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The Legacy of One Student's Fight for Special Education Services (Video)

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By Christina Samuels. Cross-posted from On Special Education.

In 1996, the Chanda Smith Consent Decree and subsequent legal decisions ushered in sweeping special education reforms in Los Angeles schools. The school district has improved its policies to identify students with special needs more quickly, and get them appropriate services.

But who is Chanda Smith? 

Now 39 and a mother of four, Smith flunked 10th grade twice while her mother tried to get her high school to provide special services for her. In 1993, when the high school said that Smith just wasn't trying hard enough and wanted to hold her back for a third year, her mother started looking for a lawyer. 

Smith's case was eventually made part of a class-action lawsuit against Los Angeles Unified. The district says that it has made enormous strides to comply with the terms of the decree and associated legal agreements, especially in mainstreaming—educating students with disabilities alongside their regular-education peers, with appropriate supports.

But, as explored in a two-part series by Education Week Video that began airing Tuesday night on the PBS NewsHour, the experience of some students is still mixed. While some families strive for more meaningful inclusion for their children, others say that specialized schools are the best fit.

Smith's own educational trajectory was mixed as well. She eventually dropped out of Manual Arts Senior High School, but ended up earning a diploma at an alternative school, with tuition paid for by the district. 

She endured painful times before that point, describing in an interview with Education Week's John Tulenko how she would "cry every night" because she felt like she was being left behind in school. "Why can't I comprehend what every other child can comprehend?" she recalls thinking. 

Smith says that she now sees a greater purpose to her struggles, though her reading is still so poor that she describes not being able to read to her children at night.

"I believe God put me on this earth for this to happen," she says. "Somebody has to be the one just to open up people's eyes." 

You can watch all of the first part of the PBS NewsHour report below.  Part two is expected to air in March.

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