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Photo by April Elliott Photography

In the Marine Corps, you may hear spouses talking about a motto similar to “Semper Fidelis.” “Semper Gumby” translates roughly to “always flexible,” thanks to the 1950s claymation character named Gumby. The ability to adapt and overcome adversity directly correlates with positive outcomes for military families. Executing a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move is challenging enough on its own. Moving when you have a child with an individualized education program (IEP) presents an even more difficult set of challenges that can easily overwhelm even the most seasoned military spouse.

In fact, according to the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), “As military families transition from one duty station to another, children often attend many different schools. In fact, the average child in a military family will move six to nine times during a school career. That’s an average of three times more frequently than non-military families.” In a world full of change, you are the one constant for your child. These six tips will help you take control and better advocate for your child during your next PCS.

1. Educate yourself.

Googling “PCSing with an IEP” turns up hundreds of resources that can be time-consuming and overwhelming to sort through, especially amid a PCS. These are the tried and true resources that I have come to rely on:

  • Your local and gaining Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) offices: In addition to having a wealth of knowledge, your local EFMP office should initiate a “warm hand-off” of your family’s case to the gaining installation, helping to establish your new support network and ensuring a continuum of care, allowing your family to PCS with minimal stress.
  • Wrightslaw – Pete Wright’s resources for military families: He does a wonderful job explaining parental rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and describes how those protections differ when attending a DoDEA school.
  • Specialized Training of Military Parents (STOMP): STOMP provides training about the services available through TRICARE, ECHO, ABA benefits, community resources, and your parental rights.
  • Your school liaison officer: The officer can inform you about services available to military families, such as remote enrollment, special education attorneys, etc.
  • A PCS Smooth Move Workshop: If your current duty station offers a PCS workshop, take advantage of it. These workshops often provide a one-stop-shop to speak with school liaison officers and representatives from the EFMP and base organizations that help execute your move.
2. Organize your child’s records.

It’s never too early to start organizing your child’s educational records. In fact, you will want to request a copy of their official record to include a current evaluation, progress reports, individualized education program and behavior intervention plans (BIP), etc. at least a month before your move. This will allow you time to review the documents for accuracy and ask any questions you may have. One of the best tips I can give you is to organize all of your child’s documents in an IEP binder. There are many great resources, from guidelines for setting up a system, which you can find at Partners in PROMISE and on OAR’s Operation Autism website to products to purchase from sites such as Teachers Pay Teachers. Just keep in mind that, as long as the binder has all of the key documents and functions for you, you don’t need a Pinterest-worthy project. At a minimum, I recommend including these current documents:

  • IEP
  • BIP
  • Progress report
  • Evaluation report
  • Medical history/current medications

Also consider including:

  • Prior written notices
  • Conference notes
  • Emails
  • Work samples that demonstrate particular areas of weakness or strengths that can be referenced in future meetings
  • A section for immunization records, previous school records, and any other documentation required to enroll at the new school. 

Keep a second binder with previous IEPs, BIPs, progress reports, and evaluations.

3. Research, research, research

While you may not have the ability to choose which duty station you have been assigned to, you can choose which school district you will live in. As soon as you have orders in hand, contact your school liaison officer. The officers cannot recommend specific schools, however, they can provide you with information about the schools and the programs/services they offer and answer questions you may have. In addition to reaching out to the officer, using sites such as PCSgrades and GreatSchools can help you narrow down the areas you want to look at. Once you have decided on an area or particular district, you can use time during house hunting leave to visit potential schools and see if they will be a good fit for your family.

4. Connect and network.
Photo by April Elliott Photography

Before your PCS move, reach out to organizations and groups that can help you develop your new network, like the school liaison officer and the gaining EFMP office. If are looking for additional information and support, you may want to reach out to The Military Interstate Compact (MIC3). MIC3 helps minimize the disruptions caused by a PCS by addressing issues with enrollment, placement, eligibility for sports/extracurricular activities, graduation, and special education.

A unique benefit of this crazy, wonderful military life is the access to spouses’ networks via online platforms. If you go to any search engine, you can find spouses’ pages and groups at almost every duty station around the globe. When using these sources, remember to fact-check the information. In addition to asking questions about schools, neighborhoods, extracurriculars, or who the best speech therapist is, you can use these groups to find advocates and organizations familiar with special education and military families. The ladies behind Education with Erin and Education Solutions are two of several advocates that I have come across in the many military spouses’ groups I belong to. Organizations such as OAR’s Operation Autism and Partners in PROMISE are both reputable groups mentioned by spouses in these networks.

5. Communicate with everyone on the team.

Communicate early and often with your child’s current school staff leading up to the move and the gaining school staff to prepare them for your child’s arrival. Keeping everyone in the loop will help manage expectations and ensure everyone is prepared and on board to make the transition as smooth as possible. During all of the hustle and bustle, it is essential to not forget to communicate with the most vital member of the team, your child. Ask for their input when appropriate and encourage them to be a part of the PCS process. Not only will it give them ownership, but it will also help them process the transition.

6. Enroll.

Now that you have arrived at your new home, enroll your child in their new school. Take your IEP binder along with any supporting documents and complete the enrollment process. Know that your IEP travels with you and the new school cannot just disregard it; they have to honor the legal document already in place. So, what exactly does this mean? Your new school administrators have to provide comparable services to your existing IEP unless or until they decide to complete their own assessments and reconvene the IEP team to discuss updated present levels and write a new IEP. If you are unhappy with the new assessment results, you have the right to appeal the assessment. At this point, if you are unsure about anything or do not agree with the assessment, it may be helpful to reach out to an advocate or special education attorney to assist you with the next steps. With the recent signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), all branches of service have access to special education attorneys at no cost to the Active Duty service member.

7. Advocate for your rights.

As mentioned above, at any time during the transition to your new school you feel your parental rights, often referred to as procedural safeguards, are being violated, it may be time to reach out to an advocate or special education attorney. Parental rights in the IEP process include your right to:

While federal law provides protections for students in special education, military children’s highly mobile lifestyle creates a unique set of challenges that, at times, school districts take advantage of. Data from Partners in PROMISE’s recent Military Special Education Survey showed that school districts were withholding services and waiting until the military families move to another duty station and refusing to implement individualized education programs (IEPs). It is important to be educated about your parental rights so that you can be a strong advocate for your child. Another way to advocate is to take advantage of opportunities like Partners in PROMISE’s annual survey to tell your story so that our collective voice can be heard.

Armed with these guidelines, you and your family no longer have to stress over a PCS with an IEP. So, sit back, enjoy your morning coffee, and start organizing your IEP binder, researching schools, and getting plugged in to all the supports in your new area; after all, we might as well focus on the things we have control over and remain “Semper Gumby” about the things we don’t.

Carla Wyrsch is a devoted educator and advocate for children with disABILITIES with over 18 years of experience. Currently, she is the director of communications for Partners in PROMISE, an education and advocacy group working on behalf of military special needs children. Additionally, she is a certified special education teacher with a background in applied behavior analysis. Her experience spans various settings, including residential treatment facilities, military bases, public schools, and the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Lerner School for Autism. She and her family are currently stationed in Japan.