Educational Choice and Perception

9 Mar

In the last 24 hours I have read two things that have made me think hard about educational choices and our perceptions of them.

One was a mother whose son is entering kindergarten in the fall. She applied for the lottery for him to get into a magnet school or a year-round. They didn’t get into either and are left only with their neighborhood school. She was asking for info about it. One  kind-hearted soul (that’s sarcasm) advised her to move to another county. Many said they knew people whose children went there and were doing well.

Then I read this article. It highlights some of the downfalls of lack of school choice and how location is everything sometimes in getting your child what you need.

These two separate incidents highlight very different things about school choice and how it is as much about perception as it is actual need.

To the mother in the first incident, I know the disappointment she is facing. I didn’t get into the college I wanted, my top choice. I had the grades. I had the SATs. I had letters of recommendation and tons of extra-curriculars. But I was an upper-middle class white girl from a suburban area. I wasn’t wait-listed. I was denied.  Because of affirmative action and diversity (economic and social as well as racial). I wasn’t bitter at the kid who got my spot, I was devastated that they said “no.” I went to another state school (at the beach, haha) and ended up the second semester meeting the man I celebrated being married to nine years yesterday. But for a long time, it stung pretty bad and I still have a bad taste in my mouth about the whole thing sometimes (like now, college basketball season). And it’s even worse when it is your child, even if they don’t understand it, it is almost like a rejection of you as well. Her son is normally developing so her goals in getting him in one of the magnet or year-round schools was based upon things like high test scores at those schools and academic reputation. Who doesn’t want the best for their kid, after all? I don’t know if she visited these schools (her comment asking for info on her base school leads me to believe she probably did not visit that school, at least not yet) or had her son visit to see if it was really a place for him or if it was just based upon rumor and reputation alone.

Perception, as mothers of children with autism know, is a very strong drug. Sometimes we try and make it reality when we shouldn’t. I am Catholic as well, in Catholic circles the great debate is homeschool, parochial or public (public basically means anything else). Many who homeschool accuse those who do not of being bad mothers and believe it is the only solution for every family.  Many who send their children to public schools are defensive. And there is everyone in between. Perception, again, plays a part in that fight. A homeschool mother who is successful in what she is doing believes that because her situation is so perfect for her family, it is right for all families. It is simply not true. And a public school mother hearing those arguments (along with criticism for allowing her child to associate with others whose values are not the same, not being the “primary educator” of her children, etc) can perceive any positive statement about homeschooling as a guilt trip and criticism of public school as personal criticism. Perception. Not necessarily reality.

The second situation hits very close to home. HAVING actual school choices is such a terrific blessing. Having options of programs that fit the exact nature of what your child needs are rare and should be treated like the gold they are. When The Princess was to graduate from her special needs pre-school our options were home school, Catholic school, two charter schools, Montessori and public school. That sounds like a lot and compared to some parts of the US (not to mention the world…after all this is a VERY first-world problem, some don’t get a choice to go at all) it is, but for a child with autism, some of those choices are knocked out right away. I could not home school Shelby, I  just do not have the training or talent to help her like she needs to be helped. Catholic school was out as there was no special ed program at all and therapists would not  be allowed in the school. The two charter schools we investigated. While many high functioning children would probably do fine, it wasn’t really a good fit either way for The Princess. One followed a direct instruction method. In this method, all the learning is scripted and children sit in desks in rows with their hands folded. They are very big on discipline. There was no way The Princess could be in an environment there with normally developing children for any subjects. In fact, when we asked about her, letting them know she had autism and was on the lower functioning part of the spectrum, they told us she would get one on one instruction (great) totally apart from all the other students (not so much). There also were no therapists on staff and that was going to be a whole other hurdle to jump through. The other charter school is inquiry based. Think couches in the classroom, bean bag chairs and students directing their own learning. Think Google. The Princess would do nothing all day in that environment. She would stack things and line them up, but not learn. In addition we know a high functioning child who goes there and has faced numerous obstacles that just simply should not exist. So that was out too. Montessori was out for the same reason as the inquiry-based charter school. While The Princess is fairly kinesthetic, she does need and crave some form of structure. So we were left with what was our only option: public school. A lot of people thought we were crazy, but we knew we were doing the absolute best we could with what we had. And guess what: The Princess is thriving. She is making huge gains on her IEP goals after not making many in her two years at special needs pre-school. She loves school and going every day.

Once we knew that was where we going, we still had to make some important decisions on her IEP: mainstream, cross-categorical special needs, or autism classroom. The King visited all three types of classroom along with the autism coordinator for our segment of the county and we were able to correctly assess that The Princess NEEDS the supports of the autism classroom. This was extremely important for us because of three little words that those of us at IEP meetings know well: LEAST RESTRICTIVE ENVIRONMENT. According to the law special needs children are to be placed in the least restrictive educational environment and receive support there. The law was written that way to allow children to be mainstreamed. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, if a child were identified with any special need from dyslexia to autism to cerebral palsy, they were typically thrown into special ed and kept separate from the general school population. Many of them could function, with the proper supports, in a normal educational setting but were not given the chance. The words “least restrictive environment” were created to ensure that didn’t  happen. Now the flip side of that coin is that sometimes children who are not ready to be in a classroom with typically developing peers are forced into that situation and flounder even with support. The Princess is currently in, what is defined by law as, the most restrictive environment. That doesn’t bother me at all. As long as she is getting what she needs and progressing, LRE is not a concern for us.  We were also able to visit a couple of different schools to look at their program. Within the context of the public school system we were given many, many choices we would not have had going into the other programs.

The most important thing, autism mommy or not, is to ensure you have visited all the options available to you both mentally and physically. The internet is great, but it doesn’t capture a teacher ignoring a child who is struggling in a classroom or one who is reaching all their kids. Seriously, you have to go in and observe. All of them. Maggie felt like she was putting too much thought into it  for her son’s kindergarten this fall when the Catholic school she had always planned to send him to didn’t feel right. No, she wasn’t, parent’s gut reactions are because we know our kids. And while sometimes it’s okay to try something when I felt weird about it, it’s okay not to as well. Particularly for those of us with special needs kids.

And try not to let your perception cloud reality. The reality is, for normally developing kids, most will do well anywhere they go. I’m not saying you shouldn’t not apply but at the end of the day, the school’s test scores aren’t what matters compared to your child’s individual progress and happiness. And even for special needs kids, if you have access to amazing programs and wide school choice that is wonderful. If your child doesn’t get into your first choice, we need to be open minded to an extent. No situation is ever going to be perfect.

And don’t let “least restrictive environment” trip you up. Keep your own child’s situation in mind, not how it looks on paper. (If I had my way we’d change to it Most Effective Environment…) And all parents should keep in mind that if things don’t work out, there are appeal options. Know your rights and be responsible with them.

Is school choice a big deal? Yeah, it is. But keep a handle on reality and it will all work out.

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