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Stefan Modrich

 Parents of school-age children have a lot going on. I’m sometimes too caught up with work to follow along with live tweet threads of Fort Bend ISD board meetings that are going on into the middle of the night, and that’s without having to change diapers or pack lunches or help kids with homework. 

And the adjustments that parents have made, either pulling their kids out of public school and into private school for face-to-face instruction, or opting into hybrid or online-only learning, have all probably been calculations they have made in the best interests of their children’s mental and physical health, even if different approaches were taken from different parents. 

But a small fraction of those students — less than 2 percent of the student population at FBISD (72,000 total enrolled students) and less than 2 percent of the student population at Stafford MSD (3,607 total enrolled students) — face a unique set of challenges. The special needs populations of your local school districts and the departments that serve them have been tested by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly those with cognitive or developmental disabilities. 

As soon as I saw a news release from Gov. Greg Abbott about the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and its $1,500 Supplemental Special Education Services (SSES) grants on Jan. 28, I immediately began reaching out to local parents across various Facebook groups and contacted every special needs advocacy group in our coverage area.

Groups like The Arc of Fort Bend were still monitoring the situation, along with school district officials, and I was unable to get any traction on the story. Until one day, nearly two months later, I got a phone call from a woman who told me she saw one of my posts. 

Her name is Pari Nazerian, and her daughter Ava Ashouri, 19, is severely cognitively disabled. But Ashouri is working to get her diploma and complete Austin High School’s Adult Transition Program. 

Her only problem was, as I detailed on the top of our front page this week, was that she was deemed ineligible for the SSES grant because the system query TEA’s application used was limited to students who had taken the test within the last two academic years. 

If you go to the SSES website’s FAQ page, you will see some questions about additional help and about contacting the organization to appeal a mistakenly rejected application, a direct result of our reporting on the topic. 

According to TEA data from the 2019-20 school year, 587,987 or 10 percent of the nearly 5.5 million students in Texas public schools have some form of disability, and a single Fort Bend County resident was the reason why they chose to adjust their criteria as other similar responses began to trickle into their system. 

So while some may say we’re tooting our own horn, I think it’s important to demonstrate the connection between good journalism and the requisite actions that follow it. 

I know you may like to read my food reviews and it’s always great to keep up with your local sports teams (you may notice that I made a brief return to my former life as a sportswriter this week with another story about a FBISD alumnus who is also an adult with a different form of special needs), but this is what gets my gears turning. And I hope it’s equally important for you to learn about how these stories come to life. 

Not only that, but I hope you’ll in turn share them with those who you think would benefit from knowing about these issues and others that are taking place in your neck of the woods. It takes diligent work and lots of patience and follow-ups and striking out with sources who seem promising at first to make a story come to fruition.

I’m thankful to Kari Axtell, the program director at The Arc, for her insight and her advocacy, and to Matt Montaño and Jake Kobersky for a transparent interview and a willingness to admit they made a mistake. 

As I note in my piece, from a local school district perspective, there is still room for improvement. 

Administrators like Deena Hill, who oversees special education at FBISD, and others — including the new school board members who you will be choosing come Saturday — will need to continue to hear from you in the community to make those desired changes happen. 

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