As a longtime DC special education parent advocate, Molly Whalen has worked for 20 years to improve educational opportunities for DC students with disabilities. Molly currently serves as executive director for the District of Columbia Association for Special Education (DCASE), a coalition of non-public and charter schools that provide special education services to students from the District of Columbia, through advocacy, special education resources and strong partnerships.
We chatted with Molly about changes in the special education landscape and how groups like DCASE and The Co-op are building an education ecosystem that benefits everybody.
Molly, what drew you to special education advocacy and what is your background with The Co-op?
I got into special education because both of my children have disabilities. My children were born in DC and they both have autism. We went through the early intervention and special education system in DC, which was pretty broken, and caused me to realize I had to be very proactive and excessively involved. This is a very common parent story in DC. And through this journey I became connected to The Co-op; working with them, supporting them (as a board member) and now partnering with them on various initiatives.
We’ve cooperated and worked with The Co-op on family engagement, parent education, self-advocacy, and secondary transition through their DC3C program.
Regarding DCASE. What role does the organization play in the special education ecosystem?
We represent the non-public special education schools that serve DC students. Non-public schools are special education facilities that serve young people with physical, emotional and developmental needs and disabilities that can not be appropriately met in public schools. I’m a believer that some of the best special education in the area happens in non-public schools, but we are also a coalition of schools, educators and therapists that share our knowledge and expertise and work with charter schools and The Co-Op not just in placement of students but also raising awareness for quality special education.
We work with Julie [executive director of the DC Special Education Cooperative] and the Co-op, in advocacy. We both advocate to the state and local education agencies to try to bring system changes. We focus on everything from transportation systems that function to highlighting the need for evidence-based therapies and programs. There is a lot of connectivity and partnership between us in really focusing on ensuring special education works in DC.
Thank you for that. That was one of my questions on how you all interplay. It sounds like DCASE and The Co-op partner pretty closely.
Yes, we do. Personally, I think organizations like The Co-Op are really strong players in the DC education community. We are always trying to do good for the entire system, not just our particular programs/schools. We really believe that we need to be creating a quality special education system that’s supporting all of our students with disabilities to prepare them for futures of independence, education and employment.
It is common for Julie and I to be at the same meetings and fighting for the same goals. We know that we can count on each other and also that we are working for the right reasons – the focus is always on students.
Where do you see the areas of greatest need in the ecosystem?
One great thing about special education is that it is a federal law, and the city public school systems have to implement it. We have a lot of protection because of that.
For a long time, in DC, we were not even doing compliance well. The city was in several class action lawsuits. There has been a lot of improvement there – with compliance – we have a state education agency, a unified data system (SEDS), a bus system to transport students with disabilities, we have attention to having certified teachers in special education, and lots more. We’re definitely doing better with compliance.
However, we are not anywhere close to being better with quality, preparing our students with disabilities not just for the next grade, but for the next five years and the next ten years. Are we preparing them to be independent, educated, well-developed citizens in our city? I believe the answer to that question is “not really”. We need to have a much higher graduation rate for students with disabilities (it is hovering around 45% now – which is awful) and our schools are not collectively ensuring that our students with disabilities are receiving an education that’s going to take them to the next level.
Lastly, there’s a real lack of consistency from school to school and sometimes even from grade to grade within schools about services for students with disabilities. Important questions every school leader should ask themselves, ‘Are we doing differentiation in every class in every school?’ ‘Are we doing Response-to-Intervention consistently?’ ‘Are we using evidence-based practices for students with disabilities everywhere?’ We are not expecting every school to be perfect in special ed, but we should have much, much better consistency and quality.
That was a very meaty answer. For the layperson who wants to support, but isn’t sure where to start, are there resources you recommend to educate those interested?
I host a regular webcast called Special Education Thursday focused specifically on DC. It is described as a chatty 30-minutes where I ask special education experts the questions that parents want answers to. The library of recordings are on Advocates for Justice and Education’s website and we have about thirty-five episodes on there. There is one with Julie from the Co-op on Charter schools and special education and there is also one with Monica Lesperance, about early childhood education and inclusion classrooms. .
That’s a nice segue to talking about DC3C Spring Break. We know that 54% of DC’s students with disabilities are neither enrolled in post-secondary education nor employed one year after graduation. How do programs focused on job readiness address this disparity?
Studies have shown if students with disabilities have a paid internship or paid job experience during high school they are approximately 80% more likely to be in competitive employment or college later. We know that the paid work experience, like internships, are really critical to success for students with disabilities. In addition, real life work experience during their high school years gives students a much clearer idea of how to navigate the workplace. DC3C also gives these students the opportunity to practice soft skills that are invaluable – how to talk to a supervisor, how to manage their time on a project, how to socially navigate the workplace and how to create a budget to cover the costs of working such as attire.
One of the things that DC3C also provides, in addition to interview training for those critical jobs, is exposure to real-life work skills. Could you speak about the importance of experiential learning when it comes to providing students with disabilities the support they need to secure job opportunities?
I think it gets back to the fact that students with disabilities tend to be different learners, you know, being able to learn outside of the book or being able to learn kinesthetically or being able to learn through experience. So it makes all the sense in the world that being on a job site and learning in that way would be more powerful or have a more powerful effect for students with disabilities.
For our students who have developmental disabilities, we need to make the implicit explicit. They might not understand or even be aware of what a typically developing teenager would pick up on about hygiene, about communication with a boss or a supervisor, understanding how to explain when they made a mistake, all of those things.
So, going through an internship or DC3C experience is also giving them some real life experience and a chance to make mistakes and learn from them. They’re not supposed to be perfect employees at that point, but it’s going to show them like, ‘Hey, when you were late what is something you could’ve done?’ ‘Oh, I didn’t know I needed to email or call my boss to tell her that I was late.’ They’ll just say, ‘The bus was late.’ Whoever is working with them will say, ‘Yes. We understand that, but you have to be more responsible as an employee. Something responsible to do would be to call or email and say, ‘I’m going to be late.’ That’s what I mean by making the implicit explicit. We have to breakdown all of those tasks and elements that are important.
That makes a lot of sense. Thank you. Is there anything else you want to share about DCASE?
We really believe in the continuum of special education for all students with disabilities and we understand that it has to look different for a lot of different students. It’s really making sure we are giving our children, no matter what they need, free and appropriate education. The non-public special education schools in this area are some of the best and they often work very closely with charter schools and the Special Education Cooperative because we all have to be partners to serve this population of students.