Shirley Renix taught her daughter to identify numbers and colors long before she went to preschool. But by the time she started kindergarten, something was wrong. 

“Her teacher told me she couldn’t count or name colors,” Renix said. “I said ‘She did it for me at home, she did it for the preschool teacher. What happened?’” 

Her daughter ended up in the Arkansas Special Education Unit, which works with local school districts to ensure every student with disabilities has an opportunity to learn. The unit serves more than 50,000 kids—about one in ten students in Arkansas. Renix’s daughter just graduated from the Camden Fairview School District, but it wasn’t easy. “If she learns anything it takes her a long while,” Renix said. 

“She’s on about a first grade level.” Renix struggled with teachers who didn’t know how or weren’t willing to take the extra time to help her daughter. Frustrated, Renix started doing her own research and brought what she learned back to teachers. “They still wouldn’t use it,” Renix said. “I was faced with ‘I’m trying to help you to help her, and you won’t even use the tools that I’m finding.’” 

On paper, Arkansas’ special education programs meet federal guidelines, but Renix says reality plays out differently in the classroom. Over the years, her daughter’s classes were filled with students who had a wide range of disabilities, and teachers often seemed overwhelmed. Federal law requires a team of teachers and administrators to work with parents to create an Individualized Education Plan for each child. Renix says her daughter had an IEP, but she never met the team. 

“I sat down with one teacher,” Renix said. “The rest of the team signed their name on there, but I didn’t get to sit down with them. They’d already filled it out. I had no input. They told me what they were going to do.” 

The Arkansas Citizens First Congress and other education advocates pushed the 2015 legislature to create a task force on special education after Renix and other parents complained many schools were not meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Advocates want to improve placement as well, because too many children of color and low income children are being put into the program unnecessarily. 

“I want to see children who really need it get the help that they need,” Renix said. “It may take them a month to learn a word, to be able to add 2+2, but eventually they get it.” 

The task force is looking at all aspects of special sd, including placement, practices, educators, parents, funding and how money is spent. 

“We want to figure out what is working well and what isn’t,” said Bailey Perkins, from Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. “What do we need to do to address those things that aren’t working well?” 

Perkins says even though the state is meeting federal regulations, student outcomes aren’t where they should be. 

“Some students with special needs are really behind,” she said. “I’m excited the task force is going to dive into the different areas and really figure out what we need to do to change those outcomes and results for students, but it’s an ambitious task.” 

The task force has heard from educators and state agencies, but Renix is worried the voices and personal experiences of parents will be drowned out by statistics and funding formulas. 

“I just want to make sure that things change when this is all over with,” she said. “I don’t want to sit at the table and go through all of this and then nothing happen.” 

Perkins agrees that parents are needed at the task force meetings. 

“What the schools, or teachers say are totally different than what a parent experiences,” she said. “From the school’s perspective they are in compliance, and that’s why we need the parent’s perspective.” 

The task force meets next on December 9th and again January 6th, from 10 AM to 3 PM in room 138 at the Capitol. The public is welcome, and encouraged to attend. “It’s very open when it comes to giving input and feedback,” Perkins said. “Come to the meetings, and share your thoughts about what’s going on.” 

Even though Renix’s daughter has graduated, she’s speaking up for current and future students. 

“I want to make sure my voice is heard because this is my life, my daughter’s life and the lives of many more children who need help,” she said. “I’m going to fight for them.”