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The Byrds: The System Is Not Working for Our Daughter

Byrd Waitlisted

“Being born with a disability should not mean you have to pay more for basic education.”

That’s how Jennifer and Anthony Byrd of Seminary feel when it comes their daughter Leah’s education.

Leah was diagnosed with autism, sensory processing disorder, speech-language issues, and epilepsy. Leah had her first seizure the day before she was set to begin kindergarten at her local elementary school.

“That was scary,” said Anthony. “It was pretty hard on her.”

Leah’s parents never gave up as they tirelessly worked to prepare both the school and Leah for her time in the classroom.

“It was very frustrating,” said Jennifer. “We went ‘round and ‘round with the school just trying to figure out where Leah’s medicine would be kept. They wanted to keep her medicine across campus while it was critical that it be kept close to her in the event of a seizure. When they happen, there’s no time to walk all the way across campus to get her medicine.”

Jennifer found herself talking with school officials on a daily basis. She found herself having to move Leah a few miles up the road to Collins Elementary School because there was not a school nurse on site in Seminary to administer the medication.

“It was not right that we chose to live in Seminary and wanted our daughter to go to Seminary but ended up having to move her to Collins because they did not provide a nurse at Seminary,” said Jennifer. “The first day I dropped Leah off at Collins, I did so with a feeling that it wasn’t right. It was not right for us to have to send her there because the school would not provide what she needed at Seminary. My biggest question with the school district was, ‘Are you going to be able to take care of my child?’”

What the Byrds quickly learned was that the answer to that question was ‘No’.

During that time Jennifer and Anthony had placed Leah on the waiting list for the Dubard School for Language Disorders in Hattiesburg. At the age of 7 Leah got into the Dubard School.

“We saw immediate results,” said Jennifer. “She was writing her name in cursive, learning to read, and overcoming a lot of hurdles. It gave us hope.”

Her teachers began to notice that Leah seemed uninterested in school.

“The symptoms of sensory processing disorder looked similar to Leah being uninterested in what was going on in the classroom,” said Jennifer. “Her therapist met with teachers to help them understand that Leah was self-regulating and not intentionally being disruptive.”

The Dubard School operates under the premise that children are enrolled until they are sufficiently competent to be mainstreamed back into a regular classroom. That happened for Leah in the sixth grade. She returned to her district school in Seminary. Unfortunately, Leah’s struggles in the classroom also returned.

“We had meeting after meeting with school officials,” said Jennifer. “It was me the parent, teachers, administrators, and counselors in these meetings. And each time they’d tell me that Leah wasn’t responding in the classroom. They couldn’t get her to do anything.”

Frustrated, Jennifer explained to school officials what the issue was.

“She doesn’t know what you want her to do,” Jennifer said. “She shuts down and doesn’t respond because she’s completely overwhelmed. You’ve taken an autistic child who is scared to death, placed her in a classroom, and completely overwhelmed her.

“I do not blame Leah’s teachers for this. They are not equipped to teach these children. It’s not that the teachers are not doing their job. It’s that the system that is put in place by the school district is not working.”

Leah began slipping away during her time in the public school.

“She had no friends,” said Jennifer. “Leah was lonely, and she had no confidence that she could do anything.”

Jennifer and Anthony were frustrated that Leah was struggling through school, and the end result for her would not be a high school diploma.

“If I had kept her at Seminary she would be working toward a certificate,” Jennifer said. “The school was not equipped to give her what she needed and because of that she was not going to get a high school diploma. That was not acceptable.”

Jennifer and Anthony began looking for another setting for Leah – one that would recognize her talents and abilities. They found that setting at the TIDE School in Hattiesburg. The TIDE (The Institute for Diverse Education) School was a special purpose school for students with learning challenges.  It has since become South New Summit School.

Leah moved to The TIDE School and, according to her parents, has become a different child.

“She is confident. She is in a totally different world and loves school. Leah’s IT Teacher called me one day just to tell me how well she was doing in her class. ‘She types 98 words per minute with almost 100 percent accuracy,’” Jennifer said with a smile. “She is enjoying robotics and has even thought about entering the talent show. It’s amazing to see a child who would normally be sitting in the corner with her head down even consider participating in a talent show.”

Jennifer and Anthony agree that the cost to attend the school is well worth the financial burden to see their daughter so happy.

“I’m not going to lie,” said Jennifer. “It’s a mortgage payment. That’s what we are paying each month for Leah to go to school. It’s tough but we don’t have any other choice.”

Not only is the cost to attend the school a burden for the family, but Jennifer drives 100 miles each day just for Leah to attend the school.

The family found out about the state’s Education Scholarship Accounts (ESA) through the school and applied for an ESA. The Byrds are one of over 200 families on a waiting list to receive one of the ESAs which are handed out by the Mississippi Department of Education in a lottery twice a year. The ESA can be used for tuition, therapy, textbooks, tutoring, transportation, and other qualified expenses, and is valued at $6,594 this school year.

The Legislature authorized 500 seats in the first year of the ESA program and an additional 500 new seats each year, bringing the total number of authorized seats to 2,000 this school year. However, the program has never been funded at authorized levels, and only 428 students can participate today. Furthermore, no action has been taken thus far by lawmakers to fix the problem for families on the wait list.

“It is not right that Leah’s education is based on a gamble,” said Jennifer. “It would mean the world to us for Leah to be chosen for an ESA.”

In the meantime, the Byrds continue to travel hundreds of miles each week for Leah’s education, they continue to tighten their purse strings to ensure Leah is able to attend the school most suited for her needs, and most importantly they continue to wait for lawmakers to take action.