Asians make up 9 percent of students in Boston schools, but only 3 percent of those enrolled in special education, a disparity that has led to fears that many are not getting the help they need.
Even parents with children in special-education programs face cultural and language barriers to getting proper attention for students. Many families are hesitant to ask for help because of a cultural stigma of having children with disabilities. Some are reluctant to challenge school authorities, and others simply don't know where to turn.
These immigrant families are the focus of a new effort by local and statewide special-education organizations to inform them of their rights so they could help their children.
For the past month, about 15 Chinese parents from Boston, Malden, and Brockton have crowded around a conference table in the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center on Friday nights to learn about special-education law. Other groups are starting similar efforts in the Haitian and Eritrean communities.
Chi Wan Chow, a Cantonese speaker, could not understand the eight-page special education plans for her two children, who are deaf. She had no idea she was signing a legal document, one that determines the type of services her son and daughter would receive in their Boston school and one that, by law, the school should have translated for her.
"I never understood what an Individualized Education Plan was all about," said Chow, who just dashed off her signature year after year, agreeing with whatever school specialists proposed. "For the past four years, I had no idea what was happening."
Joseph Wu, family service coordinator for the neighborhood center, said many of the parents complained of schools giving them conflicting, often erroneous messages. "As a group, they want to let the public schools know that they are parents who are underserved," Wu said.
Boston school officials said they were not aware of any complaints and are willing to work with the parents. The special education department has two Cantonese-speaking facilitators who translate for Chinese parents in any city school.
The new superintendent, Carol Johnson, has also made it a priority to train staff to better serve parents, especially in special education. "If a parent asks for help, they will get it," said Jonathan Palumbo, school system spokesman.
On a recent night, after a dinner of eggrolls and noodles, a special-education professor from the University of Massachusetts at Boston lectured the parents in their native Cantonese on the importance of understanding their children's Individualized Education Plans. She passed out sample forms, translated into Chinese, along with a glossary of terms like autism, benchmarks, and accommodation. The hope is that these parents will reach out to other Chinese parents who may not be getting the services their children need.
"The goal is to educate them so they can advocate for their children," said Lusa Lo, the UMass professor who helped begin the Chinese Empowerment Coalition, which organized the workshops.
Asian students represent 4.8 percent of the state's public school enrollment, but only 2.3 percent of special-education students. Overall, 16.7 percent of Massachusetts students require special education. In Boston, where nearly a fifth of all students require special education, statistics show that black, Hispanic, and white special-education students pretty much reflect their demographics in the schools.
"Chinese people are a little ashamed to let others know they have a child with special needs at home," said Zhong Ruan, who reaches out to Chinese families on behalf of the Federation for Children with Special Needs and whose sons have pervasive developmental disorder and Asperger's syndrome. "A lot of parents think their child is just a slow learner, that they don't need special education, and that they'll catch up to their classmates when they get older."
Often, parents may attribute children's learning difficulties to lack of English proficiency, rather than a disability, Lo said.
Through the workshops, Lo hopes that parents will make connections with other families facing similar difficulties. Parents told stories about their children being rejected for after-school programs because they don't offer special education services. Lo urged them to file appeals and to voice their concerns during school meetings about their children's education plans.
Richard Robison, executive director of the Boston-based Federation for Children with Special Needs, said the group saw the need to connect with Chinese families two years ago when the few families who came to support meetings shared stories of discrimination by Boston school officials. They were told not to bother showing up for their children's education plan meetings because school officials were not going to translate, Robison said. Schools simply asked parents to sign and mail in the plans.
"They were being short-changed," he said. "The families themselves didn't know how to ask. They come from a culture that respects teachers and authority, without question."
This year, the federation hired and trained Ruan to connect more Chinese families to federation services. The federation has made similar connections to Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking families, Cambodians in Lowell, and Russians in Springfield.
"Before, I never knew I could voice my hopes and expectations," Chow said. "Now, I am ready to fight."