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PALS October 2018 - Open Forum Transportation, Touring Schools, ACCESS, MTSS, Nursing Coverage, Dive

PALS Meeting Minutes

October 24, 2018 9:15 a.m.

Roots of Faith

800 Main Street Pittsburgh, PA 15215

A Note on Meeting Minutes

PALS understands parents are already swamped with the everyday responsibilities of the title alone. Throw in school, work, therapies, grocery shopping, extracurricular activities, meltdowns, build ups, and all the wonderful moments between you wonder how you fit it all in a 24 hour day. Sometimes when you have an hour or two set aside for a meeting like PALS, you understandably choose to spend it on you. For that reason PALS meeting minutes are more in-depth than most. Sometimes the topics talked about in the meetings deserve more time than we have and for that reason we offer additional information and links to resources in the minutes. Please don't forget about PALS. We have found over the past ten plus years the more participants that attend, the more interesting and resourceful the meeting becomes; like this one.

Open Forum

Open Forum is an opportunity for participants to come together and discuss a variety of topics, offer resources, and ask questions related to special education. We welcomed a number of first time parents and encourage friends new, old, and still to be made to join us at our meetings as we work together to support each other.

Below are a few of the main topics we discussed:

District Representative Joined PALS Meetings

On occasion, as was the case at our latest meeting, a representative of the Fox Chapel School District has joined us. Generally this has been the Director of Special Education who in this case is Tim Mahoney. Tim replaced Lonnie Carey in 2017. You may remember Tim joined us around this time last year and shared his vision of his new role as FCASD's Director of Special Education and Pupil Services. With his previous experience in the district at Dorseyville Middle School, he had an idea of what his new role would bring. Although Tim intended to join us again for our first meeting of the school year in September, the district had set aside the same day for important ALICE training. The district's new community liaison came in his place with the intent to observe. Parent response was swift.

Parent reaction was understandably unanimous with the belief that community members who join PALS monthly meetings should have something to contribute. This is not to say everyone who attends PALS meetings, needs/must/should contribute to the meeting, it is more of a concept. The idea that the parents, caregivers, and professionals who come to PALS meetings have a vested interest in the general topic of Special Education and are attending with that as their sole focus. We should all understand PALS meetings are a safe place to seek and share knowledge, resources, and experiences, while feeling free to speak honestly and ask questions. PALS meetings are a place where personal information shared should remain within the meeting space since we are discussing children and in some cases sensitive topics. This could be a parent, guardian, or caregiver who is just starting to learn about special education with a recent diagnosis for their child or one who suspects that there is something disrupting their child's education to those who have decades of experience to share with others. The list of professionals who have joined us in the past is long. Some examples are; as mentioned before district directors of special education along with district superintendents, psychologists who perform IEEs, work with children on a variety of social and emotional strategies, special education attorneys and advocates, physical, speech, and occupational therapists, representatives of the PEAL Center, Disability Rights Network, Variety Charities, Pennsylvania Human Resources Commission, Project for Freedom, the University of Pittsburgh, Perspectives Program, and Brain Balance.

Founded over a decade ago, the purpose of PALS is to "provide support and information to parents of children of all ages that may have educational, physical, mental and/or behavioral challenges. We as parents come together for mutual support and education. We realize our importance as part of our children's total growth. Our goal is to form collaborative partnerships with our children's educators."

The response to Tim's presences at this week's meeting was even swifter than the reactions of last month's meeting. Whether verbalized during the meeting or after in e-mails, reactions were mixed. Some participants were upset, feeling as if they were not free to speak of their frustrations with the district and unwilling to share their ideas. While others were grateful to have the opportunity to meet Tim and ask questions. Another parent who was a first weary of his presences later stated they had changed their mind and appreciated his inclusion. This is a situation that PALS has discussed with Tim in the past and this meeting was an opportunity for him to hear it directly.

Tim agrees, parents and guardians need a community group where they feel free and safe to speak their mind and share information. He understands that his presences can occasionally be seen in opposition to that idea. Tim plans on joining two PALS meetings a year, one per semester. As in the past, PALS and Tim will work together to give the community notice of those meeting dates. Tim has asked that PALS be open to the possibility of his attendance for a brief time if a situation or topic arises that warrants it. For instance, Tim has asked to join us at our next meeting for a brief period at the beginning of the meetings. He is interested in hearing directly from parents about bringing more community awareness to disabilities and special education. You will read more about this further down in this month's meeting minutes. If you have ideas, or resources you believe will be helpful please bring them along. If you have an idea you would like to share and you cannot make the meeting on November 28th, feel free to e-mail directly to Tim or PALS.


