Why my family chose to leave our assigned school, not ‘stay and fight’

Special to redefinED

by Jaymie Perez

I recently had the opportunity to sit in on the Tampa PTA town hall meeting called “Real Talk.” This was billed as a chance to talk about underperforming schools and how they can be improved to meet students’ needs.

This topic is important to me. My husband and I have adopted nine children with special needs. Getting them the support they need to learn has required endless battles with the school system.

I’m disappointed at the panel’s failure to discuss issues, such as identifying children with special needs and additional supports in the classroom regardless of race or location of school. But I was shocked when several panelists demeaned the concept of educational choice, which has enabled me to give my children the education they need.

The panel included state Sen. Darryl Rouson, who was more sympathetic to parental choice, as well as education activists and people who work in the local school system.

Cindy Stuart, a member of the Hillsborough County School Board, pointed fingers at parents who were leaving public schools, calling us examples of “white flight.” She scolded affluent families who leave their assigned schools for schools of choice, suggesting they should instead “stay and fight for public schools.”

I took offense at this unfair characterization of my family’s choices. We are, for the record, leaving public schools for a different reason. I’d call it “ESE flight.” I am Native American. My husband is Filipino. Our children are of multiple races, and all of them come from the foster care system. We are tired of fighting the school system, only to receive little support and no assistance.

My children’s IEPs were being changed based on what one teacher thought, despite the opinions of their doctors and parents, on the grounds that their medical diagnoses “don’t meet educational criteria.”

I have twins who are diagnosed with autism. They are not even fully toilet trained and must miss two days of school per week to get needed therapy. Their IEPs have been removed and they are being placed in mainstream kindergarten next year without the assistance of an ESE teacher.

I am tired of being that parent with that label in the school system. I am tired of beating my head against a brick wall for my children to receive support that I believe is their federally mandated, state-guaranteed right.

It is easier for me to bring all my beloved children home and educate them the way they need to be educated than it is to continue battling the bureaucratic nightmare.

I spoke to Stuart afterward and learned she understands the challenges that parents experience with IEPs and 504 plans. Yet I do not see any systemic changes in the way the district operates.

Why don’t we start having more productive town hall meetings, talk to more parents, learn the real issues we face, and start from there?

The Florida PTA and its allies in the public school system have adopted the “every child is our child” platform to make sure no child is neglected, failed, ignored, or left behind — yet that is exactly what I felt happened to my children, and countless others with special needs.

I want the education system to wrap every child in needed and appropriate services, and listen to parents. Stop vilifying charter schools or vouchers for private schools, and the parents who’ve come to depend on them. Instead, make improvements in public schools so we don’t feel the need to leave.

Even though some of my children this year are home-schooled and all my children next year will be, my taxes still support a dysfunctional system that didn’t work for my family. I hope elected officials will continue listening to stories from parents about their experiences and start charting how many similarities they find across the state – and then do something about it.

Then maybe we’ll start moving toward a public education system where all parents want to send their children – by choice.

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