Lawrence’s public school system has seen a dramatic overhaul in recent years: MCAS scores, particularly in mathematics, are up and so are graduation rates — by 9 points to more than 61 percent. The number of Level 1 schools — the state’s classification for schools that have met their performance goals — has tripled in the district in just two years.
These achievements in a district that was put into state receivership in 2011 are a remarkable turnaround, one rightfully celebrated by city and state officials, including Governor Charlie Baker. And if that momentum is to continue, it can’t come at the expense of one educational area that even school officials in the old mill city admit remains starkly lacking in resources, awareness, and training: the 17 percent of the student population with special needs.
Ninety percent of students in Lawrence schools are Hispanic, and many have limited English language skills — more than 70 percent of pupils are non-native English speakers. This language gap makes special education a particular challenge.
The problem runs deeper than that, however. Lawrence routinely flouts educational regulations and basic rights when dealing with special education students and their parents.
Araceli Jerez is one of those parents: She has a 14-year-old and a 9-year-old, both on the autism spectrum. Jerez, who does not speak English, says many parents are not aware of their rights.
It’s a situation that isn’t unique to Lawrence. Across the Commonwealth, in cities like Holyoke, Springfield, New Bedford, and Chelsea, special education students are finishing high school at graduation rates even lower than Lawrence’s 40 percent. In short, too many of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable children are being left behind.
Those other cities, however, don’t have Teresa Ramos on their case. Ramos is an attorney who works with the Disability Law Center, providing legal services to low-income, immigrant Hispanic children. What she has observed is a pattern of procedural neglect toward parents — a lack of timely translating and interpreting services, proper training, adherence to deadlines — and a knee-jerk reaction toward medicating students before doing thorough evaluations.
“The thing about special education is that everything has to be individualized,” said Ramos, who has a daughter with autism. “Each kid’s needs are different and a lot of work.”
It’s a basic right, she said, for parents to understand their child’s struggles and to meet to address those issues. And parents of students with disabilities have the right to receive any document related to their child in their primary language. Yet Ramos says her clients don’t receive reports in Spanish in time for meetings. “There are guidelines, and nobody seems to be paying attention to them,” she explained.
What’s more, Ramos notes that when a student is acting out, parents are told to take the child to see a doctor. “Some kids are being medicated without even trying a behavior plan first in the school,” she said.
Doug Sullivan, who heads the special learning services department in Lawrence Public Schools, admits “there’s room for improvement.” Sullivan acknowledged having issues with timelines but pointed to a new electronic system he expects to have in place by April. This, he said, will make the translation services more efficient.
But “playing catch-up” is not a sensible or sustainable approach. Sullivan recognizes the need of being more proactive instead of reactive. “But you can’t always be proactive,” he adds.
“We have children coming from other countries where there were no services,” Sullivan said, pointing to two recent cases of deaf children, one from the Dominican Republic and the other one from Puerto Rico, who had never previously gone to school. “We just have to take them in.”
Thankfully, parents in Lawrence are learning to be better advocates on behalf of their children, largely due to Ramos’s efforts. In a short period, her caseload has risen to 24 families, an indication of the demand for services in interacting with the schools.
“My sons are US citizens, I pay all my taxes, and the law says that the school has to serve me in my native language. But it’s hard being a Hispanic parent, with no English, to endure the pressure and digest everything that’s happening,” Jerez said. “With Teresa, I feel I have someone on my side. I now talk with more authority.”
The reception to Ramos’s overtures has been lukewarm at best. “I have had clients who tell me that the guidance counselor — upon learning that I am helping them — the counselor tells them, how come you have a lawyer? You don’t need that.”
But Sullivan, for one, welcomes the help. “She is pointing out some cracks in the system, and we’re happy to address those,” said Sullivan. “That’s what we’re here to do.”
Fortunately for Lawrence families, they can count on Teresa Ramos to hold him to it.
Marcela García is a regular contributor to the Globe opinion pages. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.