Writing letters that produce action

You know the old saying, "If it isn't in writing, it didn't happen." But what is the best way to put it in writing? Do you write an agenda for your IEP meetings? Do you quote IDEA law so the IEP team knows that you are informed? Do you uses your "Mom" voice or do you keep it entirely businesslike? 

This time of year I'm writing many different letters and I would like to share with you my ten guidelines that I always follow when I send a letter to school. These guidelines are designed to help you advocate for your child effectively. Please remember that I'm NOT an attorney and I'm not giving any legal advice. All final decisions are made by the parents.

  1. What you say in the letter is important: I would recommended not quoting the IDEA Law. Remember there are many ways to interpret the law. I recommend using the language of the law without quoting the law. 
  2. Agendas vs. Parent Concern letter: Did you know that the word agenda doesn't appear anywhere in IDEA law but parent concerns about FAPE does? This why I always write a parent concern letter and send it to the school before the meeting. I also make sure that the school knows that I will be recording the meeting ahead time and that they need to staff accordingly if we need extra time. Based on the letter of concern the school staff has a better understand of how much time is needed. 
  3. PWN (Prior Written Notice): Use this in your letters so that you can get the schools decisions in writing. This a right that parents have under IDEA law and it is under utilized in my opinion. 
  4. IEP Revisions: Go page by page and write your concerns down and possible suggestions down if it has to do with an IEP or 504 plan. I have found that schools will cut and paste quicker than writing on a fly in a meeting if they agree with your suggestions. 
  5. Team Decisions: Never say that you want something. The law is designed for all decisions to be left up to the team. Make sure your letter reflects that as well. Yes,  parents are part of the team. 
  6. Never use the word best: Schools only have to provide an appropriate education. The word appropriate is in IDEA law 150 times so delete best from your vocabulary when addressing the school. 
  7. Always CC:Educational File: At the top of your letter always add CC:Educational File. This way it will be copied to your child's file. Emails tend to get deleted and sometimes never recovered. This step creates that paper trail that is needed. I also blind copy myself when sending so that I have a record that the email went through. 
  8. Attach letter to the email: I never put my concerns in the body of an email. If you present it as an attachment you will get a quicker response. Plus it makes it easier to save in the educational file. 
  9. Keep emotions out: State just the facts and your concerns. Write your letter and set it a side for 24 hours if you can before sending it. Edit out all emotions before sending the letter. Clearly articulate your concerns and begin distinguishing facts from your own assumptions. Never do any finger pointing, it accomplishes nothing. 
  10. Be Specific about next steps: Indicate when and how you will follow-up on your letter and how you want the school to respond. Remember that you must give the recipient a reasonable amount of time to respond. Typically, I like to use the PWN (Prior Written Notice) deadline of 10 calendar days. 

I have attached a sample letter to show you exactly how I do this. All names have been removed. This is a lengthy letter because we had many issues to address. I think this will give you a clear understanding of how to write a letter to the school that produces action. 

Best of luck to you as you advocate for your child. 

SAMPLE Letter:

Date: 00/00/0000
To: XX Smith’s Educational Team
From: XX and XX Smith
RE: Parent FAPE Concerns

Dear Team, 

Thank you for your continued support in educating XX. After reviewing the current IEP, we have several concerns regarding XX’s education. We would like to ensure XX is prepared for further education, employment, and independent living by providing meaningful IEP goals. Please look over this document before we schedule an IEP meeting. We are hoping by providing parent’s concerns in advance; we can use our time wisely and make it a very productive meeting. However, please staff accordingly because there are many concerns to discuss as a team. We will be attending the meeting with our advocate, Eileen Miller who will be taping the IEP meeting. Please provide us with an invitation letter listing everyone who will be attending the meeting when we get it scheduled. We are seeking some information before our meeting, PWN (Prior Written Notice) – 10 school days, so that we can get a clear understanding of XX’s Present Levels of Performance. 

1.    IEP from 6th grade (2015-2016)
2.    Progress monitor Reports from 5TH (2014-2015), 6TH (2015-2016) and 7th (2016-2017) (all quarters) along with RTI benchmark data (2014-2017) from Fall, Winter, and Spring. 
3.    Provide Achievement testing data, and charts, that were used for the Reevaluation on 3/22/17. (We were only presented with Teacher Observation, parent input, grades and EasyCBM scores)
4.    Review of Full Continuum of curriculum and placements available within the district
5.    Formal Written Parental Consent for additional Triennial reevaluations assessments and a comprehensive AT evaluation

Below you will find our concerns and revisions that we would like to discuss with the team about XX’s IEP. 

Triennial Reevaluation:
We are formally requesting that XX have additional assessments for his Triennial reevaluation using a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information about XX. We would also like to make sure that XX is assessed in ALL (Oral Expression, Listening Comprehension, Basic Reading, Reading Comprehension, Reading Fluency, Written Expression, Mathematics Calculations and Mathematics Problem Solving) areas related to his disabilities of ADHD and dyslexia. XX has not had achievement testing done since 2014 which is over three years old. Additional data is needed to determine present levels of academic and related educational needs for XX.

