Jonathan Fratz, 16, has more accomplishments on his LinkedIn as a 10th grader than most adults. Last year, Jonathan made a big change from middle school as he started at San Pedro Senior High School in San Pedro, California, part of the Los Angeles School District, in the middle of the pandemic.
As a student with autism, he is passionate about advocating for his fellow students with disabilities in his school district and state. He serves as a student representative on the LAUSD Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council and serves on the California Department of Developmental Services Task Force. Jonathan has honed his public speaking skills by testifying in front of the LAUSD school board and the California state legislature. During the last year, he focused on addressing the LAUSD school board on the need for a plan to provide the necessary services and support students with disabilities during the pandemic and school closures.
In June, Jonathan submitted a statement to the National Center for Learning Disabilities during their day of action, which calls on Congress to invest in education policies that support students with learning disabilities and attention issues: “I visualize a future where people with learning disabilities and attention issues like me, are heard, seen and included. I dream of a world where people like me are not singled out for differences, recognized for strengths, to not be thought of as less, but acknowledged as more. I envision a future where we are all treated equally fairly and with respect.”
Voices: Jonathan Fratz
I always explain that being autistic means that my brain is wired differently, which may make some things difficult for me. But I also explain that even though I struggle, I still work very hard to accomplish what I set out to do, whether it is making eye contact and talking to someone, or completing an assignment.
When he’s not educating lawmakers about the needs of students with disabilities, Jonathan enjoys playing Minecraft and practicing music. He wants to study politics at UCLA after he graduates.
Here Jonathan shares some of his experiences as a student with disabilities and what he thinks educators need to know about best supporting students like him.
Why do you want to be involved in advocacy and student leadership? What’s something that you are really proud of?
I want to be involved in advocacy and student leadership because I have seen firsthand that students with disabilities, like myself, are never included in the conversation and decision making. I am involved in the councils and committees that I currently serve on to continue that advocacy, and to shine a light on the experiences of students with disabilities. One of the things I’m most proud of accomplishing is a video and PowerPoint guides that I made teaching students with disabilities about what an individualized education plan (IEP) is and what their rights are as an equal member of the IEP team. It was important for me to create this as a project because I had friends who didn’t even know that they even had an IEP or what an IEP was. And to me, that is a disservice to students with disabilities. An IEP is an important document that helps to support students with disabilities at school, and helps to plan for our futures.
What would you say to other students who might not understand your unique experience?
As an autistic person, I have a neurological condition that is exacerbated by my environment. It is different experience from what a non-autistic person would experience. I always explain that being autistic means that my brain is wired differently, which may make some things difficult for me. But I also explain that even though I struggle, I still work very hard to accomplish what I set out to do, whether it is making eye contact and talking to someone, or completing an assignment.
What issues did you advocate for during the pandemic? What did you want LAUSD to do, and continue to do?
I have been addressing the school board on the need for a plan to provide the necessary services and support for students with disabilities during the pandemic and school closures. So far, the district has responded but hasn’t done enough. I’m still waiting for the district to do more.
I would like to see a comprehensive plan for every student with a disability who has an individualized education program about how the district is going to provide the support and services that they should have received during the pandemic, but did not have access to because we were participating in distance learning. For example, I have a one-on-one that is supposed to help me in the classroom, but because I participated in distance learning my one-on-one aid is just another person on the screen. And I felt that it really did not help me access my classroom and help me to participate in school.
You had a big transition last year when you were going from middle school into high school. How do you feel about starting your 10th grade year in person after spending your entire freshman year doing distance learning?
The transition to 10th grade and being in school in person has been a difficult one. Because after a year and a half of distance learning, I am now trying to get used to being in a classroom with other students. As an autistic person, social interactions are most difficult for me. And it’s only been made more difficult because of a lack of in-person interaction when schools were closed. It has been difficult for me to respond to teachers asking questions and has been very difficult for me to talk to other students and make friends, more so than before the pandemic.
I’m happy to be back in school. It’s just the transition is taking longer than I thought it would.
What would you say would be the biggest challenges of the last year and a half in the pandemic? And how are you doing now?
Some of the biggest challenges of the last year and a half were being used to not going out in the community….Before my family used those interactions to help me practice my social skills. But now I have gotten used to just being home by myself, it has been very difficult for me to get used to being social again.
Are there particular moments over the course of your education where you felt like the teacher honored or appreciated you? And what did that mean to you?
In middle school my seventh-grade English teacher, Mr. Gerlach, highlighted the work that I was doing in his English class. English is my most difficult subject, because of my learning disability and it is one of the things that I work on in my IEP. Mr. Gerlach knew how difficult his class was for me, and provided me with support and accommodations that I needed. Even though I struggled a bit, I worked very hard to complete his assignments to the best of my ability. And he let me know how much he appreciated my hard work, even highlighting some of my work samples to the rest of the class. It made me feel good about myself, and that my hard work had accomplished something. I learned that through hard work, and direct support by teachers that I could do anything.
Have you ever had a moment where you felt like a teacher didn’t understand you and your needs? What happened? What do you wish that they would have done differently?
In fourth grade, I was moved to a school for advanced studies, because …I had high test scores and grades and my parents believed I needed to go to a new school that would be a better fit for my strengths and abilities. Unfortunately, the teacher that I was placed with had never experienced teaching an autistic student before and was not equipped with the strategies to best support me in the classroom. Due to my behavioral needs, I spent the majority of fourth grade in the resource group next door, trying to work on worksheets and other assignments by myself. It was a very depressing time for me, because I could hear the other students in a classroom next door, having a fun time doing other activities while I was alone. Although my teacher did her best, she couldn’t help me. This led to being moved to a different school where I was both supported. If I could have wished for things to be different, I would have asked …all of the general education teachers have the training and support that they need to be able to support students with learning differences and disabilities in the classroom. That is something I’ve continuously been advocating for for my district when I make my public comment at school board meetings.
Are there other things that teachers could do or have done to challenge you academically that are inclusive and make things relevant to you and your goals?
One way that teachers can challenge students like me academically and be inclusive would be to provide multiple opportunities for us to demonstrate what we know. For example, my brother has dysgraphia, which is a written language disorder. It is difficult for him to write essays about the things that he is learning in class so his teacher allowed him to demonstrate what he knows in the form of PowerPoint presentations, and speeches. My teachers allowed me to do similar things for my assignments. I want teachers to capitalize on our strengths, which in turn, helps us to learn how to advocate for ourselves, and makes us feel included.
What does it look like when you feel like you’re at your best and you’re being successful in school?
Thriving at school, personally, would be like having friends who I share common interests with, and who I get to hang out with at school. I am grateful that I have made a couple of friends at school who do share common interests with me, which has made school much easier to handle. For me, doing my best in school would be getting good grades and feeling accomplished after turning in an assignment knowing I did very well on it. I’m still struggling academically right now, but I am working hard for my teachers, and advocating for myself, my needs and how they can best support me in the classroom and with my assignments.
What would you like teachers who instruct students with learning differences to know?
The advice that I would give, if I were coaching the teacher, would be to have patience, because students learn at their own pace. Students will make mistakes but we do learn from them when you present to us in a way that is fun and engaging. And lastly, that we do improve when we have a teacher who is supportive along the way, and who understands the way that we learn.
This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.