Shrewsbury parent advocates for special needs students
By Barbara Allen, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – By the time most parents of a child with special needs reach out to Shrewsbury resident and education advocate Alina Kantor Nir for help, they are already overwhelmed. Her most common emails are from parents who have “had it,” who are at the point where they want to remove their child from public school and are considering private placement or even homeschooling.
Kantor Nir, an attorney who put her law career on hold when her oldest son was diagnosed with autism, understands their frustrations. At one point, after continually battling with the public school system in the town where her family had lived prior to moving to Shrewsbury, she herself placed her son in private school. She admits that she wasn’t all that pleased with the placement.
“People think private school is the only answer,” Kantor Nir said. “But you still have to struggle for services … [for example] speech therapy with the therapist, rather than the speech therapy assistant.”
The family ended up relocating to Shrewsbury, and for Kantor Nir and her son, it was a positive move.
“I haven’t had to fight any more,” she said, of the Shrewsbury school system. Less time in battle means more time to do other things. Kantor Nir has chosen to spend that newly available time advocating for other parents who are also navigating the maze of special education.
“Special education is a tedious process,” she admitted. “It's easy to get overwhelmed.”
With her own experience as a parent of a child with special needs and a lawyer, Kantor Nir feels that she is “using her legal background in a way that's beneficial; it's my way of giving back.”
But being a lawyer isn’t quite enough. Kantor Nir has taken advantage of specialized training through Wrightslaw, a special education law, education law, and advocacy group for children with disabilities; the Special Needs Advocacy Network (SPAN); and The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA).
Much of Kantor Nir's work revolves around the Individualized Education Plan (IEP): a customized road map of educational goals for each student and a plan to realize those goals.
Kantor Nir starts with a thorough analysis of the child's academic records and IEP. She gathers data, checking for missing information that could prevent the student from receiving services that he or she might require. Some of the services for which she might advocate are speech therapy, occupational therapy, adapted physical education, or physical therapy, to name a few. She will sometimes also advocate for one-to-one support, specialized reading instruction or counseling.
Gathering data helps the parents build a stronger case to request the services from the school that they feel their child may need. Kantor Nir gives speech therapy as an example: a child's physician may state that the child needs speech therapy a certain number of times per week, but the school might argue against that decision, stating that they see the child every day, and know him or her better than the physician. Kantor Nir will then ensure that a speech evaluation is done at school.
“I’m constantly asking myself, “what will the school say in response to this?”" she said. “Your voice [the voice of the parent] matters only as much as the expert opinion matches what you are saying.”
Kantor Nir estimates that she spends about 30 hours a week providing advocacy services, scheduling her work day around the hours when her three children are in school. She does not advocate formally for parents who live in Shrewsbury because she has a child in the district and thus, it would be a conflict of interest.
“I would like to keep my relationship with the district separate,” she said.
Although Kantor Nir does charge a fee for her advocacy services, she works with her clients to keep costs down. She admits that she undercharges most clients, not billing for all the “legwork” that is involved. But for Kantor Nir, it isn’t about the money.
“Some of these stories are heartbreaking; you can’t help but get pulled in,” she said. “It's nice [for the parent of a special needs child] to have someone else on [their] team.”
For more information, Kantor Nir can be reached at 508-925-5368, 508-709-9256, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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