Sunday, January 29, 2012

Star Belly Schools Revisited

Actual poster in actual school hallway. Seriously.

When The Boy first started kindergarten, we got into one of the nicest public schools in the city through Seattle’s now-defunct school choice lottery. I was so excited, because this was an alternative school that touted its commitment to social justice and empathy building. This was in our pre-diagnosis days, back when I still harbored a secret hope that The Boy would somehow stop being so volatile…but worried like crazy that he wouldn’t. Getting into a school like that gave me great hope. “He’ll be safe here,” I thought.

Two years later, we left. I tell people it was because our neighborhood school offers a service model that can better meet his special needs, as well as an advanced learning program to meet his academic needs. I tell people how wonderful it is to walk to school every morning instead of driving across town four times a day. And all of that is true.

But the deeper, more painful truth is this: There was a deal breaker, a last straw that drove me to finally pull him out of the school I’d loved, the school I’d been so happy to get into. He was being bullied. And the school – this social justice/empathy-building school – believed that it was his own fault.

It’s funny how reluctant I’ve been to call it “bullying.” Just like other, more serious forms of abuse, the situation was never quite black-and-white enough to feel entitled to that label. These were boys he’d been friends with, boys he probably would still consider his friends. He’d really wanted a playdate with this new kid Dudley (fake name), but Dudley’s dad was extremely uncomfortable with that. He was worried about Dudley’s safety. He wanted to see some references first – references from other parents of kids who’d been to our house without any major incidents.

I should have told the guy to go jump in a lake, but The Boy kept asking when Dudley was coming over. What was I to say? We’d talked to him about his Aspergers by then, but I simply wasn’t ready to talk about the fear and prejudice that sometimes comes along with it. Instead, we invited Dudley to his birthday party. And it actually went really well.

But the Monday after that birthday party (The Boy’s actual birthday, incidentally), I got a call from the principal that The Boy had been in a fight. Apparently, Dudley told another kid to hit The Boy, and The Boy fought back. Both were sent to the principal’s office. Not Dudley, though.

Every day that week, there were calls from the principal with some Dudley-related incident. Dudley’s best friend Millhouse (another fake name, but an apt one) was involved now, too. They weren’t in The Boy’s class, luckily, but all three of them were in the same reading group that met in the library every morning. And that’s where it always happened.

On the walk to the library, they’d get out of line to be right behind him. They’d whisper and laugh and refuse to tell him what they were saying. He’d try to talk to them and they’d hold their ears, pretending they couldn’t hear. They’d wait in the bathroom and jump out at him as he was walking by. They’d push him when the teacher wasn’t looking. Eventually, he’d melt down, lash out, and the reading teacher would send him to the principal’s office. Dudley and Millhouse were having a ball.

We had an IEP at that point, but it wasn’t enough. There were no teacher’s aides in the building, and the special ed teacher was spread incredibly thin. The reading teacher was this softspoken older guy who firmly believed that The Boy had a discipline problem. He’d been to every team meeting and knew about the Aspergers diagnosis, but all he wanted to talk about were “consequences.” He’d send notes home with The Boy, telling me about the latest meltdown and lamenting how hard this is for the other students. You know, the normal ones. There’s that empathy building.

The principal defended Dudley and Millhouse. This is normal behavior, she told us. The Boy would simply have to learn how to handle it. And without even thinking about it, the words just came out of my mouth.

“If that is considered normal behavior at this school,” I said, “then I think it’s time for us to start looking for a new school.”

The principal was only too happy to get the ball rolling on that. I’d always assumed she was a hands-off kind of person, because she’d been so passive and silent at all the team meetings. But now she was springing into her proactive best, being extremely helpful in getting us the hell out of her social justice school. (At least this was better than the previous principal, who’d actively tried to discourage a friend of mine from sending her Down’s syndrome daughter to the school in the first place.)

We agreed to let The Boy finish out the school year, but I wanted him out of that reading group post haste. Again, the school was happy to comply. The special ed teacher agreed to teach him one-on-one in the resource room. He loved it. His behavior improved dramatically.

Everyone at the school, even those I would consider our advocates, made it out like The Boy had such an “extreme” case of Aspergers that he belonged in a more intensive special ed program. I know now that is simply not true. They told me the sort of teasing he had to endure was “normal” and he must learn to handle it. I know now that not all schools see it that way.

Last fall, he was getting teased by some girls at his new school. His teacher and the principal both took it very seriously. They had a class meeting about it. At pick-up time, the teacher took me aside and thanked me for reporting it. He was glad they had a chance to address it before it got out of control. I haven’t seen those girls tease him since. I’ve even seen them playing four square together.

Meanwhile, on the other side of our neighborhood, there is another Very Special school sort of like our old one. Instead of social justice and empathy, this school’s gimmick is foreign language immersion. They are hugely popular and, from what I hear, about as welcoming to special ed students as our old school was. In my darker moments, I can’t help but wonder if that’s part of the appeal. Whenever the topic of schools comes up among the neighborhood mommies, ours often gets unfavorably described as “too urban” or “ it just doesn’t feel like the neighborhood.” Indeed.

But now, that immensely popular international school has gotten so overcrowded, the school district just reassigned a good portion of the neighborhood to attend our school instead. And oh, the righteous indignation that has ensued. I watched the testimony at the school board meeting on TV (because I’m geeky like that). They sounded even more upset than I was last year when The Boy was being bullied. One guy was close to tears, talking about how his son will have to watch all the neighborhood children walk past his house to school while his son, a new kindergartener, will be told “No. You can’t go.”

