Contact:
Email: michael@oakpark.com

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