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Teaching Derek to Read

“He was suspended so many times, I didn’t know a first grader could be suspended so much.”

That’s what Renee, now in her late 20s, says about her young son Derek’s* experiences in school. It’s hard to believe that a school could suspend a six-year-old child, but that’s exactly what was happening again and again to her very young son.

Rene had enrolled Derek in what she thought was a high-achieving charter school, wanting to put him on the best path for success. Because of his attention deficit disorder, Derek needed some extra help to learn – like the nearly 13,000 other children in DC who have physical, emotional or learning disabilities that impact their education.

But, Derek’s school was failing to provide the support that he needed to learn despite promising to do so. “They didn’t teach him anything – he couldn’t spell one or two or red or blue,” Renee said.

Worse, “he was labelled a ‘bad kid’ and became this constant source of negative attention,” Renee said.

“They had just decided that they couldn’t educate him…and kept moving him into different classrooms,” she said. Just before first grade, Derek grew frustrated when he couldn’t understand what was happening around him in summer school. He would throw a tantrum and the school would call someone to take him home. The tantrums became worse and worse.

That’s when Renee found her “hero, Miss Sarah,” otherwise known as Sarah Flohre, one of Children’s Law Center’s senior attorneys. A special education attorney since 2008, Sarah says that the admiration is mutual. “Renee is such an engaged and collaborative parent,” she says, and “clearly wants what is best for her son.”

The situation deteriorated until the school insisted that Derek could only stay if Renee or his grandmother sat with him each day in his first grade classroom to handle his tantrums. That was not a workable solution. It also violated federal special education law.

Sarah sprang into action, requesting a meeting with the school to understand what was happening in Derek’s classroom. She also asked the school to put different behavioral tactics into place so he could stay in school every day without needing a family member there. But nothing seemed to work.

Renee and Sarah became convinced that his school just couldn’t educate Derek. They asked that Derek be transferred to a different school that could help him overcome his worsening emotional outbursts and learning delays.

Unfortunately, the school bureaucracy seemed unmoved. A month went by until finally, Sarah sued the school district to hasten the pace of finding Derek a new school. “My hero said this is not going to be the way it is,” Renee said. After a flurry of negotiation, the school system offered Derek a more appropriate school just one week before going to trial.

Derek at long last began attending his new school during the second-half of first grade. “He’s at Payne [Elementary School] now, I love that school. He’s reading stories by himself now, he is sounding out words, it’s wonderful,” Renee says.

What’s different? Not only do Derek and Renee feel more welcomed in the new school but the teachers also are able to help him learn despite his ADHD. And, the school district is providing extra tutoring to help young Derek catch up for all the classroom time he lost at his previous school.

The intensive help is working, and he’s now on his way to reading on par with his peers. “He’s a totally new boy,” Renee says, “he’s not the same at all.”

That’s what happens when you pair a dedicated mom like Renee with a tenacious advocate like Sarah: a young boy finally learns to read.  

*We work hard to protect the confidentiality of our clients and have changed Derek’s name for this reason. All other details are true.