The topic of transportation for special education students has hit a handful of message boards lately. Comments have ranged from students arriving home within five minutes of the dismissal bell while living miles away to transportation not being provided at all. This issue seems to be a common concern in many school districts in the area. Ultimately, if a student is leaving the school prior to dismissal than their instruction time is being reduced. Schools behaving in such a manner are out-of-compliance because the school is then not providing the student with an "appropriate education". In simple terms, if a student is being taken from their classroom prior to the dismissal bell to get on a school bus that student is NOT receiving the same educational experience as their peers who do not leave the classroom until the dismissal bell.

If you believe this is happening to your child there are multiple steps you can take to remedy the situation. Beginning with the simplest of solutions to the more involved all of which are best done in writing (when possible);

Step 1: contact your child's special education teacher

Step 2: contact your child's principal

Step 3: call for an IEP Meeting

Step 4: contact your district's Director of Special Education

Step 5: file a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education Office for Dispute Resolution.

Step 6: move through mediation and a due-process hearing if needed

Touring Schools

Planning to relocate your family can be overwhelming. Before taking the leap, parents look at the school their child would attend in a specific area. Of course, a quick search on the internet will give you the numbers, but there is nothing like touring a school. Some schools have a few specific touring dates a year. Of course, this can be difficult for parents to figure out, let alone attend. If you're considering moving into a specific location and have missed a tour date or are only in town for a short period of time, don't be shy, request an appointment for a tour. Your request is no different than that of a family partaking in the scheduled tour, or that of an incoming kindergartener. Remember, if someone says "no" to your request for a tour they may just be following policy. That doesn't mean you stop asking, go up the chain of command by contacting the Vice-Principal or Principal of the school and if needed the Director of Special Education for the school district. You understand the importance of finding a good fit for your child.

Why would a child be denied a 504 Plan or IEP?

Under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) public schools have multiple responsibilities to educate children with physical, mental, emotional, or learning challenges which lists thirteen qualifying disabilities. The one responsibility that often comes to mind first is FAPE, a child's right to a Free Appropriate Public Education. Students are found to be eligible (or not) to receive Special Education services by receiving an Appropriate Evaluation using both federal and state standards. Under IDEA an Appropriate Evaluation must be more than a single evaluation conducted by one individual. This means a team is taking into account a variety of assessments conducted by knowledgeable and trained individuals and monitoring data from teachers and other knowledgeable professionals, along with any important information provided by the parents including their own concerns, notations and treatment plans from doctors, therapists, and tutors, among others.

The team has an obligation to follow all federal and state standards when determining a student's eligibility. After reviewing all the data collected during the evaluation process the team is ready to determine a student's eligibility and they must answer the following questions:

1) Does the child have a disability that makes it difficult for them to learn?

If the answer to #1 is yes

2) Does the child need special education services and supports as a result of that disability?

If the answer to both questions is yes, the child is eligible for special education services and supports and the team moves forward in developing an IEP (Individualized Education Program). If the student with a disability does not need "specially designed instruction" they may still need supports/accommodations for their educational setting and the team will move forward in developing a 504 Plan. A student is found ineligible when

Some common reasons a student is found ineligible for special education services and support are; they do not meet the criteria for one of the disabilities recognized within special education or there is no documentation that the disability impacts their education. If the student is found ineligible for special education services and supports parents/caregivers have the right to disagree with the decision and have the dispute resolved by filing a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education Bureau of Special Education, mediation or a due-process hearing.


We touched on MA and ACCESS billing primarily as it related to school district's meeting a student's individual transportation needs as required by their IEP. As we discussed the topic we realized that not all school district's take advantage of SBAP, School-Based ACCESS Program. This program allows school district's to bill a child's Medical Assistance for a variety of services, including a child's individualized transportation needs. Of course, this requires a parent/guardian's signature. School district's often obtain this signature at the first IEP meeting.

We learned from a PPS (Pittsburgh Public Schools) parent that they do not bill MA at all. Most group members were perplexed by this idea. While not speaking for PPS, Tim Mahoney explained that if a school district makes a miscalculation or misreports their spending in only a single instance, ALL the funding provided by SBAP must be repaid for that school year. In some cases this could be upwards of a million dollars or more. That is why some school district's choose NOT to participate in SBAP. Tim also made clear that FCASD has specific accounting and communication protocols in place to avoid such missteps.

We discussed SBAP, School-Based ACCESS Program, at our March 2017 meeting. We provided our notes from the most recent MA, Medical Assistance training at our May 2017 meeting. If you are unfamiliar with either, we recommend reviewing our minutes. Even if you have private health insurance for your family or believe your income will disqualify your child from receiving Medical Assistance, we strongly recommend you review the MA training notes and find out more about PH 95 program.


