The American educational system has long left kids with special educational needs behind. Raja Marhaba has two children with learning disabilities, and spent the entirety of their youth fighting the school system to get her kids the help they needed. After being taken all the way to federal court, Marhaba is using all that she’s learned to benefit other families through The Jonathan Foundation for Children With Learning Disabilities (and beyond).
America’s educational system is often criticized for not actually prioritizing education for every child, no matter the situation. Children with developmental or educational disabilities are often overlooked and deemed as “distractions” to the rest of the class from the behavioral issues that can easily develop from a lack of understanding what’s being taught.
Raja Marhaba has two children, Jonathan and Omar Jr., with learning disabilities. Her kids grew up in a time before the internet, so when it came to understanding the full scope of her children’s specific needs, she felt as though she was left in the dark. It also didn’t help that the school district thought of her children more as children with behavioral issues, rather than kids who need extra attention and help to actually take in the information.
The Jonathan Foundation was created from the passion and frustration that Marhaba built up after taking on her son’s school district for essentially the entirety of their grade school years. Her battle to find the best means of learning for her kids began when they were in elementary school, and lasted until they were leaving high school. This is unfortunately an experience many parents can relate to, they just don’t have the means or energy to take on an entire school system, but that didn’t stop Marhaba.
“The educational system we have in America is broken, especially when it comes to kids who need the extra attention to be on the same track as their peers. Parents know that the first five years are some of the most important when it comes to brain development in their children. So as a new mom, seeing my son go through the first grade twice with little to no progression or assistance from the school was devastating, and an experience I thought was far too common for parents in my same situation.”
“The reality is many of the kids who are left without proper educational resources and tools tend to lose their motivation to learn very early on in childhood. These kids could end up in adult jails or prisons, homeless, or in a low-income area due to the fact that the system is working against them when it comes to their learning. It’s a revolving door that we can stop from moving simply by changing the way we teach our children who need specialized education.”
Marhaba’s story began when her sons were very young, and she would get calls from their teachers often about their learning and behavioral issues.
“It started 26 years ago with my son Jonathan, he was 4-years-old and the private school teacher he was with at the time informed me that she was having difficulties with his behavior. He was crying, throwing tantrums when he had to go into the classroom, and when he was in the classroom he would crawl under her desk. He just didn’t want to learn so his teacher told me that she thought he might be on the spectrum and should be taken to a public school system to be tested.
We got a referral and my son ended up going through all the assessments within the public school system to ideally get some answers on how to help him succeed in his education. We had to create what’s known as an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, so we had an IEP meeting with the school, which was overall pretty intimidating.
I was the only parent among six school personnel, and the meeting consisted of each of them discussing what the assessments showed and the data it provided. As a parent, especially over 20 years ago, having all of these terms and stats thrown at you is overwhelming and confusing. I just knew my son was having problems reading and writing but I had a group of educators giving me a slew of options to get my son further tested, which kind of began the whole process that brought me where I am today.
I took Jonathan to a doctor who informed me that he had ADHD. Throughout first grade I attended IEP meetings and as a novice mom, you really put a lot of trust and faith into the educators and school systems that you place your child in to give them the best level of care and education that they deserve and require.
I was constantly doing everything that the school told me to do, and yet, my son still wasn’t progressing or learning any easier. I remember his first grade teacher calling me in for a meeting and she informed me that Jonathan didn’t know how to read. At this point I was completely confused because it was four months into the school year and he was a first grader, there was no reason he shouldn’t have been reading, and even more so there’s no reason the teacher shouldn’t have noticed considering how deep into the year they already were.
He essentially lost those first two years of education before second grade because of issues like this. Once he was diagnosed with ADHD, the school told me they would be putting him in a specialized reading program so that he could catch up while repeating the first grade and be more equipped to enter into second grade. The program they put him into, however, didn’t break down the specific difficulties that he was having when it came to reading.
You have to remember this was over 20 years ago, there were computers but not as advanced as today. There was no Google to help parents dealing with learning difficulties in their child so it really was all about putting your faith into the school systems. Parents weren’t allowed to know about the other parents in the school who had kids with special needs, I didn’t know about all the advocacy groups and programs that existed that could’ve helped steer us in the right direction, it just was an unorganized system overall.
After more assessments we discovered that Jonathan also had severe dyslexia, which was greatly impacting his reading and writing capabilities. At this point I ended up meeting with program specialists who have the authority to grant certain services during IEP meetings. The lack of progress that I was seeing with my son, however, already caused me to lose a lot of trust in the school.
