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The Hopkinses: In Limbo After Receiving an ESA

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Missy and Will Hopkins knew from the moment they met their son Alan that they would do everything in their power to give him a better life.

“Alan came home to us on October 29, 2014, after a life in foster care,” said Missy. “He was a first grader at Houston Elementary School in Houston, Mississippi, when we got him.”

Alan had faced many trials in his young life, and a lack of stability at home paired with unidentified learning disabilities stacked the deck against him. But then his path crossed with Missy and Will of Oxford, and the couple immediately knew they would find every way to help their son succeed in the classroom.

“After we brought him home, we enrolled him in our district elementary school in the first grade for a second year,” said Missy. “Early on in the year I voiced concerns to his teacher about Alan’s reading level. She told us to give it time.”

The year progressed but Alan’s reading did not.

“We continued to get the ‘It’s fine’ speech,” Missy said, “and they advanced him to the second grade.”

Early on in Alan’s second grade year he was placed in a Response-to-Intervention program for reading and math.

“He was allowed accommodations under the program,” said Missy, “but they did not improve anything. We had many meetings, but it was just discussion. There was not much done to help Alan. I mentioned dyslexia in the meeting because I had a suspicion that’s what it was, but they moved right over the suggestion. Looking back, I wish I had trusted my instincts more and pushed harder on the dyslexia, but I trusted the educators who were telling me it was going to be fine.”

By the end of Alan’s second grade year, Missy was informed that her son was not on grade level.

“I was told that he was going to be sent along to third grade, but that it was going to be ‘really hard.’”

Alan entered third grade and within the first three weeks Missy was called to the school for a meeting.

“We were called into a room full of teachers,” said Missy. “There were about 13 people in that room, and they basically told me that it would be a miracle if Alan got to fourth grade.”

Missy asked for an explanation after Alan seemed to show improvement by the end of his second grade year.

“I looked at his teacher who was sitting in this meeting and asked her what to do,” said Missy. “She had been his tutor and was now his teacher and I knew nothing about what they were telling me. There was literal silence from the 13 educators sitting around that table.”

In desperation Missy pleaded for guidance.

“What will it take to have my son tested?” Missy asked the group.

“All they could do was ask, ‘Well, what do you mean by tested?’ I told them I did not know, but that I believed my son had dyslexia,” Missy said.

There was a sudden shift in the attitude of the room when she spoke of dyslexia.

“It was as if everyone’s toenails curled,” Missy said. “It was only after I flat out said, ‘I want my son tested for dyslexia,’  that a school psychometrist report was administered to identify learning disabilities but assuredly not dyslexia.”

An Individual Education Plan (IEP) was then developed for Alan.

“His IEP came back with learning disabilities determined,” said Missy. “We decided that this wasn’t working in December of that year and withdrew him from school in January.”

Missy placed her son at a small private school in Oxford.

“It was ideal for him. The class size was small, and he got through the third grade with A’s and B’s,” Missy said. “He was in a class with second and third grade students, and although he was in the third grade he was reading on a second grade level.”

Missy and Will were finally seeing their son perform well in school and were determined to do what they could to help him succeed.

“We were going to do whatever it took to pay for private school,” Missy said.

The couple hired a dyslexia therapist and had Alan tested through Mississippi Dyslexia Services at a cost of $550.

“We finally received a definitive dyslexia diagnosis, and his therapist was allowed to work with Alan during school hours,” said Missy.

The time came for Alan to enter the fourth grade.

“We met with his teachers early in the year, and they told us that it was unlikely that Alan would advance. Nobody at the school could tell me why he ended the third grade making A’s and B’s, and now we were being told he would not make it through fourth grade. His third grade teacher was no longer at the school, and the only thing I can think of is that she felt sorry for him and was giving him better grades. I appreciated her compassion, but knew we needed to get to the bottom of it.”

Success At Last

Missy refused to give up on her son and began looking for other schools. She called two private schools and was told Alan would not be accepted because he was not on grade level. Determined to find a better choice for her son, she kept searching and found the Bowie Reading and Learning Center in Memphis, Tennessee.

The school’s mission is to serve students who for any reason cannot function in the normal classroom setting. The goal for their students is to advance them in academics and confidence so they can enroll in a mainstream school.

“I went to Bowie in tears,” said Missy, “because I had been to Oxford Schools which were A-rated, and someone had suggested the Desoto County Schools which were A-rated. There wasn’t any difference to me because none of them could help my son.”

Missy spoke with a representative at the Bowie Center and was told immediately that they could help Alan.

“It was so simple,” Missy said, “We got a ‘Yes,’ and Alan began fifth grade this year at Bowie.”

For the first time in his young life, Alan has learned what it means to be successful in school.

“He is reading on his own,” said Missy, “and he does so with determination. He receives one-on-one instruction and it lets him know that he can do it. He’s not embarrassed by his reading.”

Alan has been diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and retention difficulty.

“He has seen firsthand, that he can have success,” said Missy. “He understands that he learns differently, and if he can’t get it one way we will try it another way.”

For a child who loves musical theater but panicked when it came time to read lines at an audition, Alan recently auditioned for a major role in a community theater production and got the part.

“He was able to read his lines and do so with confidence,” said Missy. “His confidence is beyond anything I have seen in four years.”

Alan has developed a connection with his teachers which has helped him thrive.

“He recognizes that his teachers listen to him. They pay attention to him and believe him when he says he doesn’t understand. I think those are the benefits of having one student and one teacher because they are able to do for him and he is responsive. His teachers have told him, ‘Everyone has their way of learning, and we have found your way.’”

