HOUSTON – Who qualifies as a special education student? A bright teen and her family are caught in the middle of a huge legal fight - all because her family says she needs more help from her school. It’s a complicated battle and it’s getting expensive too as both sides pay mounting legal fees.
Grace Jester, 17, looks like any other Cypress Ranch High School student. In fact, Grace is an exceptional student, with a 6.9 grade point average and a stellar class ranking. She’s a member of the National Honor Society. But, that’s only part of Grace’s story.
“At my worst point I did not want to go to school at all,” she explained. “I wanted to drop out. I can’t remember a time that I haven’t had a headache. Every day, I’m exhausted and in pain.”
Numerous health conditions
Grace suffers from a whole list of serious, chronic disorders including chronic head, neck and back pain, spinal cord damage caused by a large cyst on her spine, systemic muscle weakness, chronic fatigue, and generalized anxiety disorder.
“I want Cy-Fair to designate Grace as a special education student,” said Steve Jester, Grace’s dad. “They are holding her brilliance against her.”
“What we are looking for is for them to give her any of the missed instruction,” explained her mom, Kellie Jester. “What she missed in school, to let teachers help her get caught up. They outright refused.”
For years, the Jester family has been fighting Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District to have Grace classified as a special education student so she can get special, one-on-one time with her teachers to make up for all the class time she misses. They also want more time for Grace to complete tests and assignments.
The teen misses so much school that her parents want the district to make that up to her. In 2019, Grace missed 41 days. But so far Cy-Fair ISD has refused to grant the “special education” designation.
School district responds
KPRC 2 asked Cy-Fair ISD officials for an interview, but they would only send us a written statement.
It reads, in full:
“Students with disabilities receive services in CFISD through either Section 504 or the IDEA, depending upon what supports they need in order to be successful in school. Students that can succeed with accommodations typically are supported through service plans under Section 504, and those who need specialized instruction receive special education and have plans through the IDEA. Since elementary school, Grace has been identified by CFISD as a student with a disability and has received accommodations under Section 504. In high school, Grace’s accommodation plan has numerous supports including a detailed health plan; breaks from class for the restroom, nurse or counselor at any time; the ability to postpone a test as determined by Grace; the ability to stop the clock while testing and take a break without penalty; and receive extended time on original or make-up classwork when requested by Grace, including in her advanced pre-AP, AP and Dual Credit classes, when the extended time does not remove the level of difficulty that makes the courses eligible for the weighted grade point. Extending time automatically for every assignment and every test in advanced courses would change the nature of the courses, but teachers are able to provide the additional time accommodation on assignments and make-up work in advanced classes when it does not fundamentally alter the class. Grace has routinely and consistently received this extended time in her advanced classes throughout high school. Grace has been referred by her parents for consideration for special education services, and the District tested Grace, but she did not qualify because her disabilities do not require specially designed instruction, such as modifying course content or how teachers teach that course content. Grace has been successfully supported through her Section 504 plan and has been incredibly successful at Cypress Ranch High School, achieving a 6.7 grade point average on a 6.0 scale; she is currently number 40 out of 770 in her senior class.”
Costly fight for accommodations
“What the family is asking for will not cost the district money,” explained Grace’s family attorney Doreen Philpot. “In fact, the litigation will cost more than what the parents are asking for.”
For now, Grace’s parents want Cy-Fair ISD to get Grace the accommodations they say she desperately needs. Grace says she needs help and does not want her success in school used against her.
“I feel like if I were failing, they’d be more open to giving me the things I need,” she said. “It’s bringing me to my breaking point.”
Grace’s family says they also hope her last years in high school will memorable and fun. So far, that has not been the case.
Need help for your student?
The Texas Education Agency has resources for parents who have questions about the Special Education Program in Texas. From dispute resolution processes to programs and services, there is help available if you need it.