When I took the program specialist through Jonathan’s whole story and all the hurdles we already had to jump through to see basically no progress, they informed me that they didn’t have any special education teachers available to help with his specific needs because there was a major shortage of special educators at the time. For another four months my son was basically forced to stay in a class where he wasn’t understanding the content, which delayed his growth overall. Jonathan stopped reading.
The program specialist at this point told me that the next time I go to an IEP meeting, which was in a couple of days, to tell the IEP team that the program specialist approved Jonathan to have one hour of intensive educational therapy two times a week, for a whole year, which I did. During the IEP meeting the Principal made me an offer to provide Jonathan with one hour of intensive educational therapy one time a week for one year. I was appalled with the offer because I received a completely different offer from the program specialist. I informed the Principal of my conversation with the program specialist, gave her the name and contact information and told her to call the program specialist. The Principal left the room for about five minutes, returned and confirmed my conversation with the program specialist. She then offered what the program specialist told me.
The lack of resources and access that many public school districts go through is not uncommon, especially when it comes to special education departments. More often than not these programs can be the most underfunded, forcing students with unique learning abilities to be just another face in the crowd of the classroom.
When kids especially feel like they’re falling behind their peers, it can take an extreme emotional toll on them, leading to behavioral issues and a tendency to act out due to feeling like they’re less than their friends for not understanding what’s being taught.”
“This was the point where I, like many parents, lost all my trust in the educational system. School personnel to me just seemed to be unethical individuals, and although there were plenty of teachers who were compassionate and wanted to do the right thing, they were working under an administration that didn’t have any emotional attachment to the children and their special needs.”
Marhaba described how for her son Jonathan, one specific therapist helped give him, and her, the confidence they needed to keep up with their journey of educational success.
“I met an amazing educational therapist named Yafa, who became an integral part of my son’s growth and development. From the beginning she gave me the comfort of knowing that she was committed to putting her energy into helping my son succeed. The confidence and self-esteem that she was able to give my son, who was consistently frustrated that he wasn’t able to learn traditionally, helped him get passionate again about his education.
Growing connections within these communities also led us to an amazing educational psychologist who ended up assessing Jonathan, and revealed that he had an IQ of 145, despite his continuous difficulties with reading and writing. She also informed me that Jonathan’s reading ability was in the mental retarded range a standard score of 67. This was a common term in the 1990’s, today it is no longer used. If 100 is the median that makes the discrepancy between Jonathan’s IQ and reading ability significant. Jonathan understood a lot, but frustrated within himself because he could not read, and did not understand why.
I needed to know more about what was actually happening with each test and what the results really meant, because more than anything I just wanted answers, and a solution to help my son get on the best educational path possible.
Going into an IEP meeting and having all of these statistics and big terms used to describe my child and their learning capabilities is extremely intimidating, especially because of how little information was really out there compared to now. It was all about putting your complete trust into the people who were deemed professionals and offering you ‘solutions’ to help your child advance.
That was no longer my prerogative though, I took the time to educate myself completely on every test, statistic, result, potential solution, and diagnosis that was thrown at me throughout those first few years so that I could be even more of an advocate for my son.
Picture being a 7-year-old child with a 145 IQ who’s sitting in class while a peer is reading fluently, and you get stuck on one three letter word, how do you handle that as a child? Emotionally, you act out because you feel you’re not getting the same attention as every other kid, and even though your brain is telling you you’re smart, you’re living in a reality where you feel stupid, which no child should ever feel like. This becomes tormenting to the child within.
This is what I refer to as the ‘invisible disability’ and it starts when your child is a baby and you see the frustration in the progression your child is making compared to what’s viewed as the ‘normal.’ That internal struggle will build consistently until the child is cognitive enough to recognize that they’re not learning at the same rate as everyone else, which leads to behavioral problems and a tendency to act out due to frustration.
By the time Jonathan was in third grade he was five years behind grade level, and around this time is when I began the process of filing a lawsuit against the school. The IEP is a legal contract, so if the family is noticing a lack of progress, especially when it comes to advancing grade levels, that’s like a breach of contract, which allows legal action to take place. It takes a lot to prove lack of progress, not a simple task with the school system.
