A gathering spot for warriors fighting for their special-needs children

If you're one of the many who have come to the realization that your public school system is out to get away with doing the absolute minimum for your special-needs child and is not actually interested in helping or educating your child, join the crowd. Bring some passion and some factual evidence and step into the fray.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Lively banter with Aaron Fernander

Former Bunche Middle School Principal (now Executive Director of the APS Office of Student Programs & Services) Aaron Fernander, seen here standing to the right, wearing the khaki blazer....

I have been complimentary toward Aaron Fernander, the man who's now in charge of, among other things, the APS Program for Exceptional Children) elsewhere in this blog. Last week, I had a little bit more than 2 hours of one-on-one face-time with the man himself; the result of an invitation he extended to me after specific complaints I'd made about some of his employees. (PEC Director Constance Goodson was supposed to be there, too, but begged off because of illness).

Fernander is a big, soft-spoken guy with a cracked Louie-Armstrong voice; perhaps the result of having to shout down a few thousand noisy adolescents at Bunche Middle School, where he was a principal. Before that, he says he spent 17 years as a special-ed teacher, a fact that earns some points with me, for sure.

I went to tell him about specific problems I've faced with PEC staff, improvements I feel must be made, and the way the media can (and, I promised him, will) be used to expose the deep-seated problems at PEC if Fernander doesn't act quickly enough.

Here are the points I made, and his responses to them.

1. PEC employees overwhelmingly have subpar communications skills and a poor "communications work ethic." In my 3-year history comprising hundreds of emails and phone calls directed at nine specific PEC employees, my email records (and APS Open Records Act requests) show that only one individual (a teacher) routinely answered important inquiries in a timely manner. Most failed to reply to a large majority of messages, even important messages, and one individual (Compliance Coordinator Gwen Stokes) has never replied to a single email nor returned a phone call from me. Two of our PEC liaisons could not compose a single sentence in clear English. Their poor grammar and punctuation would have prevented them from passing any college-level language arts course, and yet both had degrees--and one is a Ph.D!

(That just proves some colleges out there will give a Ph.D. to any fool willing to write enough tuition checks).

My biggest beef is with Gwen "Felonious G" Stokes, who negotiated a key provision of my child's IEP with me back in Oct. '09 only to subsequently refuse to acknowledge our deal; implement it, ask anybody else to implement it, or return phone calls or emails seeking comment about it.

Ms. Stokes was invited by Mr. Fernander to sit in on our meeting for a few minutes where she had a chance to see the stack of some 300 emails that had flown 'round the PEC about my child's IEP, none of which came from her, and, looking very indignant about having to answer to an actual parent, gave me this excuse for her non-responsiveness to my inquiries:

"I've been out sick some of the time."

How long? I asked.

"Two weeks."

"What about the other four and a half months I've been trying to get you to answer my questions via email or phone? After all, you are the only person who knew the answers I was seeking, as you were the PEC official who negotiated our IEP modification with me. And not only would you not talk to me," I said, "the email trail also indicates you did not respond to inquiries from your own colleagues our agreement. How do you explain that?"

"Mr. Lockridge," she said with a deep, patronizing sigh, "I do not know. I do not have an answer for you."

Well, okay. That's at least truthful. But after she left, and when I continued to press home the point with Mr. Fernander, his response was this:

"We DO answer our emails and phone calls from parents in a timely way."

"But," I protested, "I've just shown you how your folks don't do that at all. And I have a huge stack of your own emails from your own legal department proving they don't. All of these people: Constance Goodson, Yolonda Brown, Vernita Burford, Gwen Stokes, Brenda Hallman, Jennifer Holloway, Cecil Dalton; virtually everyone we've ever had important dealings with in the PEC fails to meet any ordinary standard of professionalism when it comes to communicating with parents, who are, after all, their childrens' proxies.

"So when are you going to implement a policy--send a memo--that says, 'effective immediately, all PEC employees will reply to all parent inquiries within one business day?'"

"I'm not going to put out a memo," he said,

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because we already do answer parents' questions," he said.

So Fernander is drinking his own Kool-Aid there. Mostly, I think he's smarter than that, but in this case, he's not getting it. So the best thing you could do for the PEC right now, as a parent, is to drop him a line at afernander@atlanta.k12.ga.us and tell him to send out that memo. PEC employees are directly accountable to parents. Yet they avoid us as though we were bill collectors.

We went over some other problems at the PEC (the horrible delays in getting any piece of paperwork done; sloppy record-keeping, the high failure rate of APS therapists in fulfilling scheduled appointments) and in each case Fernander said "changes are in the works" which will make the program better by Fall 2010. But pressed for details, he would offer only one: "Our people are undergoing IEP training right now," he said.

What does that mean? Are they being trained to produce IEPs that are more appropriate for the individual child? Or are they being retrained to push parents toward solutions that are more budget-conscious? He wouldn't say.

Fernander wants us to take a lot of things on faith. He wants us to be patient, even though he acknowledges that parents of special-needs kids don't have time to be patient--their kids need what they need and they need it today, not four months from now.

I still don't believe Fernander can succeed in reforming this desperately-in-need-of-comprehensive-reform department without several key firings (or "redeployments of resources"). If you talk to high-level APS managers in other areas, which I've occasionally had the opportunity to do, and you even mention the PEC, they react like someone who's just been forced to eat bug larvae.

Take a moribund, underfunded department like the PEC. Leave it without a leader for a year and a half, then, instead of appointing an energetic outsider, install your own safe choice as interim manager (Constance Goodson); then, after a little time has passed, give her the full title of Director. Then cut its budget even further. Do all of this while a huge new bubble of autistic children is closing in on you. Then meet with parents, tell them you're going to make a bunch of good changes, then miss your own deadline (Jan. 31) for announcing the conclusions you've reached.

I like Aaron Fernander, I really do. But nothing he has done so far has earned him more of our childrens' time and more of our patience.

Mr. Fernander, this forum is open to you anytime. If you've got something encouraging to tell us, then by all means, keep it to yourself no longer.

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