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No open enrolment for special needs kids

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As mothers, we have witnessed first-hand the challenges parents of special needs students face when they are trying to find the best school to meet their needs. Despite their obstacles and challenges in life, all we want to do is find a learning environment that best meets their individual needs. 

Unfortunately, we have both experienced recent obstacles within the public school system that have denied our children the ability to attend the public school of our choice due to their diagnosis. These decisions are not only heartbreaking for our families, but discriminatory and wrong. 

Transitioning to High School 

In Arizona, charter schools are required to blind enroll students, which means that all children are accepted and enrolled regardless of disability, yet the same requirement does not apply to district schools when they are open-enrolling students. My son, who has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, was denied open enrollment at a public high school solely because he has an Individualized Education Program (IEP). 

My son was intrigued by the well-known agricultural program that Marana High School has because he has been a member of 4H. However, we live in a rural community just four miles outside of the Marana district boundaries so we would have to open-enroll him in Marana High School. I did not think that we would have any issues with open-enrolling because his sister was a senior at the high school who had no issues with open enrollment and most of our community chooses to go to Marana High School and is accepted through open enrollment. 

When open enrollment began, I immediately went to the district website and filled out the interest form and submitted. The questionnaire specifically inquires if your child has an IEP or 504, which of course I disclosed. I called in early January to make sure that they received his open-enrollment application and they confirmed that they did and that a decision would be made in early February. In early February, families in my neighborhood were getting accepted and were able to enroll their child into Marana High School. 

On September 14, I finally received a response from the district stating that, “MHS did not accept any new open enrollment resource students with an IEP for 2021-2022.” This means that Marana Unified School District accepted numerous students outside of the district but got to pick which ones. My son wasn’t one simply because of who he is. 

When District Lines Change 

I am the mother of two children who both attend the Dysart Unified School District. 

My son received an IEP due to delays in his language skills, social skills, and motor skills. Less than a month into preschool, my son was diagnosed with autism. My son receives speech, occupational therapy and resource support for social skills, language arts and written expression at school under his IEP. 

During the 2020-2021 school year, Dysart changed the school boundaries where we reside. Therefore, in order to keep my children at their current school for the next school year, I had to apply for open- enrollment. Changing schools for my autistic son would bring great challenges for him as modifications in routine and environment could potentially result in academic, social and behavioral regression. When applying for open enrollment, the district website clearly stated that open enrollment for students with an IEP would not guarantee their spot to be reserved for them as a screening process needed to take place. Even though my son had already attended his school at the time of open enrollment for his entire academic career. 

My daughter was approved for open enrollment to stay at the school. My nephew who also lives with me was approved to stay at the school. My son, however, was denied due to “capacity.” Two children residing in one household, who do not have an IEP, were approved for open-enrollment, and my son who has a disability was denied. 

As parents to children with disabilities, we must constantly fight to make sure our children are seen and heard. Luckily, the Arizona Legislature made necessary changes to the open-enrollment laws to prevent discrimination against children with disabilities. Now, it is up to the Arizona State Board of Education to implement this law accordingly, and not create loopholes for public schools to turn away students with disabilities. These children are entitled to the same open-enrollment rights as their nondisabled peers. 

Tatiana Worl is a special education teacher at an Arizona public charter school and mother to five children. 

Kristi Wagers is a speech language pathology assistant and a mother of two children. 

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