Missy said her son finally feels like he’s being heard. She noted that it has erased his behavioral problems in the classroom.

“He feels heard and validated,” she said.

For a parent, seeing her son experience success is invaluable.

“For me it was going from experiencing constant torment as I watched my child struggle to experiencing soaring pride and released anxiety watching him believe in himself,” she said with a smile.

That feeling, and that success do not compare to the $26,000 per year cost in tuition to Bowie.

“Yes, we have made sacrifices to send him there,” said Missy. “We don’t take family vacations, but Alan came from such an unstable environment that he likes to be at home now. There are extra things that we just don’t do to send him to Bowie. I’m not sorry about it at all, though, because it’s worth it.”

Yet Another Hurdle

Missy said every dollar spent and every mile driven to and from Memphis each day pale in comparison to the benefits of the Bowie Center for Alan. Meanwhile, assistance that could be provided in the form of a Special Needs Education Scholarship Account (ESA) would be greatly appreciated as the family pays for gas to travel, therapy, and tuition.

Missy learned of the ESA when Alan was in second grade and she applied. ESAs give parents the opportunity to direct their state education tax dollars to the private school of their choice and can also be used for tutoring, therapy, textbooks, transportation, and other education-related expenses.

The Legislature authorized 500 seats in the first year of the ESA program (2015) and an additional 500 new seats each year. The original goal of the program was to give every eligible student the opportunity to benefit from the best educational setting available to him or her. However, the number of seats has never reached 500: only 428 are available for the 2018-2019 school year.

The Hopkins family was one of over 200 families on the wait list in August. The ESAs are handed out by the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) in a lottery twice a year as long as scholarships are available.

The ESA is valued at $6,594 this school year.

In the most recent lottery held in August, Alan’s name was drawn to receive one of the ESAs.

“We were very excited to receive the ESA,” said Missy. “I received the letter telling us we had gotten an ESA and giving us very specific instructions on where to go online to establish ourselves as a vendor.”

Missy visited the MDE website many times with little success in filling out the forms requested.

“I called MDE to ask what I needed to do,” she said, “and found that dealing with MDE was downright maddening. I talked to many people at MDE as I was passed around. I had questions and the answers I got were, ‘I don’t know anything about that.’ ‘You need to speak with IT.’ ‘Let me transfer you.’ MDE is a network of chaos.”

Missy finally reached someone who was able to help her with her ESA paperwork, however the assistance she got was not accurate. After going ‘round and round with MDE, Missy finally reached the employee associated with the ESA program and was told that they lived outside the 30-mile radius from home to school allowed by law for ESA recipients.

“I told her that was very new information to me,” said Missy. “I asked her where that information was on the MDE application because I had missed it. She told me I had not missed it because it wasn’t in there, but that it was written in the law.” Missy did not know where to find the law, but trusted the agency knew it. “I asked her if we could move and show an established residency within the radius if that would help. She said if we could move within 10 days to 2 weeks that was our only option.

“We had already missed the first disbursement of funds, and I was trying to do what we could to make the second disbursement,” Missy said. “Her only response was that they hated to see students lose their scholarships.”

Meanwhile, Missy contacted the Bowie Center and was told by officials that they had never heard of the 30-mile radius rule.

“They have plenty of families from Mississippi who attend the school with ESAs,” Missy said.

Missy then found Empower Mississippi and learned what the law actually states:

ESA funds may not be used to attend an eligible school that maintains its primary location in a state other than Mississippi…unless the parent verifies in writing that their child cannot reasonably obtain appropriate special education and related services in Mississippi at a location within thirty (30) miles of their legal residence.

The intent of the provision is to give families recourse when they cannot find the services they need within 30 miles of their residence by allowing them to go out of state. The law never states that ESA students may only attend schools within 30 miles of them – that is a decision left to parents.

Missy was shocked to find out they were eligible to receive the ESA all along and instead lost thousands of dollars and their place in line due to a misinterpretation of the law.

Alan’s Future

What’s to become of Alan’s ESA?

That’s what Missy is left wondering as they hit the two-week deadline for proof of residency set by MDE.

“I was told that we could reapply in January for the ESA,” said Missy. “I asked if we would get the ESA at that point or be put back in the lottery, and she told me that we would be in the lottery again.”

At this point Missy isn’t sure if her son has his ESA after his name was drawn in August to receive one or if it was snatched from him because of his distance from the school which provides the best education to him – a distance she is willing to drive daily.

“I’m ready to give up,” said Missy. “I had to let go of the fact that we were going to have assistance. I talked with my husband and told him that I could not fight anymore. I have been fighting for social justice and educational justice for Alan.

“It seems like we are fighting a giant monster in MDE.”

What would it mean if the Hopkins received an ESA?

“Of course, it would mean some financial help in getting academic results,” Missy said, “but it would also mean that my state is in support of education and the fundamental tools necessary to providing opportunities for our kids.”

Instead, Missy and Will are left wondering how they wound up fighting for their ESA when they crossed every mountain: finding a school for Alan, accepting a new normal financially, demonstrating eligibility for the ESA program, and persisting on the long wait list.

Missy has a very clear message to lawmakers in the state of Mississippi.

“Please be diligent and clear in determining the rules of the ESA,” she said. “Please make sure there are no gray areas for interpretation from family to family. Our son deserves it and so do all other children in Mississippi.”

Empower Mississippi is currently helping Missy apply to regain Alan’s ESA. This story, to be continued…