Personal Statement by Carlie Petrovics
Resiliency can be an incredibly beneficial attribute; however, it comes at a dear price. Generally, when someone is resilient, it has come at the price of multiple hardships and traumas. Since I was a child, I have always been described as resilient by family members, teachers, and later in life by employers and coworkers. Resiliency is something I have learned through surviving the suicide of my father, a childhood of severe poverty, abandonment by my mother, and homelessness. It has been brought to my attention many times how extraordinary it is that I have accomplished as much as I have in my life personally and professionally.
During my teen years I was incredibly fortunate to have resources made available through my school counselor. This advocacy enabled me to work to support myself. I was motivated to complete my undergraduate degree in education with three specialized certifications. Classroom teaching was not my ultimate goal, but it was a starting point to begin my journey in helping others in need. While teaching, I continued working towards my master’s degree. My last semester of graduate school was challenged with the tragedy of my mother’s terminal diagnosis of cancer. We were working on our relationship when given this devastating news. I took on the responsibility of managing her treatment, moved her into my home, and cared for her during the last months of her life. She passed away four months and eleven days after diagnosis. Despite not being well enough to attend my graduation, she was incredibly proud of my accomplishments. I cannot help but believe it is because of my life experiences, and not in spite of, that I have a drive and passion for social change.
As a teacher I found myself being drawn to the specialty of special education. I connected with my students, their families, and the many challenges that come within the field. This specialty has a unique calling to me, and I can humbly admit I am very good at my job. Almost all educators are exposed to special education, but not all have a passion or understanding of the services desperately needed and rightfully owed to our students with disabilities. Federal law mandates students with disabilities are provided the accommodations and/or modifications required for them to be successful in the classroom. Despite this requirement, I have witnessed the ways students and families are not provided what they deserve. I have also experienced the challenges educators are faced with which inhibits our ability to meet these needs.
One specific event emboldened me to take the initiative towards pursuing the change greatly needed for those with disabilities. It was during our daily vocabulary warm-up when one of my students got my attention. I looked over and saw Heather, who is diagnosed with epilepsy, lying on the floor, unresponsive and emitting a low humming sound. She was not shaking as one assumes to witness during a seizure, but something was clearly wrong. My other students were escorted to a nearby vacant classroom. Our classrooms did not have telephones so I grabbed our walkie-talkie, radioed the nurse to call 911 immediately. I propped our door open so the first responders could get into the classroom as quickly as possible, kneeled onto the floor, rolled my student onto her side, and repeatedly told her everything would be ok. This was for her benefit, but also my own. Finally, the medics would arrive to transport her to the hospital. As a special education teacher, there are many circumstances we are trained for, however, despite this, I was still emotional that night when reflecting on the events of the day because there was a chance it could have been avoided.
Special education teachers not only work directly with students with disabilities in the classroom, but there is also a multitude of paperwork and documentation that is required before and after school hours. My personal caseload included Heather and thirty-nine additional students. Of these forty students, I only directly taught six. Despite my limited exposure to the thirty-four students assigned to me, I was responsible for managing the Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for all forty students. IEPs are federally mandated plans for all students with disabilities and detail explicit information on the student’s goals, placement, and accommodations/modifications needed for him/her to be successful. Heather’s annual IEP meeting was held early that school year. I never met her prior to this meeting, and yet I was responsible for assigning goals for her to achieve, and also requirements of myself and her other teachers to assist her in attaining these goals. Heather’s mom voiced her concerns of Heather being placed in my classroom. My classroom was a “hybrid unit” spending half the day in general education classrooms and half the day self-contained. Self-contained learning is when the classroom only includes students diagnosed with a disability which impedes their ability to be in a general education classroom. Heather had always been in a self-contained classroom because of her disabilities. I helplessly watched as district administrators ignored her mother’s concerns and forcefully pursued placing her in my unit. She would be forced into an environment that was not in her best interest, her peers she would share a classroom with, nor the general education teachers who lacked sufficient training for students with disabilities.
Having witnessed this episode and the many other challenges facing our public school teachers and students, it is without reservation that I can say change is needed. I can no longer remain one of the overwhelmed educators, buried under paperwork, with our hands tied, and our hearts on fire. There are an infinite number of children, families, and teachers who need advocacy. I will be the vessel of change and protection for our teachers and students need by pursuing a law degree. Granting me this scholarship would provide a resource greatly needed and appreciated in order to pursue my goal of law and giving back to one of our world’s most marginalized communities.