More times than not the school will say they don’t have the funding or resources to provide the student with the specific extra help that they need, however, that’s not the family’s problem. It’s up to the school to find ways to accommodate whatever the IEP’s offer of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is, and in accordance with Federal Law, the Individuals Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), special education law. IDEA is underfunded, yet the law is the law.”
“Underfunding does not give schools the right to not provide the resources they are required to, and agree to, give to the child. This is why this is a national systemic issue because there’s so many different layers as to why kids are being held back and feel less valued when they do need extra attention, or need to learn with specialized services, accommodations and/or modifications.”
Around this same time Marhaba described how she learned about her other son’s learning difficulties, and how that led to a whole new level of understanding, and fighting, the school system’s treatment of kids with special needs.
“While we were in the due process with Jonathan, I got a call from my other son, Omar Jr. ‘s, fourth grade teacher who informed me he was having difficulties reading, and she wanted to recommend him for special education. At this point I at least felt a little more comfortable with the process that would need to occur to help Omar succeed, so I went to get him assessed and found out he also had a high IQ around 145, ADHD, vocabulary/writing deficits, and depression.
The school system at this point knew Omar was smart, so they didn’t want to implement an IEP for him and instead wanted to use a 504 plan for his education. A 504 plan is essentially more about classroom accommodation than additional resources for learning. Very different than an IEP.
The school said they could move Omar to sit by the teacher so he wouldn’t be as distracted, even though he was in a class of 35 students, provide him with extra textbooks to take home and with an agenda so that the teacher could provide him with specific assignments and check his progress daily. The agenda would also act as a communication device between me and the teacher so we could both keep track of his progress.
Omar’s first report card after the 504 plan was implemented showed that he was failing all of his classes. At this point he was in 6th grade also, and I was so confused as to why he was failing when I was looking at his agenda and the work he was doing every night, but haven’t heard any word from the teacher in regards to his continuous struggle with his grades.
I went to speak with one of his teachers (computer class), and she told me that he wasn’t bringing in certain assignments and failing tests, so obviously I was curious as to why that was my first time hearing about it. She informed me that he neglected to bring his agenda to her at the end of every day, and since it was middle school she had 200 other students to think about and ‘didn’t want to have to chase him down every day.’ Turns out the burden to monitor the agenda falls on the parent to ensure all the teachers have a copy of it and they write in the agenda confirming assignments and providing status on Omar Jr.
Every time I spoke with one of his teachers about his learning they always brought up his behavior and the same excuse as the computer teacher stated above. He was a ‘class clown who was distracted and always cracking jokes and not wanting to learn,’ at least that’s how they saw it. The reality was they had all the actual information that explained why he had certain behavioral tendencies, and they all had a plan to ideally make it more manageable, but they couldn’t get past the fact that to them he was just a kid with ADHD who is easily distracted and didn’t want to learn.
How is that supposed to make Omar, or any child for that matter, feel? Knowing that he needed to learn a little differently than everyone else, but constantly failed assignments, and was called out for his behavior that really was just a result of the lack of educational assistance he wasn’t getting. Behavioral challenges arise from an unidentified underlying condition.
Both of my sons have experienced behavioral reactions to the parts of their brain that made traditional learning more difficult for them, but to the school and teachers, they just see kids acting out who have ADHD and behavioral challenges. Often distracting those who do know how to learn in those traditional ways. It’s truly unfair, especially when there’s supposed to be programs and plans in place to make the educational process easier for everyone.
Around 6th grade Omar also developed anxiety, which took the form of really bad panic attacks and heart palpitations. He literally felt sick almost every day because he hated going to school. He felt completely isolated from his peers and teachers as well, who were constantly making him feel like he was the problem when it came to his lack of learning, not the system he was learning in.
Being 11-years-old is already hard enough, especially entering into a new school system, but no child should feel like an outsider who’s being given up on because they don’t process information the same way everyone else does.”
“It got to a point where one teacher called me up and left me voicemails referring to my son as ‘an animal’ in class. This infuriated me because I thought to myself if this teacher is referring to my son as an animal, then that must mean I am an animal too. After all I raised my son, and an animal he was not. I could not believe this is how teachers were trained to speak with parents. The teacher could have stated his concerns to me in a more respectable way. This made me realize the school system is the biggest issue when it comes to specialized learning. Why am I going out of my way to make sure my children are being taken care of and learning as much as they can, when the individuals actually responsible for doing so every day are instead calling me and my son an animal?”
