Too many parents know how hard it is to watch their children struggle in school. Often, with the guidance of school staff, we begin the exceptional child (EC) process. You’re given a parents’ handbook that could rival Tolstoy’s War and Peace in length. The assessment begins and you wait. You think you know what you’re getting into, but nothing could prepare you for that “results” meeting. 

You hear a lot of numbers. Scale scores, standard scores, t-scores, and percentiles. The first time I was a parent in one of these meetings was four years ago, and I’m still digesting some of the information presented. But there’s one thing they will make sure you understand. Your child has—and by extension you have—rights. Rights to an education that acknowledges your child’s neurodiversity, accommodates their needs, and, as necessary, modifies the curriculum to meet those needs. Your child gets an Individualized Education Plan, an IEP, and that I is the most important part. 

Nobody tells you that North Carolina doesn’t provide a sound, basic education for neurotypical students, much less their neurodivergent students. If you watch the appropriations meetings, they plainly discuss that the state gives districts a certain amount for every student with disabilities, unless that’s more than 13 percent of the student population. Since the average across all North Carolina school districts is 14 percent, you can imagine it often is. 

Nobody tells you that many schools don’t have EC teachers right now. You hear the promise that your child’s needs will be met without the acknowledgment that there are 40 vacancies for EC teachers and 42 “EC – other” vacancies across Durham Public Schools (DPS). They don’t tell you that this “legal document” will be tossed to the side so swiftly. These supports that we all agree our children need just disappear like pencils in a kindergarten classroom. 

But our children’s needs don’t go anywhere. They don’t become neurotypical because we will it so. Our EC teachers, who had difficult jobs before, balancing incredible paperwork demands with equally demanding students, are at their breaking points. Many of them choose to be in the general education classroom or leave education altogether.

Our EC system is in crisis, and a group of students who are already so vulnerable are paying the price. It’s especially concerning because having a disability is not mutually exclusive with having other marginalized identities. In fact, so many of our disabled students in DPS are also Black, brown, gender and sexual minorities, and/or have limited English proficiency.

As a parent, it’s hard to know what to do. Your child has rights, they said. You have rights. I’m thankful for the organizing power of Every Child NC in advocating for the rights of every child.

But the reality is that it’s just not enough. We can’t keep waiting on a state legislature that refuses to prioritize our most marginalized students. As a parent and education advocate, I have been happy to work with the People’s Alliance in advocating for differential pay for our EC teachers, to acknowledge the value of the extra work and responsibilities that come with their position.

This alone won’t dig us out of the crisis we’re in. But we also can’t keep things the way they are when only 17 percent of students with disabilities are proficient on state exams and a whopping 33 percent don’t graduate with their cohort.

You can help ensure all children in DPS get the support they need by emailing the Board of Education and County Commissioners in support of a living wage for classified staff and EC differential pay. Learn more here.

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