We briefly talked about RTII, Response to Instruction and Intervention, now more commonly referred to as MTSS, a Multi-Tier System of Supports as it relates to the question; What happens to students who do not have a diagnosis? We spoke more directly on the topic at our November 2017 meeting and you can find the minutes with resources here. For today, we only touched on the concept of the three tiers as they move from helping ALL students, to SOME students, and finally to a FEW students as instruction is specialized to provide for the needs of all students.

Tim Mahoney indicated that his department was supplying General Education teachers with a "Tool Kit" of strategies to use with all students to meet their individual needs. Training in strengthening this area within FCASD is ongoing.

Contracted Service Providers

Tim Mahoney mentioned that FCASD hired a new SPT, Speech Pathology Therapist to replace a retiring employee. OTs, Occupational Therapists and PTs, Physical Therapists are still contracted out. Parents requested the district work on better communication from contracted therapists.Tim indicated that is an issue he is currently addressing with the service provider. No one mentioned if other school district's also contracted out service providers.

Nursing Coverage

Nursing Coverage has often been a hot topic at PALS meetings. Frequently school district's will split nurses among a number of schools making for some dangerous possibilities. Generally parents do not give a second thought to a nurse being on staff at their child's school for the length of the school day. However, too often we hear from parents with realistic concerns for the health and well-being of their child when facing a school without a full-time nurse. There is also a concern from parents that a qualified professional is not on the school bus with their child who may need immediate medical attention at any given moment.

A letter from your child's physician making it clear a qualified nurse must be present throughout the school day and/or on the bus to and from school is the first step. Adding the requirement to the IEP is the next. Just as with transportation, begin with the simplest of solutions to the more involved all of which are best done in writing (when possible);

Step 1: contact your child's special education teacher

Step 2: contact your child's principal

Step 3: call for an IEP Meeting

Step 4: contact your district's Director of Special Education

Step 5: file a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education Office for Dispute Resolution.

Step 6: move through mediation and a due-process hearing if needed

Diversity Training with a Community Reach

In the spirit of educating the student population at large and the FCASD community as a whole, a parent inquired with Tim Mahoney about the development of Diversity Training that includes embracing the differences in all of us, including disabilities. Tim is working on developing more community awareness opportunities on a monthly basis. Parents recommended that students who have graduated be asked to participate and share their experience whenever possible. The parent run District Forum has offered time to PALS at their third quarter meeting. This is an excellent opportunity to reach community members who may be unfamiliar with PALS and special education. Tim will be briefly joining our upcoming meeting on November 28th to ask for parental input. He plans to arrive and stay only at the top of the meeting. If you have an idea you would like to share and you cannot make the meeting on November 28th, feel free to e-mail directly to Tim or PALS.

Tim also shared that Best Buddies is a national high school based program that has met with great success since its introduction a number of years ago. Currently Tim is working to roll out a similar program at the middle school level with an elementary program to follow. The purpose of FC Best Buddies is to make a connection between students with and without disabilities in different social activities. Students have the opportunity to make new friends and lasting memories. The club aims to include everyone within the school environment as well as the community.

A parent brought up an instance where lack of interest in the community caused this year's TopSoccer league to cancel fall enrollment. Although scholarships for the over $200 per season league are available, not enough children in the area registered for the fall league. At this time it is not clear why so few children registered.

Tim told the group about the inclusion of Unified Sports in the community, which brings together equal numbers of Special Olympic athletes and athletes without intellectual challenges (called partners) on sports teams for training and competition. Currently the program at FCASD high school has Bocce and Track teams. Tim indicated FCASD is working toward becoming an accredited Unified Sports school district and offering teams at the middle school level.

Sensory Strategies for the Classroom

Directly after the meeting a parent mentioned searching for sensory strategies to help a child focus in the classroom. The following are some of the ideas being used in the classroom and new ideas; therma-band around the charm, velour on the inside of the desk, stress balls, a wiggle chair, exercise ball, stand-up desk, weighed lap pad, weighed vest, earplugs or headphones, other alternative seating like on the floor or a carpet square with a clipboard, chewing tools like pencil toppers or necklaces, wedge seats, squiggle wiggle writer vibrating pen, DIY fidget devices out of nuts, bolts, and washers or pipe cleaners and beads. The possibilities are endless and thinking about what makes your kiddo comfortable and relaxed is the first thing to think about when trying to come up with an excellent idea for the classroom.

If you have resources or ideas for sensory strategies for the classroom, please feel free to share them with everyone by joining our site membership and including your ideas on our forum.

Next Meeting: November 28, 2018, 9:15 a.m. Market District Café Atrium 910 Freeport Road Pittsburgh, PA 15238

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