“Those preliminary moments all built up and were what led me to the two due processes (which both suits were amended three times – the statute of limitation back then was three years, and the school continuously managed to violate both my son’s IEPs). This was the foundation that built up towards federal court.
I want to also make it clear that I’m not trying to knock down teachers, because systematically speaking, it’s not their fault that they’re not given proper IEP training, and reasonable caseload needed in order to actually successfully help kids who need special education. Not all teachers are made equally. There are teachers that love what they do and sincerely care about the children, and others that have no business teaching.
I remember Omar had this one science teacher in 6th grade, her name was Aviva, and she was truly one of the best things that happened to my son, and me. This teacher went out of her way to help me understand the system better, and where she thought I would find the most success in helping Omar with his education. She boosted confidence back into Omar the same way Yafa did for Jonathan. To this day Yafa and Aviva both still know my sons, who are in their thirties now, and it just goes to show you how far actual compassion can lead you in life. Grooming our children for the future really starts with their teachers and the adults they are subjected to at an early age.
There’s a huge difference between having an educator tell a child that they are a class clown, social butterfly, lazy or defiant verses giving the child praise, encouragement and opportunities to learn and improve. Children start to have self-esteem and confidence issues, and commence to have bad behaviors, not because they are bad children, but because they are misunderstood. That’s probably why they’re getting failing grades. It is better to have an educator tell your child that they’re very capable of learning, they just need to do it in a more unique way.
The school system in America is broken, in so many ways, but especially when it comes to students who need additional resources and support. I ended up going to the 9th Circuit Federal Court system suing the second largest district in America for their lack of support and resources as required under IDEA. As a middle class mom, between both boys lawsuits, placement, therapies, assessments, nonpublic placement, witness fees, legal costs easily went into seven digits over an eight year period. I was going up against an entire broken system, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, or cheap. I had no idea of the excruciating emotional and financial burden my family would endure.
With Jonathan the school ended up settling, while Omar’s case went to the 9th Circuit Federal Court because the school was refusing to change his 504 plan to an IEP, which would actually give him the help he needed to advance. Omar’s lawsuit was referred to as an eligibility lawsuit because what he truly needed was an IEP. He was consistently failing his classes and being called out for behavior, but his high IQ was convincing enough for the school to state he is smart but lazy and kept him in the environment he was in. With Omar’s lawsuit we went first through the school level due process, then the State level due process, the State judge made a 50/50 ruling which both sides ended up appealing and led us to the 9th Circuit Federal Court.
When we made it to federal court, my ex-husband and I had to switch off the chunks of days we were in court so the other could work. The first day my ex-husband went in and the judge called the attorneys and him into his chambers to speak privately. The judge then informed them that while they do have a solid case, he refused to rule on it.
His explanation was that if he ruled on the case in favor of Omar, he would be setting a new legal precedent nationwide, which could cause a domino effect within the education system, specifically when parents want their child to transition from a 504 to IEP (eligibility lawsuit). The Federal judge remanded the case back to the State judge and ordered the State judge to make a final decision since it was the state judge’s ruling of a 50/50 split. The State judge’s ruling was that Omar should have a complete and comprehensive psycho-educational assessment to be administered by the school district, go back to the IEP team and let the team decide whether or not Omar will be made eligible for an IEP. If Omar was to be made eligible, we win the suit, if not we lose everything. So, while I knew we were completely right, our case went back to the Sate level, and then back to the school level, where it all started.
I was ordered by the court to meet with the school psychologist to go through everything, mind you by this point Omar was a senior in high school and still trying to go from a 504 to an IEP plan. To my surprise the school psychologist started advocating for my son, but at this point I was so mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted from fighting a battle for essentially my son’s entire grade school experience, I just wanted her to handle it. The team ended up approving of Omar for an IEP, when he was a senior in high school, and on the track of graduating in a few months.
After the IEP I ended up asking the psychologist why she decided to advocate for my son, and she told me that her boss called her two weeks prior and told her that my son had been wronged by the education system since he was in the 4th grade, and to make it right. The psychologist told me two days ago her boss had tragically died, hit by a motorcycle while crossing the street, and she wanted to fulfill her final wish to help my son. I was devasted with this news and broke down crying, what are the odds?
I was grateful, but feeling so broken. I spent all the years of both my sons schooling fighting against a system that was constantly pushing back, and it took so much from me. Then finally, the reason my son was getting the help he needed, before graduating nonetheless, happened because of some chance encounter with this specific psychologist.
