As a mother and professional educator, Pari Nazerian was doubly worried about helping her adult daughter secure the technology she needed to continue her remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her daughter, Ava Ashouri, is 19 and a 12th-grade student in Austin High School’s Adult Transition Services or Life Skills program. She is cognitively disabled and has had nearly 50 surgeries.
So when the Texas Education Agency (TEA) opened up a Supplemental Special Education Services (SSES) grant on Jan. 28, Nazerian applied for her daughter seeking a $1,500 account for use toward her daughter’s education.
“I was thinking that she’s totally eligible and she deserves it,” Nazerian said. “I wanted to buy her a laptop because she’s always online and doing her (schoolwork).”
An SSES account gives families access to ClassWallet, which allows parents to purchase a device for their child that “the student will directly use and/or interact with to access the curriculum or fill in COVID-based gaps.”
But Ashouri hadn’t taken the STAAR Alt-2 test since 2018, placing her outside the scope of the TEA’s query, which limited test eligibility to students who had taken it within the last two academic years. Matt Montaño, the deputy commissioner of special populations and monitoring at TEA, said eligibility for the test is an indicator of a severe cognitive disability, and a prerequisite for eligibility for the grant. STAAR Alt-2 is open to grades 3-12 students, and students in grades K-2 may be eligible if they are in an educational setting that meets TEA’s criteria, like being in a specialized program for more than half of their school day or have one of the following primary disabilities:
- Auditory Impairment
- Intellectual Disability
- Orthopedic Impairment
- Other Health Impairment
- Speech Impairment
- Traumatic Brain Injury
- Visual Impairment
A TEA official said Ashouri’s appeal helped the organization realize it needed to expand its query as far back as the 2015-16 school year to capture a larger pool of applicants.
Pursuant to federal law, Montaño said students are eligible for SSES funding even if they turn 22 during the school year. The Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) Act, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, gives students with disabilities a right to an education until the age of 21.
“We did make that adjustment on our queries after we received a couple of pieces of feedback and we wanted to troubleshoot them,” Montaño said. “We want to take a deeper dive because everything we’re hearing from (these families) makes sense to us that we’d be qualified, but why is it not making sense with our data set?”
At minimum, Montaño expects the application to be open until June 30, but it may be open longer depending on how long it takes for the 18,000 grants to be accounted for.
Some nonprofit advocacy groups like The Arc of Fort Bend can assist families who are seeking SSES funding for their child.
Kari Axtell, The Arc’s program director, helped Nazerian with the appeal process because her daughter is a member of The Arc, and on March 31, TEA contacted Axtell to inform them Ashouri was in fact eligible. Axtell said it was important for parents to know they have a right to an appeal and that they can check with advocacy groups like The Arc and research the criteria set by TEA so they can prepare to put their best foot forward on the application, and that sometimes parents can get discouraged and not follow up after being denied.
“If a parent applied for and was denied an SSES grant for a reason they believe is improper, they should first ask the TEA why their grant was denied,” Axtell wrote in an email. “Depending on the denial reason, the parent may consider requesting to appeal the TEA's denial of the SSES grant. If a Fort Bend County parent believes their SSES grant was wrongfully denied by the TEA, they may reach out to The Arc of Fort Bend County to see if their particular issue is one we can advocate for. We always encourage people to inform and advocate for themselves with the entity in charge first - in this case, the TEA.”
Montaño said it's important for nonprofit groups like The Arc to assist with appeals in other cases, where, for example, a simple data entry error on a child’s TEA ID number by a parent could derail an application, but added that TEA needs to also be vigilant to work with parents to ensure these mistakes can be quickly corrected.
TEA’s Education Service Centers (ESCs) also can assist families in multiple languages with the applications, he said.
He also said the Adult Transition Services programs can vary greatly based on the size of a school district and the population of students with disabilities and the career options available to them.
Fort Bend ISD has 1,200 eligible students, Stafford MSD has 60, and Lamar Consolidated ISD has 527, Montaño said.
“(School districts) are required to design that program based on the unique needs of the student but also the post-high school opportunities that community has,” Montaño said. “It’s very dependent on what the students need.”
There’s still room for further improvement with the current SSES grant system in the eyes of some local school officials.
Deena Hill, FBISD’s executive director of student support services, said several children were excluded because there are some students who have special needs but may not require a specialized program or attention throughout the school day.
“I think that’s kind of weird that they based the grant on placement,” Hill said. “There’s students with high needs that could benefit from those monies like kids with autism that may not be cognitively disabled and they’re served in the general education setting, and they would not be eligible for this grant. It’s unfortunate, I think there was a missed opportunity there from TEA, because we have a great deal of kids that are like that.”