When Joanne Gouaux moved her family to St. Helena she said it was for the schools and the school district’s Special Education programs.

That experience was so positive that she has become a Special Education advocate, now bringing parental education and instruction about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to the Napa Valley.

Gouaux’s son had a visual disability that was preventing him from succeeding in school. Called dyslexia, it is a specific learning disability – according to International Dyslexia Association — that is neurobiological in origin.

But though her son’s condition was known to school teachers and administration in the East Bay school district where he was a first grader, she could not get the district to provide him with the appropriate programs to help him.

“I would come to pick him up outside his class each day,” she wrote to the St. Helena Star. “And nearly every day the teacher would sneer at me and say ‘You know he really needs to work harder.’” Then, according to Gouaux, “She very sternly told me, in front of my son, that his problem was that he was ‘lazy, and not applying himself.’ He started crying as we walked to the car. I was stunned. I wanted to cry too.”

When she urged the principal to get a team together to evaluate him, the principal told her there were other children with greater needs than her son. “They insisted they would not provide an academic assessment until he was at least two grades behind,” she recalled.

“I did not know my son’s legal rights,” she said. “I was confused, devastated and felt like I was being asked to prove that my son’s difficulty learning was due to an invisible disability, rather than a disobedient child.”

That’s when Gouaux began a two-year search for help, transferring to different school districts and attending endless meetings and appointments with specialists. Then a friend on the Calistoga school board told her she should talk with Helen Bass, director of special services in the Calistoga Elementary School. Bass in turn recommended Dr. Cindy Toews, who at the time was the assistant superintendent of the St. Helena Unified School District.

Toews is currently the superintendent of the Howell Mountain Elementary School District.

“Dr. Toews returned my call the same day and over that brief 15 minute call convinced me that her district would indeed assess my son and provide appropriate services. So I took a leap of faith, packed up my family and moved to St. Helena. Dr. Toews kept her promise.”

St. Helena’s staff created an “ideal program” for a child with her son’s profile, Gouaux said. The family lived in St. Helena for a year before moving away. But in that short time, she said, her son became a fluent third grade reader, and “his enjoyment and confidence at school was restored.” She believed the services she’d obtained in St. Helena and the district’s dedicated staff were crucial to her son’s success. So she thought, after the family’s move to another school district, his services could be transferred to her son’s new school.

She was wrong.

In many respects, Gouaux had to start all over again, informing the school of her son’s rights under a unique law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It was also when she realized that her family was not unique; that 10 percent of children in school districts had been legally identified as “Students with Disabilities” and that many families and school administrators did not fully understand the legal rights of these students.

That’s when she realized that she needed to become a Special Education advocate.

“The idea for a seminar training came to me in January after a couple of months of deep thinking on where exactly the knots are in the system,” she said. “It seemed to me that something wasn’t flowing: information about Special Education, eligibility, service programs, trainings and options.”

Gouaux, through a series of efforts, contacted the leading legal expert in IDEA in Washington, D.C. – Peter Wright — and persuaded him to come to the Napa Valley. He will be the featured speaker at the Lincoln Theater in May in the seminar that Gouaux is producing.

The seminar will be held from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Friday, May 19. Tickets cost $190 for individuals and $235 for professionals. Preregistration is required at lincolntheater.com.

Wright is an attorney who represents children with special educational needs. He has successfully represented clients before the U.S. Supreme Court (Florence County School District Four v. Shannon Carter, 1993). Wright is also the co-author of a number of books, including “Wrightslaw: Special Education Law” and “Wrightslaw: No Child Left Behind”; and “Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy.”

This conference, according to Gouaux, is designed to give parents, educators, healthcare providers, advocates and attorneys access to practical tools they can use with their children, students, patients and clients who have learning disabilities and other special needs.

Gouaux began simply as a parent of a child with special needs. The St. Helena Unified School District helped her learn what could be accomplished when the right services are applied. Now she’s returning to the Napa Valley with the intent of bringing a better understanding of the rights of Individuals with Disabilities.

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Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.