School systems have four basic tiers of management: the teacher manages the classroom, the principal manages the school, the superintendent manages the entire school system, and the school board sets the goals, policies, and procedures that everyone else has to follow. These tiers have a hierarchy – each person is supervised by the person at the level above them, and will be supported or reprimanded by that person. A typical organizational chart would look like this:
Principals Curriculum/Instruction Specialists SPED Director
Teachers Student Support Personnel
Why is this important to parents? If you have a concern or an issue, it’s best to start at the level where the problem occurred. If you do not, two things will probably happen. First, the person next up in the hierarchy will recommend that you first discuss your issue with the school staff most closely concerned – usually the teacher. The second thing is that you will have burned a bridge – the staff person with whom you have the issue will immediately become defensive and feel disrespected. Even if your issue is completely valid, it is never a good idea to start off by severing the ties of cooperation and team work. Do it if you must – but only if you have tried other avenues to solve the problem.
In the case of a concern that involves special education or Section 504, issues that cannot be resolved locally go to the state or the federal level rather than to the superintendent or the school board, because parents have specific legal rights. In any case, the lines of authority over staff who work with children with disabilities vary from state to state and school system to school system. Special education and student support staff may report to the director of special education and/or to the building principal. Remember that every state has a special education section in the state department of education, and most states have a Disability Rights group (http://www.ndrn.org/index.php) that can assist parents with legal issues. Section 504 complaints go to the federal Office of Civil Rights.
The lines of authority in the school hierarchy can easily become muddled, and that’s one of the biggest challenges that parents face in navigating school systems. The larger the system, the more layers of hierarchy exist. For example, school superintendents can have an array of associate and assistant superintendents below them, all of whom are in charge of something – buildings and grounds, transportation, curriculum and instruction, personnel, federal programs, student support services, finances, child nutrition. The director of special education can have a raft of assistants and program placement specialists. You see what I mean! Each layer of staff protects the layer above. Pursuing a concern can be a long and tedious process that requires patience and tenacity. Don’t give up, plug along from layer to layer, document everything along the way, and look for a staff member who can grease the wheels.
Just about every school has at least one staff person who is family-centered – someone who welcomes parents, understands that things can get rough at home, and is willing to help with problems, questions, and concerns. Very often this is a student support person – the guidance counselor, school psychologist, social worker, or nurse.
Here’s an example of greasing the wheels that I was involved in earlier this year. A school secretary emailed me to say that one of the cafeteria workers was having problems with her fifth grader and to ask if I could help. After an exchange of emails with the mom to get more information, I found out that this student had been stuck in the student assistance team for almost three years despite escalating mental health and academic problems. So I called the school psychologist who works in that school, and then emailed her the information. She consulted with the teacher, the principal, and the guidance counselor (who runs the student assistance team), and then called the mother. As a result, the child was referred for testing and a referral was also made to the elementary day treatment program. The secretary emailed me on a Tuesday morning, and I spent maybe half an hour communicating with the mom, talking to the other school psychologist, and emailing the information. By Friday afternoon, the child had been referred for testing and day treatment.
Things don’t always work out quite this quickly or this successfully, but asking the right person for help starts you down the right road to get your concerns addressed. Sometimes I can help. Sometimes I know exactly who else to call to take care of the problem. And sometimes I have to explain to parents that the school cannot address their concern in the way they had hoped. But at least you have done an end run around the bureaucracy and received a direct answer to your question. Those who can help are usually not in an administrative position, or part of an official line of authority and responsibility. Seek out school staff who have been around for a long time, know everybody, and know how to make things work and get things done.