My son was struggling from the 4th grade until his senior year of high school. He refused to go to college because of his complex relationship with authority figures that developed during his time in grade school, and I couldn’t blame him.
“1% of families go as far as I did when it comes to lawsuits against a school district. Which is the point of all of this. The entire system needs to be reworked to better benefit all children so they’re placed in the most optimal learning environment for their education. No parent should have to go through all the heartache, stress, and money that I did just to simply get their child some extra help. No child should be sacrificed for a Free and Appropriate Public Education.”
“After that entire conversation and journey, I was honestly disgusted by our nation’s education system, and the overall lack of compassion they truly had for the kids. My family went through something truly horrific. I lost my marriage, home, and business throughout the entire process of the lawsuits, simply because I wanted my kids to have the same opportunities as everyone else.
I luckily was in a position where I could sell a house to help me financially, but again, I’m constantly thinking of lower income families who are probably in even worse school systems with even less resources that truly don’t have the means to make the difference in the school. The system needs to change and it needs to benefit the children who have been neglected and left behind when it comes to their education, which is where the Jonathan Foundation comes in.
My journey in life has compelled me to realize what my purpose in life is.”
Raja founded and is an advocate for The Jonathan Foundation. They provide support for families who have children with special needs.
“The Jonathan Foundation is all about giving our special needs children a chance to grow, and reach all their full potential. Each child has a hidden treasure of a skill, the key is finding out what that gift is. The possibilities are endless once you unlock that door.
My number one priority when it came to creating this non-profit was raising money for assessments, so parents could more easily get answers as to why their child might be struggling in school.
The assessments that I also went through with both Jonathan and Omar were some of the most expensive aspects of the entire process. Psycho-educational assessments test the emotional, social, behavioral, academic, and cognitive state of the child to paint a very clear picture of what’s going on in their brain, and how we can help them learn in a way that’s easy for their brain to process.
‘How Are You Wired?’ is The Jonathan Foundation’s trademark. The program was put in place to assess children and learn how their brains are wired. This way we can identify those ‘invisible disabilities’ that could cause our children to be held back.
The reality is many of the kids who are left without proper educational resources and tools tend to lose their motivation to learn very early on in childhood. This then can cause them to fall through the cracks as they grow up, and end up in the criminal justice system – 85% of incarcerated youth have a disability.
These kids could end up in adult jails or prisons, homeless, or in a low-income area due to the fact that the system is working against them when it comes to their learning. It’s a revolving door that we can stop from moving simply by changing the way we teach our children who need specialized education. With appropriate services, support and placement, our special needs children can become a success and contribute to society in a positive way versus negatively.”
Today, Raja, Jonathan, and Omar are living their lives to the fullest. Raja is constantly advocating for families that are in the same situation she once found herself in. Raja is currently writing a book about her life journey and will go in depth about her trials and tribulations with the national broken special education system. She is hoping her book will inspire many, letting families know they are not alone. Giving up is not an option, and there is hope for families with special needs children, even when facing adversity. Beyond that, the family is enjoying their lives to the fullest after decades of fighting a system that so many of us have been impacted by.
“I have had my Real Estate License for 30 years (CalRE#01073996) and Jonathan received his real estate license (CalRE#02078041) a year ago. After closing my construction business of which I co-owned with my ex-husband and operated for 36 years, Jonathan asked me to become his business partner in Real Estate, which led to us opening Marhaba Properties, Inc.
My endeavor is to continue growing The Jonathan Foundation and helping and mentoring my son achieve his dreams – as long as he takes the lead. He has decided to donate 5% of his commission to charity, 2.5% going to The Jonathan Foundation for Children with Learning Disabilities (TJF), and 2.5% going to four other nonprofits we support leaving the choice to the seller and buyer of which charity organization they want Marhaba Properties to donate the 2.5% to.
Jonathan wants to make an impact in his community one sale at a time. Omar Jr. has a successful senior position for an incredible technology company. I’ll never forget when his 6th grade computer teacher told me to come sit in class with him and teach him myself because she did not have the time. I was so upset that he was failing, and now he’s succeeding greatly in that same exact field.”
The Jonathan Foundation is having their annual Spring Fundraiser Event on May 21st, if you want to learn more about the amazing work The Jonathan Foundation provides for families nationwide, check out their website or donate here!
*Photos of Raja and family taken by Nilaya Sabnis Photography.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at email@example.com.