Secondary Disability: Page 1 of IEP
We would like to discuss in our meeting adding XX’s ADHD as his Secondary Disability. We feel that XX’s struggles with organization and responsibility is due to XX’s ADHD (executive functional skills) and should be reflective on his IEP.  

Parent Concerns: (please change to the below statement) Page 2 of IEP
We are concerned about XX’s reading, writing and spelling skills and the fact that XX is four grade levels behind and the achievement gap is getting larger. XX’s reading deficits impact his ability to access the general curriculum in all academic subjects including math (word problems), social studies and science. XX needs to receive specialized reading instruction that is intensive, explicit, systematic, cumulative, structured, multi-sensory, and language-based. The intervention needs to be based on evidence-based research that is necessary to address XX’s individual needs. We would like for XX to be able to acquire the skills necessary to decode, encode, and improve reading comprehension. With the proper intervention, XX will be able to apply strategies learned during his specialized instruction to remediate his deficits which are the results of XX’s dyslexia profile and ADHD.
We would like to see XX access technology more efficiently and improve his overall academic achievement. We are confident this is a critical time in XX’s education to assure he receives a strong foundation in the reading, math and writing skills as he prepares for the future. We have high expectations of XX being able to make choices for his future based on his varied interests and have access to further education and meaningful employment.

Impact Statement: Page 2 of IEP
XX’s deficits in basic reading skills, specifically decoding, fluency, and comprehension adversely affect his progress in the general education curriculum. XX’s reading disability limits his use of grade level text. This deficit area also affects XX’s ability to process information while writing and limits his ability to handle the pace of the classroom with same age peers. 

Present Level of Performance: Page 2-3 of IEP
We would like to add in the raw data scores from the Comprehension (XX’s actual score) and Reading Fluency (correct words per minute). Adding raw data scores would give all of us on the team a better understanding of where XX is at his present level of performance.  

Goal #1 Academics – Reading Comprehension: Page 5 of IEP
Concerns: If the goal is to understand what is being read, how is XX going to comprehend reading if his overall basic reading is so low? Shouldn’t we as a team, see where XX’s basic reading skills are at and write a goal for that in addition to a comprehension goal. This is one of the reasons why, we as parents, are requesting additional achievement assessments. We also don’t feel that 3 monthly monitors before the end of the IEP is a measure of mastery in this goal. Maybe 3 consecutive progress monitoring at 35% would show mastery. How is XX going to close the academic achievement gap if he is still only working on the 4th grade level? The educational gap is getting larger, not smaller. We also would like to discuss as a team that all data graphs, charting, etc. be shared with progress monitoring reports done quarterly for each goal written in XX’s IEP.

Goal #2 Academics – Reading Fluency: Page 5 of IEP
Concerns: Since 5th grade, (2014/2015) XX’s IEP has been working on a 4th grade level. In the 5th grade IEP it had a reading fluency goal at 133 correct words per minute (4th grade) and now going into 8th grade it’s 127 words per minute at a 4th grade level. The goal has been lowered and not raised.  We would like all data graphs, charting, etc. be shared with progress monitoring reports done quarterly for each goal written in XX’s IEP. XX needs a reading goal based on his curriculum and to move him forward to a higher, more independent reading level.

Program Modifications/support Personnel:
"Dyslexia-specific intervention" means evidence-based, specialized reading, writing, and spelling instruction that is multi-sensory, equipping students to simultaneously use multiple senses, such as vision, hearing, touch, and movement. Dyslexia-specific intervention employs direct instruction of systematic and cumulative content, with the sequence beginning with the easiest and most basic elements and progress methodically to more difficult material. Each step must also be based on those already learned. Components of dyslexia-specific intervention include instruction targeting phonological awareness, sound symbol association, syllable structure, morphology, syntax, and semantics.

Goals Missing:
Present Level pre-vocational skills: It stated on page 3 of XX’s current IEP that XX needs to improve in the areas of staying on task without direct supervision, paying attention and focusing on class instructions, tuning out distractions and participating in class discussions. However, there is NO goal listed in XX IEP. If there is a need or skill set that must be tackled, there needs to be a goal.

Math Inclusion service hours: We had 55 minutes a day in General Education setting but no Math Goal. Shouldn’t there be a math goal? This is another example of why we are requesting additional assessments done.

Accommodations for State/District Testing: Page 9
Can we add Reader (text to speech or Human) Human Singer to TCAP TNReady Mathematics Achievement and TCAP Social Studies Achievement?

Extended School Year: Page 11
On X/X/2018, the IEP Team will meet to determine if ESY is required.

Assistive Technology Evaluation:
We are requesting an Assistive Technology evaluation using a formal evaluation procedure. Technology may be a significant support needed to supplement XX’s academic including core subjects and executive functioning areas. 

Our hope is that we can work together as a team to provide XX with an appropriate education. However, the above information is critical for us to participate as an equal member of the team. Please inform us in writing (email) within ten days describing the action that the school team proposes or refuses to take (PWN). Also, please provide us with some times that the team is available to meet for an IEP meeting. The sooner we can get it on everyone’s schedule, the better. 

Thank you in advance for your understanding, 

XX and XX Smith