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February 17, 2006

"Why We May Have to Move ..."

I received a copy of this personal essay -- a letter to the Administration and BOE -- last night. The author said it was fine for me to post it, if I thought it was worth it. I most definitely think it's worth it because it so poignantly describes a family's real life experience and frustration in our schools ... not to mention their agony over whether or not to move elsewhere.

Our kids are in 5th, 4th and 1st grades. I am really very concerned about our son going into sixth grade next year. He has some special education needs related to Asperger Syndrome, such as sensory defensiveness and skills to do with what some have called "theory of mind" (self-control, recognizing and assessing others' points-of-view and feelings, anger management). I love the idea that Spring Harbor is smaller because of his sensitivities to light, personal space issues, noise levels and the like. I do not like that they are relatively inflexible in meeting special needs otherwise because they are small and missing some services - or severely limited - due to space and spending constraints. I also do not like that we would have NO options as to who his special ed case manager/teacher would be, because there is essentially one person to cover it all for each grade, whether or not they display and apply the kind of flexibility that being a "cross-categorical" special ed teacher demands.

His teachers at XXXXX have generally managed to meet his needs relative to AS pretty well, but they are kind of at a loss as to what to do with his obvious degree of intellectual ability because they can only address so many different needs at once, and for him, it has repeatedly come down to crisis management. He has had very competent and caring teachers much of the time, but when there are a variety of academic levels and associated needs in one classroom, some of them just can't keep more than about half of the class engaged at any one time. His 4/5 teachers (for example) have been teriffic, but his 2/3 teacher(s) did not understand him or his needs at all (for example, including one of his special ed teachers (!), they had no idea of his level of intellect and thought that when he had nervous breakdowns and "meltdowns", he was "misbehaving" and needed "consequences for his misbehaviors"). Our 4th grade daughter skipped over first grade, going from Kindergarten to second (after not having been allowed to start Kindergarten "early" even though she could read and do basic math). Even then, as far-and-away the youngest in a 2/3 class, she was a 2nd grader grouped mainly with 3rd graders in most areas (hurrah for her teacher for daring to group them and reach out to all levels!!), and was at loose ends by the beginning of 3rd grade because all of her academic peers were gone (on to 4th grade). It is a very good thing that her teacher thought she was the best thing since sliced bread, or her fidgeting, non-linear thought patterns and concomittant anxious perfectionism in 3rd grade would have alienated the poor woman completely. That teacher continued to let her go as far as she wanted to in math (with one boy as a peer there), occupy her own spelling group, and read as much as she could on the side while also keeping up (easily) with the highest book group/reading group the teacher could run (she felt they needed at least three people to read the same book and try to discuss it at all!). When our daughter was working on other subjects during other groups' discussion times, she did her own work well and listened to the groups going on around her enough that she used to blurt out answers during reading groups other than her own. Her teacher used to joke that she was in ALL the (5) reading groups! For science, they were as cramped as everyone else by the standardized "blahness" of Foss, because that is what they have to use, and it does not allow any room at all for creativity and differentiation by even the best teachers (much less by a typical elementary teacher who generally feels that science is their shallowest subject).

Now, in 4th grade in a 4/5 class, she has a teacher who cannot seem to differentiate to save her (or my daughter's) life. She has all of the kids on the same page in the same math textbook at the same time, in her fourth grade math. Thank God we finally approached the teacher she teams with across the hall and who teaches the 5th graders from both their classes math, and worked out to have our daughter switched over to there by Thanksgiving - but it took months and she was a basket case mentally and emotionally, from not being challenged at all in math, and having the naughtiest kids around assigned seats next to hers (so she could "calm them down" and "help them", I'm sure), resulting in a complete lack of concentrated work time to do the work in the first place. She literally is on medication for the stress and anxiety resulting from being in this class. And she is too damn nice to share what she shares with us with her teacher, because she wants everyone to like her. So it sounds like we are claiming she feels this, that and the other, even with her trying to soften the blow with "well-kind-ofs" or, "it's-been-better-latelys" when we do get in to see her teacher with her along.

I am so tired. I am tired of being the brass, obnoxious mom who seems to think only her kids are gifted (which is not true - I teach special ed myself, and I know what brilliance lurks behind some learning disabilities and what level of boredom and frustration being some emotional disabilities), and I am tired of having to come up with all the suggestions for solutions and new ideas myself. At least they have been willing to try those suggestions recently, but I honestly don't think they understand that we are not harping on our daughter to "be the best" and "work more", and expecting that the teacher concentrate only on her and her needs. Anyway, I am just tired. If I am going to do most of the instruction myself, then at least I should be homeschooling her or be her "learning coach" for virtual schooling, and get some of the credit for it. On the other hand, I also hate to take her out of our school now, because they need more kids like her who care and work hard, not fewer!!

I am sorry: I know you have heard all this a million times. I believe in quality public education and I hate the thought of everyone with kids who need more challenge than is typical out of our public schools. But I also need to do what's right for my own kids. I don't know how much to tell of what to whom, and not have them just think I am yet another annoyed white upper-middle class parent who thinks her children are the smartest around and just wants all the educational services to go to them. I am not, and I don't.
I meant it when I said I almost cry when I start thinking about all this junk, and let it start getting to me. I know what it is like myself, to be a really bright (okay, "gifted") kid who is afraid to show it because everyone will think you're stuck-up or just a complete geek that no one would ever want to spend time with in any circumstance beyond allowing you to do all the work on a "group, cooperative learning project". And my teachers were largely supportive of me - I hate to think of what would have happened to me if I had not gotten the support I needed from my teachers and my school(s). Especially my daughter who reminds me so much of me - I don't want her to end up with even more insecurities and emotional problems than I had to go through. (said with a rueful smile, but at least 75% seriously)

I know what it is like as a teacher to have 21 kids with 21 wholly different sets of needs, staring at you and expecting help in learning what they need to know, day after day. It is bad enough when you have seven 7th graders in a reading class, ranging from two who cannot even identify letters and sounds, all the way through two who can "read" at a low third grade level but not understand more than half of what they read. When I think of trying to meet their needs at the same time as trying to meet the needs of ten other learners who range from "average", through "gifted" and on into "highly gifted/genius" levels...? I can't sleep at night trying to imagine that! It is hard enough trying to actually engage learners at levels "only" five to two grade levels below expectations. Trying to engage learners from typical through gifted in the same class at the same time, is almost impossible, even if you DO know how to differentiate well. And teachers are not paid enough for the kind of planning time that would take, on top of what they already work at teaching and planning for classes of learners even close to the same abilities.

Posted by Laurie Frost at February 17, 2006 9:09 AM
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