“We have been living in a crisis mode for almost five years,” said Kimberly Schoon, the mother of a boy on the autism spectrum who was almost nonverbal when the family moved here one year ago. “He was born at 30 weeks so he always had special needs. He had fewer than a dozen words at age 3. The Atlanta School System, the No. 1 school system in Georgia, told us that he would have to leave. ‘Your son is too aggressive.’ At Aztec (Special Education and Autism Complex), he blossomed. At 4, he wasn’t kicking or biting. Once he acquired language, they sent him to McCollum (Elementary School). He qualified for Dennis Chavez (Elementary School) over the summer. He’s been in kindergarten for seven days now. We never expected in a million years that he’d be in a regular kindergarten.”
Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) has intensive resources for children with special needs including learning disabilities. But those resources can be hard to find and navigate for any family who has other children and the usual hectic, school-day schedule. It’s a vortex that can suck the last dregs of energy out of any weary parent, especially when that family has one or more members who need specialized help.
Special Education State Ombud Michelle Tregembo with New Mexico Developmental Disabilities Council (NMDDC) is the mapmaker who charts the way for these families. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) and has a relationship with every school in every district.
“We are a combination of volunteers and experts who all go through the same training,” Tregembo said from her office on Silver Ave. SW. “There are 16 hours of initial training; we have 10 volunteers this year who are starting their first classes now.”
Volunteers take their first case with Tregembo and two other ombuds, then intern for one year. “We work with New Mexico children who have one or more emotional, behavioral or developmental conditions,” she said. “That can mean developmental delays, depression and anxiety, ADD/ADHD and behavioral conduct problems.”
In 2020, 12.9 percent of New Mexico children had one or more of those conditions according to the recent Kids Count data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“The New Mexico legislature passed a bill in 2021 to create the NMDCC. We has an initial $250,000 from the legislature,” said Alice Liu McCoy, executive director of NMDDC. “Each state member is appointed by the governor. Supporting children with disabilities is a top priority here. The Governor and legislature are big special education advocates.”
The NMDDC’s mission dictates that it will:
- Support parents of students with disabilities to help them understand and navigate the special education system
- Attend and assist families with individualized education program meetings
- Provide information about state and federal laws and regulations governing special education
- Empower students and parents to develop effective strategies to resolve their issues and concerns
- Promote collaboration and positive communication between families, schools, and district personnel
- Provide information about available resources that serve individuals with disabilities, and assist with referrals to advocacy groups
- Collect, analyze, and report special education data
- Make recommendations to NMPED, the Governor’s office, the Legislature, school districts, and other governmental entities to address systemic concerns and noncompliance with special education laws and regulations
The Council itself is built of nearly 30 people: 2/3 who are family members and 1/3 who are state agency partners, like UNM DDC. This ratio ensures that the program solely concentrates on the children and families it is meant to help. “It has to be an individualized approach,” said Liu McCoy.
Despite the broad range of disabilities the NMDDC covers, the Ombud’s Office finds similarities in the process to streamline it and broaden its reach at the same time. “My approach looks the same no matter what the disability is. There are no severity requirements. Anyone who calls me is going to get help,” said Tregembo.
Indeed, help is what Schoon’s family received at a crucial time. “I am just so grateful for Michelle’s help and reaching out,” said Schoon. “She knows the system and how things work here. I was happy, in tears, to learn about a free resource for parents here. These services are on a par with Atlanta, but there, everybody was saying it’s not their job. Albuquerque is investing in its students.”
According to Liu McCoy, the NMDDC is looking into systemic changes to the panoply of special education services, expanding provider effectiveness, establishing more team reviews of cases and creating regional ombuds in future.
But right now, they’ve got their arms around the system and the families it serves.
Schoon has a daughter who is on the spectrum but whose needs are not as severe as her son’s. “He has challenges still, like a big cafeteria with a lot of echoes – he is noise sensitive so he wears earbuds or headphones. But for once, we have hope that things will be better.”