Linda Whitman (Encore), Educational Advocate

“We are back in school. Many districts are plugging away working hard with their traditional lessons,” said Linda Whitman, Educational Advocate. But on June 16, as teachers were preparing for classes to begin in the 2021-2022 school year, Texas passed an education reform measure, House Bill 4545,  “which put in place very strict structured plans for students who did not succeed on STAAR® (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) tests,” Linda explained. “We were told not to worry; students are not going to be held back [based] on STAAR® scores. Previously in grades 3, 5 and 8 they could be held back even if their report card was passing.” Under this new bill, students who possess the knowledge but struggle on tests can now receive additional help that will allow them to advance and to succeed at the next grade level.

Linda, who has worked with more than 30 school districts in the past few years, had several opportunities to help with this legislation. She told members of the Texas Education Agency (TEA), “We’re taking an 8 or 9 year-old, and we’re asking them to put their entire year on one test, one day, one question. I don’t think it is fair to tell a child, ‘You have worked hard all year in every subject, but if you miss one question, you fail.” She also made a two-minute plead before the State Board of Education to determine the conditions of dyslexia in the presence of other disabilities. “We are making changes united–educators, administrators, legislators and parents. We’re not perfect, but we are working in the right direction. We are coming together.”

This additional help can come in many forms, including a Local Education Agency (LEA) that consists of the child’s parent or guardian, the child’s teacher, a specialist, and an administrator who will work together to develop an educational plan and monitor the student’s progress; being assigned a classroom teacher who is a certified master, exemplary or recognized teacher; and 30 additional hours of supplemental instruction (tutoring). 

Linda explained, “Students must have 30 hours of accelerated instruction, supplemental tutorial, at all grade levels, if they didn’t pass–or for whatever reason, didn’t take–STAAR® . We have to prepare for, plan for, and provide, no more than a 3:1 [student to teacher] ratio, unless parents give a waver. They can not miss recess, PE (physical education), music, fine arts, enrichment or core subjects.” Over the summer, teachers and educators discussed the best way to implement the new mandate, considering the number of students who need the assistance, the qualified teachers available to assist, school schedules, classroom space, and materials that meet the requirements. “It has been a nail-biter,” Linda said. “It has been frustrating. So many extra meetings!”

Funds to offset the increased cost of these mandates came from nearly $13.2 billion of the $30.75 billion congress allotted to the Education Stabilization Fund through the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund), to address the impact covid had on schools. “Now that there is money to help with tutorial plans, schools are hiring additional specialists and paying for additional training. We’re having more and more teachers take an interest in becoming reading experts. We’re going to be able to give you more time with reading specialists,” Linda said.

“Now it’s easier for parents to request assistance from schools,” Linda said. “If the parents say we really need to test their kids, we will. They don’t have to wait until [their child is in] 3rd grade to be tested. If the parents say their child can’t read, their spelling is terrible, they’re struggling, they can’t put two or three sentences together, then the school district says, ‘Let’s take a look at that with you.’ The district will do a full and complete evaluation. Before, we would only do a subset and look for dyslexia, which is a recognizable condition, but we might have overlooked some children. The full evaluation doesn’t let us overlook the child in the same way.”  

Linda added, “We had an 8.5% cap [on the number of students who were eligible for specialized instruction], but now there is no cap.” Borderline students who may not have qualified before, may now be eligible for the help they’ve been needing. “Not every child assessed goes into special education. If they need a specially trained special education teacher, great! But if they don’t, great!” It’s also important to help parents understand that there is no stigma to having a child in special education. “It doesn’t carry the negative connotation that I grew up with,” Linda said. “Schools are stepping out and they are finding the children, evaluating the children, and then they can say, ‘Now we know how to help them. Now we know how to best serve them.” 

“We have a highly inclusive educational program these days. We don’t pull kids out of the classroom and single students out as much any more,” Linda said. “It’s a co-teach, inclusion world. Kids can teach each other, kids can help each other learn. We rely on teachers’ strengths and skills. They really want to know the very best way for the kids to learn to read because it affects every course they take.”

“I want [parents] to feel empowered.” Linda said. “They have a voice. They have rights. I want to encourage them to feel empowered. There are voices to represent them, and they can use their own voice. Go for it!

And of the teachers, Linda said, “We pray for them. We need them to understand that we value what they’re doing. We understand it’s a hard road right now. As a nation and a society, we have to empower the individual teachers. We have to give them resources, we also have to give them   a whole lot of latitude and patience.”

“Teachers are saying, ‘We’re trying hard. Just give me the kids, get out of my way, give me extra training, give me extra resources, and I’m going to do everything I can to help that child.’”

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