Brenda started a non-profit organization that gives parents a voice in the special education process, hopefully before their children are too damaged by the educational bureaucracy.
Brenda Rogers Ph.D.
City / State
What was your big dream?
My big dream came from big trouble. I brought a hyperactive, loving and curious little boy to Kindergarten and watched the school use suspensions to avoid dealing with his hyperactivity. I watched helplessly as school personnel separated my son from other children during recess and lunch, having him stay with the resource teacher due to a lack of supervisory staff for the playground. This process quickly began to deeply wound my son. By first grade, the school personnel placed my highly intelligent hyperactive son in classes with low-functioning Autistic children, not allowing him to learn with his peers.
By third grade, my son would come home every day and say, “I hate myself,” “I’m an idiot,” and “everybody hates me.” It was a devastating experience witnessing my happy, smart son turn into a self-hating, mean and depressed little boy who, as he got older, couldn’t even read. I was disturbed by the fact that no one seemed to think the school was doing anything wrong, nor did anyone seem alarmed by the fact that by third grade, my son couldn’t read.
I was desperate to get my sweet son back. I tried getting attorneys but not one attorney would take my case without several thousand dollars in fees and retainers. I couldn’t get any help because I couldn’t pay for an attorney.
I finally found a state funded organization that knew all about Special Education rights. I called this organization several times for help and couldn’t get a return phone call. When I arrived at their office, the woman at the desk smirked, sarcastically remarked “good luck” and with a loud thud, slammed the California Composite of Law book on the desk.
I spent five weeks reading the entire law book and writing letters to every person in my district I could think of. After my letter writing campaign proved ineffective, I called that organization back again and begged to speak to someone that could tell me what to do. I was told that the director was too busy to answer individual questions. I found myself stuck alone with a law book.
While reading the law and crying because I felt helpless, I found a legal code that required immediate state intervention, by the California Department of Education, if a school’s actions interfered with a parent’s ability to work. Because the weekly suspensions were impacting my ability to teach my sections at the university, representatives from the California Department of Education in Sacramento flew down to Irvine one week after I filed my state complaint against the school district for violating my son’s special education rights. I then spent the next four months working with the State and the laws in that book to get my son into a non-public school for highly intelligent children with behavioral problems. The public school paid the tuition for my son’s new school between the 4th and 6th grades. After two years in that school, my happy and healthy son was back and ready to learn to read.
After I got my son the non-public school placement, word got out that I “won.” I began getting phone calls from parents asking for help. Meanwhile, I had met a friend, Diana Spatz, who allowed me to become part of a state-wide organization for mothers receiving welfare and fighting to go to school in order to become self-sufficient. Diana’s non-profit, LIFETIME (www.geds-to-phds.org), brought moms together who would otherwise be alone with no voice. It was watching Diana give a voice to powerless single mothers that inspired me to start a non-profit that gives parents a voice in the special education process, hopefully before their children are too damaged by the educational bureaucracy.
Where did you find inspiration to get started?
After I had been helping moms for a few years, I decided it was time to go public because I could feel other moms out there suffering who didn’t know there was help available and help affordable. I filed the paper work for the non-profit in January of 2004 and began serving clients. By October, my friend Diana sent me a post-card from the Echoing Green foundation (www.echoinggreen.org) advertising a grant competition for social entrepreneurs. I read the post card and applied for the grant. It was a difficult process, but I was funded in 2005. So, I’d have to say that my inspiration came from helping moms, my friend Diana and Echoing Green.
What motivated you to keep going?
The parents I help motivate me and other women who came from nowhere special and make a difference motivate me. I get a great deal of calls from parents explaining that private advocates are charging in excess of $1000 deposit for services. I recently read a special education advocacy web page (not mine) that has an option called “pay per answer.” I was horrified by the “pay per answer” option.
