Of IEPs and Tar Pits

I used to live in Pittsburgh’s North Side – a mixed neighborhood, with many people just this side of poverty. There were two nearby schools – a big expensive “free” school named after Martin Luther King, Jr – and a small Catholic school, named St. Peter’s. It happened that my neighbor’s little girl attended the Catholic school. This seemed interesting, since neither child nor mother were Catholic, and the tuition required no small financial sacrifice.

So I asked. Turns out, the child had gone to the “free” MLK school. She was diagnosed with dyslexia. A room full of people with letters after their names convened, and generated something called an IEP – an Individualized Education Plan – which was about an inch thick. A year later, no significant progress – the child still could not read, and was behind in her classes. It was killing her. But the school had covered itself with a stack of paper. They had followed proper procedures and policies.

So mother and child went to St. Peter’s. Explained the dyslexia. The Mother Superior simply said “We will work with her.” And they did. A year later, she was making progress in both reading and the rest of her grades. A year after that, she was up to speed with her peers, and was happy.

Another friend was a Dean of Education at a local college. Her son Jimmy was diagnosed as “developmentally delayed.” He too was gifted with an inch-thick IEP. But his mother knew all the lingo; she had taught classes about IEPs. She read it carefully, twice. Next day, she threw it down on the table. “Show me where there is a plan for Jimmy to rejoin the mainstream, at their level.”

The room full of people with letters after their names were dumbfounded. Their Individualized Education Plan was to teach Jimmy slower than his peers. Month after month of slower instruction, and he’d recede further and further into the background, until he was just a distant speck in the rear view mirrors of his peers.

So his mother mainstreamed him. He’d come home after a day at school, and she worked with him – helping him to master reading, arithmetic, and so forth. It was a struggle; she learned to speak to his particular issues, whatever they were; but he kept up with his peers. He graduated, went on to college, got a law degree, passed the Bar, and became a lawyer.

Not every child is so fortunate. For most, an IEP in a government school is a kind of tar pit – they’ll never catch up again. Every year, falling further and further behind, watching former classmates reach for a brass ring which is forever a few steps too far outside of their own grasp.

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