Coffee Break: Minneapolis' Erin Clotfelter on Special Education, The Belief Gap and Coffee in Bed

Sep 28, 2016 12:00:00 AM


Erin Ecklund Clotfelter is the mother of four: 7-year-old twins who were diagnosed with autism at age 2, a 6-year-old recently diagnosed with ADHD, and a 2-year-old. She lives in Minneapolis’ Northeast neighborhood, where her older sons attend Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). Clotfelter is the co-chair of the district’s Special Education Advisory Council, a role she took on just as Minneapolis was beginning the process of inclusion. Like many districts, MPS is working to move students with disabilities out of isolated classrooms and in to the same academic programming and social opportunities as their peers. Most of the headlines involving this sometimes-controversial push have decried the disproportionate number of African-American, American-Indian and Latino children placed in special education for willful or defiant behavior. But children with intellectual and developmental disabilities are often caught in the belief gap, too. What’s your route to caffeination? If I could start drinking coffee before I'm actually out of bed in the morning, I would. With four boys who are early-risers (and terrible sleepers), coffee for me is a must. My day starts around 6:00 a.m., and I'm looking at my second cup before the bus arrives at 7:00 a.m.. I'm not picky—dark roast with milk and sugar is my go-to. How did your experience advocating for your sons pave the way to your leadership role? When we were first thrown into this world of special-needs parenting, we heard a lot of stories from parents about frustrating experiences with public schools. We went into every meeting with our team not knowing if we could trust them to do the right thing for our kids. Along the way, we realized we were having a pretty good go of it with our district—responsive teachers, good communication, supports readily available without bringing in outside advocates. In 2015, I joined the Special Education Advisory Council (SEAC) because I wanted to know what was happening at the district level. It was a rocky time to be joining SEAC. Sometimes I'm surprised I didn't run the opposite direction instead of throwing my name in for co-chair, but here I am. My vision—and I think we are making some headway here—is really reaching out to the special needs "categories" and communities who are underrepresented at our meetings, including Somali, Latino, African-American, and Native American parents. We really need to be an advisory that represents special education in our district, not just parents who cover one or two disabilities. Why does inclusion matter? I didn’t grow up going to school where kids with special needs were included in the general education classroom, at least not in any meaningful way. Until my boys were diagnosed with autism, I can safely say I never really knew or spent any time with anyone with a disability. Kids like mine deserve to be supported in a classroom, getting the same education as other kids their age. They deserve to be a part of the school community, and contribute to their classrooms, just as all of the other kids are able to do. How can parents of youth with disabilities work to close the “belief gap”? The "belief gap" is all about expectations. If you don't expect kids to achieve academic standards, if you don't expect them to be productive members of our community, they probably will live up to that expectation. We had no idea if our boys were going to thrive when we made the transition from early childhood special education to kindergarten. We begged to keep them in a closed classroom with one-on-one support, and admittedly, we had fairly low expectations. As it turns out, our boys are very academically motivated; they love school, and they love to learn. They need to be—and should be—challenged, and their teachers are leading the charge on this. I think we need to challenge ourselves as parents, teachers, case managers and therapists, to raise expectations for our kids—graduation, post-secondary education, jobs. And we need to demand that districts support our kids in a more inclusive classroom, so that they are exposed to the same academic rigor as their peers and so that vision becomes a reality.

Beth Hawkins

Beth Hawkins is a writer at The 74, and formerly was a writer-in-residence at Education Post. Previously she wrote for Learning Curve, a blog about education for MinnPost, where she also covered a variety of other public policy topics. She loves writing for an audience that’s hungry for context and analysis and willing to indulge her many curiosities. Hawkins is the recipient of numerous national and regional awards, including several first-place Society of Professional Journalists Page One Awards for investigative reporting and feature writing. Her work has appeared in More, Mother Jones, Minnesota Monthly and many other publications. You can also find her blogging at

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