What this guy doesn’t realize is that it’s already happening. There are already children being told “No. You can’t go” to the fancier, more popular public schools in our city. Last year, in response to strong parent advocacy, the school district commandeered another nearby school and changed it to a foreign language immersion school. When special ed parents complained that this wouldn’t work for their children, they were callously told to simply transfer to our school.

And now that these unhappy families who wanted the international school have been reassigned to our school too…you can tell where this is going, right? There’s talk of changing our school to foreign language immersion as well. “Clearly the parents want it,” the school board says.

Well kiss my grits. Just take over our “too urban” school and force us out because the important people want it. They don’t seem to have given a thought to what they’d be replacing. Never even crossed their minds. Or perhaps they assume we’ll greet them as liberators.

I’ll tell you what parents really want. How about, before we colonize any more Very Special Schools, we get all the special ed students in Seattle the teacher’s aides and speech therapists and OT services that they need? How about instead of telling them to suck it up and be bullied and stop being so autistic about it, we give teachers the tools to help them? How about instead of saying “Maybe you and your autism would be more comfortable over there at that less popular school…oh, until we decide WE want it for OUR purposes,” we could focus on serving all kids at all schools.

Yes, a lot of parents want these fancy schools. But we’re here too. And sadly, a lot of us aren’t speaking up. Some fear retaliation from the school district or from their queen bee neighbors. Some simply believe, on some subconscious level, that as special ed families we deserve to be treated as “less than.” Some are just too tired and overworked to have the luxury of speaking out. But make no mistake: we are here. And our kids’ needs matter too.


Hippy Goodwife said...

Thank you. Some of us are indeed tired. But silence will get us nowhere, right where the district wants us.

Beth V said...

This should be required reading for all parents of school-aged kids and anyone even THINKING about being on a school board.

kommishonerjenny said...

I can't wait for my kid to start at your "too urban" "not the neighborhood feel" school. And I'm always always happy to write a letter. Keep me posted, and I'll try to keep a better eye on our not-so-friendly neighborhood blog.

lara simmons said...

As a parent of two "neuro-typical" kids I know that I have no idea how hard you have had to fight for your son's right to an education. I have followed your journey on this blog and am so happy that you have found a school where he is thriving. I also agree that we do not need more language immersion schools in this area. We need a variety of great schools to meet the needs of diverse students and styles of learning. Having said that, as a parent at VSIS (Very Special International School) as you call it, I would argue that our school DOES do a good job of working with families and being inclusive. I have heard comments from a number of parents at our school that the staff and administration work very hard to meet the special needs of individual students and that families have been overwhelmed by the amount of support that they have received from our school. I know there are stories on both sides. There always are, but you seem to have a bias against JSIS not based on any personal experience and that doesn't seem entirely fair to me.

Floor Pie said...

Lara, my bias is based on special ed families I know who had to leave your school or couldn't attend it in the first place (as well as my own experience at a similarly popular school, detailed above). I'm not going to name them.

People who are actually on the receiving end of this stuff often feel that they can't speak up, because of shame or reprecussions. Or because they don't want to be labeled "angry" or "bitter" or whatever. We've been made to feel we don't count and we should just shut up. And I won't.

Surely my lonely little voice on my obscure little blog won't do the least bit of damage to those incredibly popular immersion programs. But if I say nothing, an immersion program could potentially do a LOT of damage to the work I have done to find a school that works for my child. Sorry if that hurts people's feelings.

LeFemmeMonkita said...

Taking off my "blogger hat" from the not-so-friendly neighborhood blog so I can assure you that our "too urban" school will NEVER become an immersion school. This is something Ms. Awesome Principal has declared.

My biggest fear is having Hamilton become an all-immersion school so that we won't be able to attend. It's already reaching capacity, and which school would be able to accomodate the overcrowded "VSIS" + the new neighborhood school + our funky, urban school + Pokey Oaks over in Frellard? None of them. This is why John Marshall on Ravenna is being re-instated.

I'm not saying it's a done deal, nor am I saying it's even on the table for discussion. Just sharing my concerns. It's already known as an International Middle School, so wouldn't that be the logical choice for an all-immersion feeder pattern?

Being shut out of our neighborhood middle school would truly suck, but that fear gives me a little more compassion for the folks who thought they'd be sending their kids to VSIS. I love our urban, funky school and wouldn't trade it for the world, and we'll go wherever we have to, but it would still be crappy to have to bus our kids across town to another middle school when we live right across the street from one.

Floor Pie said...

Thanks for your input, LFM. I'd be a little disappointed if Hamilton boots us out in favor of immersion, but from what I understand, they're SO overcrowded over there it would almost be a blessing in disguise. I wonder where they'd stick us? Lincoln's pretty close...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. I have two children who suffer from brain disorders (mental illness) -- not the same as "the Boy's" but every time I read of a parent who is willing to be such an advocate it gives me strength on the days that I am overwhelmed myself.

monkeypuzzled said...

ivenr ristsdsThank you for fighting the good fight. My "Asperger-y" daughter (IEP, but no diagnosis as of yet) was actively discouraged by the principal from attending a school that sounds a lot like the first one you went to. We were lucky enough to get to attend school near us that has a Very Special Program but also once had old-school inclusion. She's doing well there, by and large, but she's experiencing some of the 'girl' version of bullying (by her 'friends') and I'm having trouble getting anyone to take it seriously. She won't act out, because she internalizes everything, but then she can't sleep and has stomachaches. I am tired, and rambling. But I think your analysis of the immersion schools is spot on. Thank you.

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