I’ve been in the parent position. What would I do again if an advocate said I would have to pay for an answer? What would I do if I had to pay an advocate $1000 for help? Back in the days of my powerlessness, I would have gotten no answers and no help. I keep going because I know that these parents have almost no other options and their children’s lives, their futures, are up for grabs. As long as I’m alive, I am the person that knows my work makes a difference. I know that when I get a child’s education to meet that child’s needs, the whole family is blessed and that child’s future just got better. My answer is “yes? not? Maybe, if you can pay.”
What’s your next Big Dream?
My next big dream is to end up lobbying congress for federal funding of special education advocacy and watching as our federal government takes responsibility for, more than symbolic, enforcement of the rights of our special needs children. I want the federal government to fund non-profits directly, subverting state politics and state control over funding, to provide free special education advocacy to all children in public schools receiving special education.
Every special education child has the right to an advocate because education is compulsory. Since compulsory education is validated by a legal doctrine established in the 1850s entitled Parens Patrae (which means “the state is the father”), the federal government is responsible for what is happening to its children in federally funded schools. Child Protective Services is funded because parents are legal guardians of children and the state is the father. If Child Protective Services exists to protect the children of the state from abuses and neglect, in the home, that create adult social problems, then the state is also responsible for protecting children from neglect and abuse occurring within the public school system.
If the federal government funds social services, then the federal government needs to fund special education advocacy to ensure disabled students are being educated and not warehoused until they move from the classroom to prison cells, welfare rolls and unemployment lines. Since we have a national 40 percent drop out rate among special education students (a conservative measure), I’d say it’s time for the federal government to fund the IEP Police to come and provide expert advocates for special needs children attending public schools.
When you were 5 what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was five or six, I told my teacher I wanted to be an oceanographer. I wanted to study what was in the ocean and learn about all the life under the sea. When I told my teacher what I wanted to be, she recoiled her head, gave me a strange look and said “oh, well, isn’t that nice.” I knew that I wasn’t good enough to be an oceanographer by the look on her face and the tone of her voice. She probably reacted like that because I also struggled with reading. I wish she knew me now. I wish she understood that smart people sometimes have trouble learning to read when they are young. I wish my teacher had encouraged me to pursue my dream. She later told me “a waitress is a good job.” If I could see her today, I’d tell her, as I grew up, I became a social scientist because people become more interesting than sea life because I wanted to know why people treat each other so poorly so often.
What about when you were 15?
When I was 15, I had no thoughts for the future. I was a high school drop-out who had read two books in my life and wanted nothing to do with school. I had no idea what my future held and was living from one party to the next. I remember thinking I would end up in prison, eventually. Luckily, I ended up pregnant and alone at age 21, received welfare and decided to go to school in order to become self-sufficient.
Now, what do you want to be when you grow up?
My goal is to not grow up. I want to stay in the place where I can still believe that anything is possible. I think I remember, at some point before I went to school, feeling like life was full of possibilities. I want to hold on to that feeling and watch those things I dream about become reality. I think it requires child-like believe to watch your dreams come true. So, I don’t want to grow up.
What book is on your night stand?
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
What’s your Guilty Pleasure? (Grey’s Anatomy, Peppermint Mocha Lattes)
A mixed drink.
What song moves you?
Even though I’m a white woman, I think the song that moves me most is 2pac’s Keep Ya Head Up. I’ve never heard a man sing about “his sisters on welfare” I’ve never heard another man get real, even for a minute, about women.
When 2pac spoke out and got real telling women “when he tells you ‘you ain’t nothin,’ don’t believe ‘em sister you don’t need ‘em.. .you know it makes me unhappy when brothers make babies and leave a young mother to be a pappy, and since we all came from a woman, got our name from a woman and our game from a woman, I wonder why we take from our women, why we rape our women, do we hate our women? I think its time we kill for our women, time to heal our women, be real to our women. And if we don’t, well have a race of babies that will hate the ladies that make the babies. And, since a man cant make one, he has no right to tell a woman where and when to create one. So, will the real men get up. I know you’re fed up ladies but keep your head up.”
This is by far the most validation and encouragement I’ve heard from a man in my entire life and he wasn’t even speaking to me, as a white woman.