When Rachna Sizemore Heizer’s son was in second grade, she saw firsthand how far Fairfax County Public Schools had to go to be truly inclusive of students with disabilities.
Heizer’s son has autism, and she was excited that, for the first time, he was placed in the same classroom as general-education students.
However, when she attended that year’s back-to-school night, Heizer noticed that her son and the other students in special education were confined to a table at the back of the room instead of being mixed in with their peers.
“I realized that there was a lot of work to be done in our schools for those kids who don’t fit easily in their bucket,” Heizer said. “If you’re an academic strength, if you fit in your bucket, we do great, but if you don’t, if you have a need in Fairfax County, you become your need, and that’s all you’re seen as.”
Rather than accepting the marginalization of special-education students as the way things were, Heizer committed herself to bringing about change not just for her son, but for all students whose needs and skills may not be properly served or acknowledged by the existing school system.
Along with serving on the Fairfax County School Board Advisory Committee for Students with Disabilities and the Fairfax County Special Education PTA, Heizer helped start the FCPS Inclusion Workgroup and has been involved in efforts to reform the county’s school resource officer program and diversify Virginia’s options for receiving a standard diploma.
After years of advocating as a parent from the sidelines, though, Heizer is ready to take a more central role in Fairfax County’s education system by running for school board, joining five other candidates – two incumbents and three other newcomers – in seeking one of the board’s three at-large seats.
She views a position on the board as a possible opportunity to address issues such as accessibility for students with disabilities, overcrowding, and aging infrastructure more directly than she can just as a parent and advocate.
“They’re great people. They’re really smart, but we need people on the school board who get things done,” Heizer said. “I think I bring that.”
Though she was born in California, Heizer and her parents soon moved to India and lived there until she was 5, so when they came back to the U.S., she spoke only Hindi.
The memory of the loneliness she felt as a young student learning to speak English lingered with Heizer, fueling her belief in the importance of inclusion for students with different backgrounds and abilities.
14.5 percent of FCPS students have disabilities, and more than 29 percent are English learners, but the needs and voices of those populations still sometimes get overlooked by school and district leaders, Heizer says.
WAMU reported on Mar. 13 that Fairfax County special education students are routinely restrained and secluded, despite FCPS guidelines saying such measures should be a last resort to prevent harm. Resulting academic and emotional struggles led many families to take students out of school.
The Fairfax County School Board and FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand ordered a review of the district’s restraint and seclusion practices in response to the report, though Heizer argues they could have become aware that problems were occurring sooner if they talked to parents.
“The parents knew this was happening. I could tell anybody this is happening,” Heizer said.
As the child of immigrants and a disability rights advocate, Heizer hopes to help bridge that disconnect between school leaders and some segments of the diverse community they serve.
If elected, one of her top priorities would be to encourage a more “strengths-focused” approach to education, an idea inspired by her experience in special education.
In addition to having autism, Heizer’s son is a musician who has auditioned for Broadway and hopes to attend a music college, but he struggles with tests due to anxiety, even though he gets decent academic grades.
In an October 2018 interview with WTOP, Heizer described how she had to fight for her son to be able to participate in music electives when he was younger, because his school saw students in special education only in terms of their need for assistance, not as children with their own interests and skills.
A strengths-focused educational model is one where all students are encouraged to pursue their passions and develop talents, according to Heizer.
“What can you do? What are you good at? We start your education there, because it builds your self-esteem, your confidence,” Heizer said. “…Once you build curiosity and interest because you’re in something you like, then we work on the deficits.”
Beyond her activism in special education, Heizer’s perspective on education has been shaped by her work as a college professor.
After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley with a bachelor’s in political economy and later a law degree, Heizer worked as a corporate law attorney before deciding instead to pursue public policy work, which she found more fulfilling.
When her son was diagnosed with autism, Heizer made another career adjustment so that she could be more present for him, this time becoming a constitutional and criminal law professor at George Mason University.
Now, Heizer teaches online courses in employment law and coordinates the online human resource development curriculum for Texas Tech University.
Since she started teaching in 2005, Heizer says she has seen a decrease in students’ ability to think critically, collaborate, write persuasively, and other skills that cannot be easily measured by a test, another issue that she attributes to an overreliance on standardized tests as an indicator of knowledge or success to the detriment of more creative or flexible forms of learning.
“I think we need to do a better job of helping our teachers, empowering them to say it’s okay to do this fun stuff. It’s important. It’s valid,” Heizer said. “I think we haven’t been empowering them to do that, because we’ve been pressuring them so much on tests.”