Part 3: How One Man Continues To Support Youth With Special Needs

August 15, 2016
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Please see the conclusion to John’s interview with Robyn Shulman of The Huffington Post below:

Let’s talk about today. How does the special education system work for parents who have children with special needs?
For example, if you have a child in San Francisco who has autism and has an IEP (Individualized Education Program), the IEP will not transfer across states. If for some reason you have to move to Dallas, you would have to start the entire process over with the local school district. Your child will not get the same services in Dallas that he/she received in San Francisco. The IEP, even though it’s a federally mandated process, is not portable. It’s not even portable to go from San Francisco to Los Angeles or from Austin to Dallas.

It’s not an easy situation. Every district gets to rewrite it. They have to take your child in by law, serve him/her, try to meet the IEP, and they have 60 days to revise the IEP; they’re going to rewrite it, not for what your child needs or had, but for what they have in the new district.

And that is why we have a federal law. It’s the only federal law that I know of in our nation that is enforced by parents. This law is not enforced anywhere else except by an angry parent or guardian.

How about alternative education?
In 2005, we acquired Ombudsman Educational Services, based in the Chicago area. Ombudsman operates alternative schools for kids who are in credit trouble, who may be suspended or expelled, possibly truant, or who need a different type of learning environment. Our alternative education business is fascinating because there are settings that make this a very fluid process with the public systems. Georgia is a great example. Georgia has an environment that welcomes alternative education groups like Ombudsman to help raise graduation rates, to help get kids to school, and, in recent years, to help them pass the Georgia high school exit exam.

You take these kids, who have failed in the public school system, and you put them in a small business-like environment with three or four teachers and they thrive; this is blended learning. They have small group instruction, technology-based instruction, and individual work. All of the things that can distract them are gone, and they grow up, and it’s wonderful.

There are certain environments where alternative education clicks and the stars align.
I look at the bell-shaped curve for intelligence regarding the 50 million children that are in public school. The kids that are on the right-hand side of the curve are probably doing well. They have average to above average intelligence, and those are the kids who we design schools for and they flourish.

However, that leaves on the left-hand side of the curve 25 million children that have less than average intelligence and all of these factors build against them. And I think those are the kids who are at risk in America. As we raise the standards, increase graduation rates, and try to make everyone college ready, we are opening the back door of education wider and wider for those children to fail. That is an absolute reality in American public schools that we refuse to face.

And how do you view our reality today in reference to all of the changes taking place in education?
We have been so resolved to get everyone college ready that we forget about our realities. Everyone doesn’t need to go to college. It’s not what every student in America needs anymore. America still needs craftsman. America needs people who work with their hands and think as they work creatively. We need individuals who solve problems and repair infrastructure while making a healthy living.

The American public education system has forsaken the trades, abandoned craftsmanship, and left behind the value of having significant auto mechanic training programs and technical training programs. We’re bringing some back, but for 25 years we threw them out of public school.

And it is entirely wrapped into an economic system that is not changing what is possible. I believe that we’re at a tipping point in American public education based on a few factors including the economy, global competition, demographics, and technology. We are in an economic period in history that is rapidly changing from smoke stacks to technology. Also, we have worldwide competition now. We are not the only wealthy nation in the world anymore.

Demographics also play a leading role. We have a substantially aging society who doesn’t have children in public education. We have a reduced number of children per family and are experiencing dramatic immigrant change in America. Demographics are part of the tipping point.

And technology is changing everything in education. We don’t need to gather kids in yellow school buses and cart them to a brick building every day for them to receive an education. Two million children a day are educated at their kitchen tables and are highly successful; those 2 million children, who now represent about 4% of America’s public-school children, are home educated. We’re not trying to reel them back into the schools. They demonstrate that for a relatively small home budget, we can have phenomenal outcomes.

Parked outside of my office are two giant yellow school buses. I look at them and I think that this is an antiquated way of moving children to brick-and-mortar based education. It doesn’t have to be like this. You can learn in various ways, and we have options now. Our system is an interwoven major component and an integral portion of America’s economy. Four million people live by that system, and you can’t change it. They have a vested economic interest in it.

We’re so wed to this system that we can’t seem to adjust it. And it’s not the teachers who are to blame. I’ve met and worked with hundreds of educators and administrators in my life, and they’re great people. They’ve given their lives for a good reason, but the system is antiquated, and that’s the frustrating part. I believe that’s why the private sector can come in with innovation. Kids don’t need to go to school six and a half hours a day. That’s a social construct. And it doesn’t have to be that way. We can create other ways to care for children and to educate them.