Angel Vazquez is 9 years old, has hearing loss in both ears, has trouble speaking and struggles to concentrate in class. He's a year behind in school, just learned how to read and is still learning English. For nearly two years, his mom, Angeles Garcia, tried to get him evaluated for special education at his elementary school in Houston.
Garcia sent the school three letters, pleading for an assessment. She even included medical documents describing some of his disabilities, but she says the school ignored her.
When a response finally came, officials at the Houston school district told Garcia that Angel would have to wait another year to be evaluated because he'd emigrated from Mexico and needed time to assimilate. According to federal law, that's no excuse. To make matters worse, the school communicated with Garcia using letters written in English, not her native language, Spanish.
"I really feel bad because my son is growing up and time is going by," Garcia says in an interview in Spanish. "And what's going to happen with him? He's not advancing at all."
In Texas, Garcia's story isn't rare.
A major investigation by The Houston Chronicle recently revealed that districts in Texas were pressured by the state to provide fewer students with special education services, which can be expensive. In 2004, the Texas Education Agency told districts to restrict special education enrollment to 8.5 percent of all students. At the time, Texas' average was close to the national rate of 13 percent.
After that, the state's rate plummeted to the lowest in the country.
An analysis of the numbers shows that children like Angel, who are learning English, have been shut out even further. The rate for English language learners enrolled in special education was just 7.6 percent in 2016.
The numbers and why they matter
- While the overall number of English language learners in Texas has increased by about 40 percent since 2006, their enrollment in special education has fallen by 5 percent.
- While 9 percent of English-speaking students in Texas are identified with special needs, only 7.6 percent of English learners were in 2016 — even below the state's arbitrary mark of 8.5 percent.
- That's nearly half of the national rate. In the United States, 13.8 percent of students learning English are identified for special education, according to federal data.
- In the Houston Independent School District, where Angel goes to school, the disparity for English learners in special education is even worse. Their overall enrollment has increased by 11 percent since 2006, at the same time their special education enrollment has dropped 35 percent.
Graciela Reyes-McDonald, a school psychologist who works with many Spanish-speaking families, says extra barriers, like language and culture, make it more difficult for these families to navigate the system. They may not even know about special education services or how to access them.
"What's going to happen to all these kids if they're not getting the intervention that they need now?" Reyes-McDonald asks.
In Houston, Angel's mom, Garcia, did find some extra help with Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy group.
"We are meeting parents every day who have stories very similar," says Dustin Rynders, an attorney with the group. "We're fed up," he says.
"If it's more difficult for [parents] to write letters to the school, if it's more difficult for them to find agencies like me to advocate for their rights, they're more likely to be left out."
The Houston school district would not address details when asked why Angel Vazquez, and so many English learners, seem left out of special education.
The district did say that the state's target of 8.5 percent doesn't guide its policy.
"HISD's goal is to meet every child's unique academic, social, and emotional needs, regardless of whether they are given the 'special education' label," wrote Jason Spencer, HISD spokesman at the time.
Spencer also pointed out the district has new translation services for families who don't speak English and are involved in special education.
When asked why English learners count for so few of the children receiving services statewide, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency said in an email that they've reminded districts of their legal obligations.
"In his visits with superintendents across the state, Commissioner Morath is confident school districts are aware of their obligations to identify and provide special education services to students," said spokeswoman Lauren Callahan.
The good news
This spring Angel was finally evaluated and is doing better in school. He now has hearing aids, receives speech therapy and is learning how to manage his ADHD. His mom, Angeles Garcia, says the whole thing is bittersweet.
"Maybe if they had paid attention to what I told them, he would be a little better off. But now we're looking ahead and the good thing is that now he has help."
Garcia worries about other immigrant families who still struggle to receive services because they don't know the laws or speak English.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Texas has the lowest rate of children in special education. It turns out the state agency responsible for making sure that kids get the services they're entitled to also limited those services arbitrarily, leaving many without needed help. That hits one group of children especially hard, as Laura Isensee of Houston Public Media found.
LAURA ISENSEE, BYLINE: After school, Angeles Garcia gets her two children settled, having a snack at their apartment in southeast Houston.
ANGELES GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
ISENSEE: Then comes homework, something her 9-year-old son, Angel Vazquez, doesn't like very much. Instead he reads something sweet he's written for her.
ANGEL VAZQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
ISENSEE: Angel has struggled to learn to read and is behind in school. He has other challenges. He's lost some of his hearing and has a speech delay. In class, he gets distracted a lot and has to sit near the front. And he's still learning English.
GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
ISENSEE: She's worried he'll stay like this, Garcia says, that he won't learn because he needs so much more help than he's getting. She's one of tens of thousands of parents in Texas caught up in the state's de facto cap on special education. And families who don't speak English have faced an even bigger hurdle.
It all started in 2004 when the Texas Education Agency told school districts only 8.5 percent of all children should receive services. The numbers dropped from about 13 percent, the national average, down to that benchmark. And our reporting shows that the numbers dropped even lower for kids like Angel who are learning English. They make up only 7.6 percent of students in special ed. Garcia first asked school officials to evaluate her son for services almost two years ago.
GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
ISENSEE: "What's going to happen to him," she asks. "He's not advancing at all." That's in part because the Houston school district ignored her request even after she gave them medical documents explaining his disabilities. Making it even more difficult, the school only gave Garcia letters in English and not her native Spanish.
DUSTIN RYNDERS: We are meeting parents every day who have stories very similar. And we're fed up with schools not evaluating kids who need services.
ISENSEE: That's Dustin Rynders. He's an attorney with Disability Rights Texas. The advocacy group has taken Garcia's case. He knows immigrant families face many barriers.
RYNDERS: If it's more difficult for them to write letters to the school, if it's more difficult for them to find agencies like me to advocate for their rights, they're more likely to be left out.
ISENSEE: When we asked Houston schools about Angel and why they enroll so few English learners in special ed, they refused to address his case. Since then, Houston's special ed director has resigned. The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation. And in Austin, state lawmakers approved a bill to keep this from ever happening again. And Angel is finally making up for lost time.
ISENSEE: He's playing with his little sister. And he's doing better in school because this spring, he finally got tested for special ed. Now he has new hearing aids, receives speech therapy and is learning how to manage his ADHD. His mom, Angeles Garcia, says the whole thing is bittersweet.
GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
ISENSEE: "Maybe if they had paid attention to what I told them, he would be a little better off. But now we're looking ahead, and the good thing is that now he has help."
GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
ISENSEE: Garcia worries about other immigrant families who still struggle to receive services because they don't know the laws or speak English. For NPR News, I'm Laura Isensee in Houston.
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